Bruce Springsteen Was the Eternally Youthful Optimist at American Airlines Center

Bruce Springsteen (center) joined by brothers in arms Jake Clemens and Steve Van Zandt on Tuesday.
Bruce Springsteen (center) joined by brothers in arms Jake Clemens and Steve Van Zandt on Tuesday.
Mike Brooks

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
The River Tour
American Airlines Center, Dallas
Tuesday, April 5, 2016

If you're only as young as you feel, then Bruce Springsteen must have found the fountain of youth. For three solid hours on Tuesday night, the 66-year-old lit up the American Airlines Center with the energy of someone half his age and breathed new life into his classic album The River on its 35th anniversary tour.

The most sprawling album in a catalog full of them, The River, originally released as a double-LP in 1980, is full of restless young adults struggling to come to terms with their responsibilities and ever-narrowing futures. Springsteen touched on this several times throughout the show: "Independence Day," he said, was the "first song I wrote about fathers and sons," and "Stolen Car" was one of the first "about men and women." As he put it, it was an album about learning to "walk alongside mortality" and simply trying to "do something good."

Those are lofty ideas, ones that get borne out on a micro level in the narrative-specific details of Springsteen's songwriting, but they were done justice on Tuesday with his trademark full-throttle approach to performing. The songs on The River sounded bigger, badder and ultimately more triumphant than they do on record. With an eight-piece band backing him up, perhaps that was inevitable; saxophonist Jake Clemons was a particular joy to watch, basking in every note he played in place of his late uncle, Clarence. But it was the Boss' enthusiasm that drove it along, barely even pausing to take breaks between song.

The Boss was (almost) all smiles last night.
The Boss was (almost) all smiles last night.
Mike Brooks

His populism was a key part of that. The stage setup said a lot about how Springsteen relates to his fans, set low to the ground without some massive, showboating runway. He was there to get in and amongst the people. On "Hungry Heart," he ran down the stairs to do a lap around the crowd, then surfed his way back to the stage. With the nearly 20,000-person room shouting along, it was electrifying enough to be a grand finale — but it was only the seventh song of the night.

Keeping that momentum wasn't easy, and at times it sagged a bit. Performing albums in their entirety is usually a fraught business; concerts and albums generally don't flow the same way, and The River — already a tough task — was a marathon, stretched out to two hours. The title track was a particular highlight among the slower songs, thanks to Springsteen's ghostly harmonica and beautiful howling. But "Point Blank" took that understated formula and stretched it out to theatrical lengths, which was a bit much for such a long show.

Then again, perseverance is one of the key themes of Springsteen's music, which is where that optimism has served him so well. The River is filled with uncertainty, and he lived that uncertainty himself — maybe not of the blue collar kid in the dead-end job, but certainly of the young father trying to "do something good." At the time, he was singing about a wisdom he didn't have, but in the decades since he's earned it and come out the other side, maybe even more youthful than before.

Nils Lofgren got in on the action as well.
Nils Lofgren got in on the action as well.
Mike Brooks

So after that two-hour grind of getting through the album, it was only fitting that Springsteen would top it off with another hour of his hits that stretched the set list out to 33 songs. "Born to Run" was every bit the wall of sound that he'd always wanted it to be, and "Because the Night" may have been the sleeper pick for highlight of the night, but it was "Dancing in the Dark" that said everything that needed to be said.

With young girls on either side of the stage getting turned back by security, the Boss motioned to the girls to join him on stage. Soon he was surrounded by 30 or 40 people, most of them dressed in red, white and blue as they dancing giddily around him. And there, almost lost in the throng, was the smiling, laughing Springsteen, blending right in with the kids.

Setlist:
Meet Me in the City
The Ties That Bind
Sherry Darling
Jackson Cage
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
The Promised Land
Backstreets
Because the Night
The Rising
Thunder Road

Encore:
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Shout
Bobby Jean

Springsteen and the E Street band made AAC feel surprisingly small.
Springsteen and the E Street band made AAC feel surprisingly small.
Mike Brooks
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