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It wasn’t the rain that put a bit of a dampener on the evening: great showman that he is, Bruce Springsteen rose to the challenge of the dank Manchester weather at the Etihad Stadium. “It’s raining but there ain’t a cloud in the sky,” he roared in “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day”, an unconquerably good-humoured roots-rocker during which he hoisted a spectating child out of the audience to sing with him, a grand act of sentimentality to melt even the hardest heart. Well, mine anyway.
The problem lay in the show’s set-up. Springsteen is currently touring his 1980 double album The River with his veteran accomplices The E Street Band. Reissued last year as a box set, it is a key record in the New Jersey singer-songwriter’s career, the hit that helped turn him into a national icon. But few of its songs have become fan favourites, and now they appear to have fallen from Springsteen’s favour too.
On the US leg of his tour, he and The E Street Band played The River in its 20-track entirety. But almost half has gone missing during his journey over the Atlantic. While many in the audience might have welcomed the truncation, which was compensated by an extra helping of back catalogue goodies, the way the album was left dangling gave the set an unbalanced and unfinished feel.
He began with “Atlantic City”, a solo number from 1982’s Nebraska, rearranged tonight as a full E Street Band affair with skiddy organ and sturdy drums. Two other songs recorded in the late 1970s and early 1980s followed, “Murder Incorporated” and “Badlands”, establishing The River’s place in Springsteen’s chronology.
Its first song, “The Ties That Bind”, came without introduction, a swirling wall of sound, at once fortresslike and imbued with a spirit of freedom, The E Street Band at their best. The rest of The River’s first half was played in order, interspersed with digressions.
“Crush on You”, a basic barroom stomper that Springsteen these days claims to disdain, was preceded, or overshadowed, by the monumental title track to 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. A light-hearted interlude, in keeping with The River’s streak of cornball rock and roll, came when the singer spotted a man dressed as Father Christmas and brought him on stage for an impromptu rendition of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”.
The section of the show devoted to The River ended with a magnificent rendition of its two moodiest moments, the title track and “Point Blank”, both tales of young love dragged down by unfair life chances, sung gravely by Springsteen with a testifying hand held in the air. Then, without explanation, the rest of the album was jettisoned for a jaunt through the back catalogue, from the electrifying tub-thumper “Born to Run” to the hymnal benediction of “The Rising”.
Springsteen, 66, gave his all to the songs, a muscular advert for a life of exercise. Shirt sleeves rolled up, in illustration of the songs’ themes of manual work, he gripped the microphone with bulging biceps and sang with eyes screwed shut, vocal cords straining in his neck like hawsers, hefting away as The E Street Band performed their big chord changes. Moving from the stage to a trio of podiums at the edge of the audience, he walked slightly stiffly, in the manner an ageing but still virile gunslinger in a Western.
The E Street Band played their role as loyal retainers with customary power. Sideman Steve Van Zandt mugged away merrily, the junior showman to Springsteen’s maestro, Max Weinberg hammered his drum kit remorselessly, guitarist Nils Lofgren recovered from the indignity of tripping over the monitor during “No Surrender” by not dropping a note and saxophonist Jake Clemons blew meaty solos, a familial replacement for his deceased uncle Clarence Clemons.
In many ways it was an entertaining, high-octane night, the kind of rock-and-roll evangelism that Springsteen has made his own. But the curtailment of The River for a partial greatest hits routine gave it a curiously perfunctory air despite a running time of more than three hours.
Having begun with a solo song fleshed out into a band number, Springsteen ended alone, playing the Woody Guthrie-esque folk song “This Hard Land”. The transition pointed towards his next album, a solo affair. But the show’s attempt to revive The River while also paying tribute to his work with The E Street Band was a bridge too far: a pair of fine shows crammed into one.