Time, like water in a river, forever moves forward.
However much we might like to stop, to pause and look back, the current bears us along, making returning to what came before nothing if not a struggle.
It takes determination to wade back upstream, fighting against the surging inevitability of nature — a feat that, metaphorically at least, is all but impossible.
Yet there, on Tuesday, before a sold out American Airlines Center crowd, stood Bruce Springsteen and the reliable, durable, electrifying E Street Band, doing exactly that: turning back time, and revisiting the landmark 1980 double album, The River, in full.
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“The River was my coming-of-age record,” Springsteen explained at the outset of what would be an astonishing three-and-a-half hour marathon of a performance. “All the records before were young man’s records. ... I’d taken notice of the things that bind people to their lives. It was on The River that I wanted to make a record that was big and felt like life. I wanted it to contain fun and dancing and laughter and sex and love and heartbreak and, of course, teardrops ... if I could make a record big enough to hold those things, I could get closer to them.
“Let’s go back down to The River.”
Standing there, on the banks of one of his greatest works, Springsteen is an older, wiser and more bruised soul than he was 36 years ago.
Nevertheless, there were several moments where flashes of the youthful Springsteen were visible — crowd-surfing during Hungry Heart; venturing into the adoring audience multiple times, clasping hands, signing posters and grinning; inviting a mob of selfie-obsessed young women onstage during Dancing in the Dark — and the exuberance with which the E Street Band plays staples like Ramrod, Cadillac Ranch and Sherry Darling was positively infectious.
But in a record capable of containing life, there must be shadows, and those too were given equal time Tuesday. The snarling Jackson Cage contrasted nicely with the solemn Wreck on the Highway and the seething Independence Day, of which Springsteen said, “It’s the kind of song you write when you’re young and you’re startled by your parents’ humanity.”
The whole of The River is rich with such realizations, and its songs are haunted by youth, time and mortality — mistakes made; chances taken; risks accepted.
The twilight zone between childhood and adulthood is fraught with uncertainty, and the best moments on The River, as full and striking an artistic statement as Springsteen had made to that point in his career, capture the feeling of being on a tightrope between what is desired and what is necessary.
Of the many records in his catalog to revisit in full, it makes sense for Springsteen to choose The River, if only because in hearing him speak about his mindset at the time, it’s clear that this moment is when he began moving past rowdy all-nighters at the Stone Pony, taking himself and his work much more seriously.
As he moves into the autumn of his career, Springsteen the icon is reconnecting with that first blush of consequence, the point where everything changed.
The moment where the ever-flowing stream rounded a corner, and he could see everything.
“The River was about time,” Springsteen said, as the E Street Band vamped behind him. “It was about time slipping away. ... You choose your partner, you choose your work, and the clock starts ticking. You walk along your own mortality, and you understand you have a limited amount of time to do your work, raise your family, and try and do something good.”
Most artists of Springsteen’s age and stature would call a two-hour rendition of a seminal recording a full evening’s work, but it was merely prelude to another 90 minutes of music, visiting other corners of the catalog for favorites like Badlands, The Promised Land, Because the Night, Thunder Road, Born to Run, Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) and Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.
Springsteen had spoken at one point, earlier in the evening, about “love without consequences [and] love without responsibility,” and at its best, Tuesday’s remarkable, visceral performance felt like a manifestation of that sentiment.
It was a pure, uncomplicated exchange of affection between performer and audience, eagerly straining to reach out and connect — on both sides of the stage — the ceaseless, eternal current, sweeping all of us forward, headlong into the great unknown.