Concert review: Bruce Springsteen at the Schottenstein Center

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Bruce Springsteen's The River, which the musician performed in its entirety alongside his trusted E Street Band during a marathon concert at a packed Schottenstein Center on Tuesday, wrestles with the transition into adulthood and the ongoing push and pull between the person you once were and the one you aim to be.

"The River was my coming of age record," the singer, songwriter and guitarist said by way of introduction.

It could be argued the album, which first surfaced in 1980 and received the deluxe reissue treatment last year, reveals the sprouting of the activist roots that have inspired Springsteen to consistently stump for social and political issues that align with his views. Most recently, the musician canceled a weekend concert in Greensboro, North Carolina, a move designed to show solidarity with protesters rallying against the state's much-debated HB2 law, which rolls back protections for gay and transgender individuals.

"Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry - which is happening as I write - is one of them," Springsteen said in a message posted on his website."It is the strongest means I have for raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forwards."

The musician didn't directly address the decision early in this Columbus stop - his first since announcing the cancellation - though a brief introduction during which he discussed the genesis of The River suggested how he ended up here.

Early in his career, Springsteen said, his songs remained focused on "the small community of Asbury Park, [New Jersey]." With The River, he broadened this perspective. "I was taking notice of things [people cared for]: their work, their commitment, their families," he said. "I figured if I wrote about those things I could come closer to having them in my own life."

Ultimately, he surmised, the songs on the album are about the finite nature of existence, and "how you've got limited time … to try and do something good." Springsteen's HB2 stance could be viewed as a direct extension of this mindset.

Though time might be slipping away, The River doesn't rush. Following a scene-setting "Meet Me in the City," Springsteen and his E Street cohorts lingered with the sprawling double-LP for the better part of two hours.

When the album first surfaced, Springsteen was a young man struggling to adapt to encroaching adulthood. Now older, he brought a learned perspective to the songs, several of which started to take on different shades.

"Independence Day," for one, centered on a nighttime conversation between a father and his grown son. At the time the song was written, Springsteen was "23 or 24 years old," he said, and his sympathies gravitated toward the child, who felt a yearning for the open road. Here, however, he practically embodied the father, hunching his shoulders as if they were being pressed downward by the weight of the years. The lovelorn "I Wanna Marry You," in turn, sounded even more idealistic decades on, arriving like a dream sequence or an escapist fantasy amid the darkness surrounding it.

Musically, the songs occupied diverse territory, veering between New York Dolls-worthy guitar flare-ups ("Crush On You"), raucous garage rock rumblers ("I'm a Rocker," a title that doubled as the ideal three-word descriptor) and more spacious turns like the harmonica-stoked "The River." Here Springsteen delivered the opening line ("I come from down in the valley") in a grizzled voice that made it sound as though he'd wandered in from a Sergio Leone western, his boots covered in dirt and his past filled with regrets he can't quite outrun.

Similar hopelessness bled into "Fade Away," where the frontman tried desperately to staunch the bleeding in a damaged relationship. "Have mercy, darling," he sang, his tone calling to mind a prisoner begging off the executioner.

Many of the songs were filled with solitary characters, which contrasted with the sense of communion that thrived within the tightknit group. At times, three or four members would sing into the same microphone. On "Jackson Cage," Springsteen and guitarist/spiritual band leader Little Steven Van Zandt - a man, like Johnny Depp or Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler, who is made up of 40 percent scarves - closed out the song cheek-to-cheek, exhibiting a closeness that ran counter to lines about being "left alone standing out on the street."

Following a mournful "Wreck on the Highway," which ended the River portion of the evening with warnings about "slipping into darkness," the clouds finally parted.

Seemingly unburdened, Springsteen and his bandmates regrouped by bounding into a 90-minute free-for-all that paired shopworn classics ("Because the Night," "Born to Run") with lesser-known gems. "A little obscure, but I think we got it," Springsteen said in response to a fan request for "I Wanna Be With You." Besides, a simple test of recall likely felt like child's play after two hours spent expertly navigating the murky River.