Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Party Noises - Cleveland, February 23, 2016

I was a college freshman when The River was released. It was the first record I remember buying for my own turntable, to play through my own receiver, and to hear on my own speakers. I still have that turntable, that receiver, and those speakers, too, and I still use them regularly. Felt like the best $150 I ever spent… until tonight's show in Cleveland, more or less.

The ticket I bought to my first show on the original River tour was $12.50, tax included. I still have the stub, too. That first show, Bruce played "Independence Day" and introduced its meaning to him, about talking to his dad late at night: "I never once asked him what he was thinking about... and later I realized that what he was doing every night was, he was sitting there dreaming... but what happened to him was... he didn't have the strength any more, or the power to begin to make any of the things that he was dreaming about real." And that felt so real to me. Now I know the things you wanted that you could not say.
Things have changed for me besides the ticket price. I met a girl and I settled down. Our son is a college freshman. I may be on the other side of that kitchen table now. Bruce said back at that first show, about holding on to dreams, "that's the hardest thing you gotta hold on to, so don't lose it." Bruce now refers to "Independence Day" as "the kind of song you write when you're young," but maybe that's only because it's the younger person doing the speaking. Punctuated by Soozie's melancholy violin, the song hits as hard now as it did then. Harder, maybe, for all of us who have walked parts of that dark and dusty highway these 35 years.

By following the album's script, this tour almost forces internal questions. I remember that first listen, already knowing a few songs from radio broadcasts, with most of the others being revelations. The feeling of being suddenly kicked in the gut when the title song rolled around, and then the procession of disoriented and lost souls on the second record: their struggles, desperation, and lonely demises. Even "Cadillac Ranch" and "Ramrod," though they rocked out, weren't really happy songs.
With a mighty arm and an outstretched hand: Jake pulls Bruce on to the stage while playing.
How to make it all real and now, that's a challenge, and Bruce came through for Cleveland. He may have called out "Party noises, Pittsburgh!!" before "Sherry Darling," but he quickly corrected himself and with a laugh blamed the gaffe on seeing Joe Grushecky backstage before the show. The stage is no frills, but it gives each of the players their space, in a "front line" tonight consisting of Bruce, Steve, Garry (in Patti's normal place stage left, Patti not being present this evening), Nils, and Soozie, and a back line of Roy, Charlie, Max and Jake. Bruce has easy access to the audience on the perimeter of the pit, and to the first rows of the side; he uses that space to draw in the crowd. "The River" features the audience singing out "union card and a wedding coat." "Crush on You" is a sing-along, too, and if Bruce doesn't hit all the high notes of that one, so what? The audience doesn't, either. But Stevie does, in harmony — how did his voice get better?

Most of all, I think Bruce has drawn his own band closer in to the show. Stevie hasn't been engaged in the show like this in many years, but here he is providing vocal and instrumental support for Bruce song after song. Bruce enabled this in part by sometimes stepping aside himself: for a three-song stretch beginning with "I Wanna Marry You," Bruce doesn't play the guitar at all, as Steve takes lead. Then, after the guitar and violin blow-out of "Cadillac Ranch," two more songs without the guitar. Steve's 12-string support for a funereal version of "The River" and for "Fade Away" are notable high points (nevermind that Bruce flubbed the second verse of "Fade Away" tonight). And the harmonies! It wasn't so long ago that, after a televised performance of "We Take Care of Our Own," a musician friend emailed to say, about Steve, "I think he was singing 'Cadillac Ranch.'" Onthis show, the harmonies soar. The jaw-dropping moment for me is the "Here She Comes" introduction to "I Wanna Marry You," with Bruce pulling out maracas, and then trading the "little girl" line with Steve over and over again, so earnestly and soulfully that we're transported to another reality: these aren't mid-60's men anymore, and we're not greybeards in the audience; we're all romantics on our street corners, this is our shared moment, and for these few seconds we can even forget that the "love" in the song is just "youthful imagining." Other times, they would be goofy but no less spot-on; during "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)" they even appeared to toss in phrasing from the local frat rock classic, the Human Beinz' "Nobody But Me."
This show also reminds just how great the songs of The River are. It's easy enough to imagine grown-up themes; this record and these performances make them resonate. "Stolen Car" may be the greatest hidden gem of Bruce's career. There's the 1980 arrangement of "Point Blank," a soul-wrenching "Fade Away," an intense "Drive All Night," in which Bruce seemed to intentionally go hoarse, only adding to the sense of desperation. Add a goofy crowd-stroll of "I'm a Rocker" (aka "I Maraca" for me), "The Price You Pay," and finally, the terrifying vision of "Wreck on the Highway." All songs just from the second disc, rarely played in the past three decades, now dusted off and played as if they were brand new.

The River album portion of the show ends with the reminder that time is limited, but of course, our time for the evening doesn't end there. For me, seeing this show finally for the first time, it could be, and I'd leave happy. It's that good. But for Bruce, it's not enough; for one thing, as long as The River is, it's not three hours. And it's not like he would send the crowd home thinking about a wreck on the highway. So bring on some Darkness-era rockers. Experience Nils blowing off the roof not just with one of his patented twirl-o-rama solos, but two, as the tour premiere of "Youngstown" followed "Because the Night." Bring out another "just for Cleveland" moment with a fun tour premiere of "Growin' Up." Bring Joe Grushecky and Johnny Grushecky on to the stage for "Born to Run," for those Pittsburgh party noises. Find someone with the coolest sign of the night and have a nice dance. Heck, find two someones, and have two dances, and let the second guy play guitar (Bana Moureiden is the girl with the cool sign, and Scott Williams is the guitar-playing guy). And finally, dance the night away with a sweat-soaked "Shout," and only then, after more than three-and-a-quarter hours, call it a night. The audience soaked it up until the very end, responding to every emphatic shout of "Cleveland!!" with a return shout of "Broooce!!"

Finishing the drive home in my own car, the memories from the arena still fresh, I wonder not so much when I'll arrive, or even how I'll get through Wednesday. I keep in mind that time has passed, and there are still dreams to keep and things to say.

note - this review originally appeared in