The stadium house lights were still on when Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band took the stage of the Times Union Center at 8 on Monday night, launching into “Meet Me in the City” as an exuberant, sold-out crowd chanted “Bruuuuce.”
The rousing opening song — an outtake from Springsteen’s 1980 double album “The River” — appears on his recent seven-disc box set “The Ties That Bind: The River Collection,” a sprawling look back at a musical period when Springsteen was exploring complex adult themes about human relationships.
“‘The River’ was my coming-of-age record. … I wanted to make a record that felt like life,” he said from the stage at the start of the show.
Backed by a stripped-down, eight-piece E Street Band — sans the full horn section and back-up singers from previous tours and without Springsteen’s wife, singer Patti Scialfa, who took the night off — Springsteen launched into a deeply cathartic, song-by-song performance of the 20 cuts on “The River.” He started with “The Ties That Bind,” a thoughtful rocker about finding your roots in a community.
Looking tan and as fit as ever in a black vest, gray button-down shirt and black jeans, Springsteen, 66, slapped hands with fans down front for party rocker “Sherry Darling” as saxophonist Jake Clemons — the nephew of longtime E Street member Clarence Clemons, who died in 2011 — filled his legendary uncle’s shoes with confident, stirring sax solos.
“The River” contains both raucous, barroom numbers such as “Hungry Heart” and “Cadillac Ranch,” as well as some fairly deep, dark songs like “Independence Day.” Its recreation was an epic journey of highs and lows. Who else but Bruce Springsteen could keep an entire arena rapt during the quieter numbers while lifting fans to euphoric heights during the rockers?
Especially enlightening were Springsteen’s quiet reflections from the stage about how his perspectives have matured in the decades since he first wrote the songs. He prefaced the romantic idealism of “I Want to Marry You” by saying, “It’s a song of youth and life without consequences. It’s a life that doesn’t exist.”
Life lessons from Bruce Springsteen — and the airing of tunes that rarely see the light of day during typical Springsteen tours, such as “The Price You Pay” and “Crush On You” — made this show a thrilling affair for longtime fans. And it was great to see guitarist Steven Van Zandt frequently share the vocal spotlight with Springsteen on songs like “Two Hearts” and “Stolen Car.”
After closing the two-hour performance of “The River” with the intense “Point Blank,” the glorious “Fade Away” and the slow-burner “Drive All Night,” Springsteen launched right into a crowd-pleasing, 90-minute set that began with the anthem “Badlands” as the frontman left the stage to be carried by the crowd on his back.
An intensely soulful “Backstreets,” euphoric versions of “The Rising,” “Thunder Road,” “Born to Run” and “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” were highlights of this part of the set.
And before a frantic version of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” finished the night, one of the show’s best moments occurred during an electrifying performance of “Because the Night” as guitarist Nils Lofgren soloed and danced a stiff-legged jig across the stage.