More than half of this show was scripted, which isn’t ordinary for a performance by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, a rock/soul orchestra that is typically prepared to anticipate and execute the whims and impulses of its leader.
But half of Thursday’s show at the Sprint Center was already cast in something close to stone. Or rock, if the pun amuses you. The River Tour is a tribute to “The River,” the double album that Springsteen released in 1980. In 2015, for its 35th anniversary, he released “The Ties That Bind: The River Collection,” one of those extravagant deluxe box-set editions of the album and then set out on a tour to celebrate it all.
The first half of the show was a performance of album in its entirety. Album-tribute shows are becoming more common, especially among artists who aren’t releasing new material and who have a trove of successful albums to choose from. Stevie Wonder did it in October, when he brought to the Sprint Center a tour that celebrated “Songs in the Key of Life.” Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull did the same with “Thick As a Brick” at a performance at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in July 2013.
If such tributes eliminate the chance of any surprises in the set list, they also provide the opportunity to hear songs that rarely, if ever, are performed live. And that was one of several virtues of hearing “The River” in its entirety.
Springsteen and the band opened with “Meet Me in the City,” a song from the box set that didn’t make it on “The River.” Then Springsteen delivered a brief homily about the album and its intent: “ ‘The River’ was the record where we tried to make a record that felt like an E Street Band show and felt big as life. I wanted it to contain fun, dancing, jokes, good comradeship, love and faith, lonely nights, heartbreak, teardrops, sex. … Let’s go back down to ‘The River’ and see what we can find.”
Played in its entirety, the album came together as the portrait he’d intended it be, starting with the opener, “The Ties That Bind,” a song about surviving heartache and taking another chance on love, then “Sherry Darling,” a giddy rocker that preaches the virtue of love, especially during hard times.
Springsteen crowds are typically a mix of hardcore devotees who have seen him umpteen times and less ardent or more casual fans who want to witness the legendary glory of his live show. There were plenty of fans in the house who knew the words to every “River” track and those who bode the time between the album’s hits and best-known songs, like “Two Hearts,” “Hungry Heart,” which ignited a ferocious sing-along, “Out on the Street,” the locomotive “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” and “Cadillac Ranch.”
Though they’ve been playing these 20 songs every night, the E Streeters’ enthusiasm showed no diminishment. Several songs, like “Point Blank,” featured feverish instrumentals or frenetic leads, like Nils Lofgren’s guitar solo on “Cadillac Ranch.”
Springsteen, as usual, mingled with his congregation. During “Hungry Heart,” he ventured into the crowd, glad-handing fans along the way, walked halfway across a bridge between the pit and the floor seats and then crowd-surfed, belly up, back to the stage — slowly, as if the crowd was being hyper-careful not to drop him.
“The River” has its somber moments, like “Independence Day,” a song about the deteriorating relationship between a father and son, and “Wreck on the Highway,” a song about a fatal car accident that’s a parable about appreciating those you love every day. The mood in the arena during those songs flagged a bit among the nearly 14,000 fans, but was restored by whatever rip-snorting rock tune was on deck.
“Wreck” is the final song on “The River.” After it was over, Springsteen cherry picked more than a dozen songs from his prodigious catalog, most from “Born to Run” and none more recent than songs from “Born in the USA.”
“Badlands” started the second set, and the crowd indulged with gusto in the live ritual it always ignites. He followed that with a frenetic rendition of “No Surrender,” followed by a smoldering version of “Candy’s Room.” More than three hours into the show, Springsteen, 66, and his mates showed no sings of fatigue. During “Dancing in the Dark,” he summoned from the audience a young girl to be his dance partner. She then persuaded him to bring up a woman (her mother, I presume) to join them.
They ended with a flurry of beloved songs: “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” then “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” which included a tribute to band members who have passed on, including Clarence Clemons. The cover of the Isley Brother’s “Shout” was long and joyous and started more widespread dancing.
By the time the closer, “Bobby Jean,” ended, Springsteen and the band had been on stage for more than 3 hours and 25 minutes and they had delivered nearly everything the Boss had ordered: fun, dancing, jokes, comradeship, love and faith in the glory of music.
Meet Me in the City; The Ties That Bind; Sherry Darling; Jackson Cage; Two Hearts; Independence Day; Hungry Heart; Out in the Street; Crush on You; You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch); I Wanna Marry You; The River; Point Blank; Cadillac Ranch; I’m a Rocker; Fade Away; Stolen Car; Ramrod; The Price You Pay; Drive All Night; Wreck on the Highway. Encores: Badlands; No Surrender; Candy’s Room; Because the Night; She’s the One; Backstreets; Thunder Road; Born to Run; Dancing in the Dark; Rosalita (Come Out Tonight); Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out; Shout; Bobby Jean.