Bruce Springsteen Covers David Bowie, Resurrects 'The River' at Tour Opener

E Street Band tears through 'Rebel Rebel' during fiery three-and-a-half-hour Pittsburgh show

Bruce Springsteen opened his 2016 'River' tour with a marathon show in Pittsburgh. Credit: Photograph by Cory Morton for Rolling Stone

Ever since Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band reunited back in 1999, a major component of their live shows has been spontaneity. When they last toured in 2014, it was impossible to know what songs might pop up on any given night, whether it was an unexpected cover like Lorde's "Royals" or Van Halen's "Jump," crazily obscure studio outtakes like "The Iceman" and "Living on the Edge of the World" or even alternate versions of familiar tunes like "Racing in the Street '78" and "Prove It All Night" with the long piano/guitar intro last heard on the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour. Anything felt possible at any moment, causing fans to nearly empty their bank accounts as they traveled the world to see as many shows as possible.

So there was no small amount of consternation in the fan community late last year when Springsteen announced that this year's tour would feature a complete performance of The River every single night. After all, it's a two-LP, 20-song collection that would leave precious little time for anything else. At least, that was the way it seemed before opening night at Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center on Saturday. By the end of the blazing three-and-a-half-hour show, the ageless 66-year-old frontman not only proved that he could somehow find the energy to play a full set of music on top of The River, but that spontaneity is a wildly overrated aspect of his concerts. What matters far more is passion, energy and great tunes. The show had all that, plus a lot more.

It began at 8 p.m. sharp with a dramatically pared-down E Street Band taking the stage two at a time. The last time they played a concert, a whopping 19 people were on the stage. For this tour, Springsteen chucked four horn players, three backup singers, a percussionist and one member of Rage Against the Machine from the lineup. That still left a nine-person band, and they kicked off the night with "Meet Me in the City," an outtake from The River released on December's Ties That Bind box set. After that, the house lights went off and Springsteen addressed the crowd.

"Thank you for coming out and being with us tonight," he said. "The River was a record where I was trying to fit in. By the time I got to that record, I was taking notice of the things that bond people to their lives: work, commitments, families. I wanted to imagine and I wanted to write about those things and I figured if I could write about them, maybe I'd get one step close to realizing them in my own life. I wanted to make a record that was big enough so it felt like life or like an E Street Band show."

The majority of tracks from the album have been in heavy rotation on Springsteen tours for decades, but hearing them in sequence infused many of them with new meaning. The title track — about a teenage couple forced into marriage due an unplanned pregnancy — was especially despondent when it immediately followed "I Wanna Marry You," a sweet tune about an idealized union of two people that doesn't involve a union card and the struggle to find construction work in a down economy. Inversely, the party song "Ramrod" sounded especially euphoric following the back-to-back bleakness of "Fade Away" and "Stolen Car." This is a very carefully sequenced record, and it's clearer than ever why Springsteen thought it could be the backbone of an entire tour 36 years after its release.

The first LP is packed with barnburners like "Sherry Darling," "Out in the Street" and "Hungry Heart," but the tone changes when disc two begins with "Point Blank." A dramatic new piano intro kicked off the song, injecting it with even more heartache and regret than it usually has. In a normal show, Springsteen probably wouldn't place ballads like "Drive All Night" and "Wreck on the Highway" so near to each other. A few fans were on Twitter and Facebook during stretches like that, but far fewer than one might have guessed. Springsteen's commitment to bringing this entire album to life was so complete that it was nearly impossible for most people to take their eyes off him.

Steve Van Zandt has been telling interviewers for decades that The River is his favorite Springsteen record, and he was clearly overjoyed to be bringing it to life, even if only one of his beloved River outtakes made the set list. Without the backup singers of recent tours, his vocals were clearer than they've been in years. Patti Scialfa often stood back and let him harmonize with Springsteen all by himself, further bringing back the vibe of the original River era. But back then, Springsteen wasn't taking selfies with fans and crowd surfing during "Hungry Heart." (For a second, it seemed like the fans were going to drop him to the ground, but a security guard dove into the pit and helped make sure the tour didn't begin with Springsteen breaking his neck.)

As the River portion of the night came to an end with a haunting "Wreck on the Highway," Springsteen again addressed the audience. "One of the things I was writing about on The River was time," he said. "A friend of mine [who] was around last night said that time catches up to us all. You've got a limited amount of time to do your work, to take care of your family, try and do something good."

The show had passed the two-hour mark at this point, and nobody would have been shocked had Springsteen merely played a couple of encores and called it a night. Instead, Max Weinberg pounded out the opening of "Badlands" and began a whole other long set. "Badlands" was followed by 2009's "Wrecking Ball" (the first song of the night written after Ronald Reagan took office) and an especially powerful "Backstreets." "Because the Night" gave Nils Lofgren a chance to shine when he busted out his signature spinning guitar solo, and "Brilliant Disguise" was an opportunity for Bruce and Patti to blend their voices together. Violinist Soozie Tyrell had her own moment during "The Rising," and everyone in the crowd sang along to "Thunder Road."

After quick bows, Springsteen acknowledged the passing of David Bowie. "He supported our music way, way back in the very beginning, 1973," he said. "He rang me up and I visited him in Philly when he was making the Young Americans record. He covered some of my music and was a big supporter of ours. I took the Greyhound bus down to Philadelphia, that's how early it was. Anyway, we're thinking of him." With that, the band kicked into "Rebel Rebel." They'd never played it before, but it was clear that they'd been practicing. No song in the Bowie catalog is better suited for this particular band, though it would have been fun to hear them try something like "Life on Mars" or "Ziggy Stardust."

"Dancing in the Dark" usually comes after "Born to Run," but Springsteen flipped them this time. By then, it was way past the three-hour mark, and some of the elderly ushers looked more than ready to call it a day, but the crowd was going strong — especially when "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)" came right after "Born to Run." Those are basically the best live songs in the Springsteen catalog, so to finish out the night, he turned to "Shout" by the Isley Brothers. "Don't you people need to get up tomorrow?" he asked. "Don't you have church?" They answered as one: "Nooooooo!"

Up until this show, Springsteen had only performed The River during a Madison Square Garden gig in 2009. "Just this one time," he said that night. "It's too long to do again!" It's a good thing he changed his mind. No other album in his catalog showcases so many different aspects of his songwriting, making it the ideal subject for a tour. And even if he continues to repeat this exact same encore section every night, expect even the most jaded fans to do whatever they can to see it again and again. Who needs spontaneity when you have The River?

Set list:

"Meet Me in the City"
"The Ties That Bind"
"Sherry Darling"
"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"
"Badlands"
"Wrecking Ball"
"Because the Night"
"Brilliant Disguise"
"The Rising"
"Thunder Road"
"Rebel Rebel" (David Bowie cover)
"Bobby Jean"
"Dancing in the Dark"
"Born to Run"
"Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)"
"Shout" (Isley Brothers cover)