When Bruce Springsteen headed out on this latest lengthy tour at the beginning of the year, the intention was to play 1980’s The River album in its entirety at each show. But by the time the E Street Band pitched their tent at Wembley on Sunday he had other ideas. Just six of the 20 songs from that landmark release make the cut for the three-and-a-half-hour set, but The Boss doesn’t go radically off-message.
Now 66, Bruce appears to use the record as a touchstone to reflect on his 30-year-old self, dusting off another 10 pre-River songs that loosely map out the route that brought him to major commercial breakthrough. Tellingly, only three tracks from his five most recent albums get an airing.
Sitting at the piano for the solo, subdued opener Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street? (a song that featured on his first professional demo back in 1972), he signals his plan for a broader back pages show than initially advertised. Before too long, augmented by the fiercest, best-drilled rock‘n’roll band on the planet, he checks in on his twentysomething lust (Candy’s Room, She’s The One), formative poetic street serenades (Jungleland, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out) and blue-collar paeans to the romance of escape (Badlands, The Promised Land).
Assessing those ‘70s cuts alongside The River, it becomes clearer just how pivotal the album was. He was still a consummate storyteller as the ‘80s dawned, but for the most part (and in the case of all the River tracks played on Sunday) Springsteen had moved away from fanciful, character-driven tales and towards more direct first-person narratives.
Over the course of 210 minutes on stage, however, there’s still plenty of room for a few scattergun detours and long-standing crowd-pleasers. The tender, confessional Tougher Than The Rest is dedicated to Muhammad Ali, social outrage rears its head on My City Of Ruins, American Skin and Death To My Hometown, while heart-swelling anthems come courtesy of The Rising and No Surrender.
After a last return to the boards for Thunder Road, assisted only by his trusty acoustic guitar and harmonica, he’s gone. Next time around he may have new songs to draw upon, and fresh perspectives on the American condition, but it would be foolhardy to pigeonhole Springsteen as a nostalgia act just yet. He’s still hungry, and he’s still full of heart.