GOTHENBURG 2: The Anatomy of a Near-Flawless “River” Tour 2016 Setlist

Click here to read my thoughts on Gothenburg 1.

The most common conversation amongst diehard fans regarding this River Tour 2016 has undoubtedly concerned Bruce’s setlist construction. In Europe, tramps have repeatedly chastised Bruce for forsaking far too much of the album that gives this tour its name, opting instead to play just as many – if not more – of the same songs from Born in the U.S.A, a casual fan favorite. If they’re not going to be treated to the E Street Band’s signature live spontaneity, then Europeans at least want their predictable setlists to be full of songs actually from The River.

These naysayers are by far Bruce’s most vocal and loyal fans, but they often forget the wide range of audience members Bruce needs to satisfy on any given night, which include these three major groups:[1]

Group 1: A person attending their first – or perhaps even second or third after many years – E Street concert who will be legitimately disappointed if they don’t hear “Born to Run,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Born in the U.S.A.” and a few of his other most popular songs.[2]

Group 2: A person who casually sees the E Street Band every time they come to town, but never travels to other cities and doesn’t even know what setlist-watching means. They want to experience what makes this tour different from previous ones, yet ultimately all they really care about is witnessing another classic E Street Band spectacular.

Group 3: The diehards, those who follow every setlist and determine each concert’s quality based on how many different songs Bruce plays on any given night even if they’re only attending a few shows.

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The official poster

Bruce knows that all of these different members of the crowd equally deserve to get the show they want. Though an incredibly challenging task since a lot of each group’s desires can contradict with the others’, Bruce’s second concert at Gothenburg’s Ullevi Stadium proved that it’s very possible to construct a setlist that appeases all of them. When Bruce pulls off such an impressive balancing act – as he did in Gothenburg – the crowd and the Band feel completely and totally in sync, ultimately resulting in a rare feeling of ecstatic unity shared by 70,000 diverse people each enjoying what they would consider a near-flawless performance because it satisfies all of their varied wishes. Though night 1 may have featured the two rarest moments – “The Promise” and “Tunnel of Love” – and be remembered more than night 2 because of its basically unprecedented length, almost everyone who was afforded the lucky opportunity to see both concerts will confirm that night 2 – clocking in at three hours and 28 minutes with 34 songs played – was by far the better overall concert. As the classic adage goes: quantity is not the same as quality.

In fact, Gothenburg 2 basically provided a template for how every setlist on this River Tour 2016 should be constructed, containing a little bit of something for every type of crowd member that may be in attendance on any given night. In Bruce’s own words: nobody wins unless everybody wins, and that’s a sentiment you can really feel inside of a stadium – when everyone is getting what they want, the Band feeds off this universal satisfaction and turns in a more monumental performance, as was the case in Gothenburg on Monday night. But to fully understand why something operates in the successful way that it does, it’s often best to study its anatomy, so let’s break down the ingenious structure of this particular setlist:

Though the soundchecked[3] “Mary’s Place” may not be everyone’s favorite song, it worked shockingly well as an opener, mostly because Bruce used it to quickly established the – in his own introductory words – “Swedish house party” vibe of the night. This was clearly going to be a party of a show where every type of audience member was invited to rock out, an idea Bruce embodied by coming down to the center platform to sing the second verse while surrounded by his adoring fans: “Familiar faces around me / Laughter fills the air / Your loving grace surrounds me / Everybody’s here / Furniture’s out on the front porch / Music’s up loud / I dream of you in my arms / I lose myself in the crowd.” Besides proving a perfect lead-in to the concert that was about to unfold, the song also simultaneously appeased the diehards – who always like a new, surprise opener – and the casual fans who could easily dance and sing along to this breezy, participatory tune.

But since some of his more casual fans may not have known the song, Bruce followed it up with the universally-beloved “Out in the Street.” Next up, “My Love Will Not Let You Down” satisfies diehard and regular fans alike because it’s a much-loved though not popularly known outtake that always works its hard-rocking magic on the entire crowd regardless of their familiarity with it. “No Surrender” followed and was yet another bone thrown to the normal fans, but it was one of the few missteps of the setlist. Though Bruce may believe “Mary’s Place” and “My Love Will Not Let You Down” were enough to satisfy his more dedicated fans, the former – though successfully pulled off here – is ultimately not held in very high esteem, and any setlist-watcher knows that the latter cannot be considered a rarity on this tour. I think it’s critical that one of the first four songs be a track that the diehards would LOVE to hear – such as “Roulette” in Dublin 1 and “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)” in The Hague, the two previous best setlists of the tour. Without it, a three-song stretch[4] of tour regulars like “Out in the Street” into “My Love Will Not Let You Down” into “No Surrender” sounds too familiar.

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The official t-shirt

Luckily, the rarity-hungry portion of the crowd didn’t have to wait long; “Something in the Night” followed, an underrated gem of a rarity, particularly in a live context. Following the original album sequencing of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce went with “Candy’s Room” next, which was once again packaged with “She’s the One” as it has been almost every time they’re played on this tour. After “Something in the Night,” this was the perfect double shot of two oft-played songs that are both widely appreciated by casual fans yet still welcomed by the Bruce literati.

“Sherry Darling” kicked off a five-song stretch from The River, which in itself would’ve been more songs from the album than some European cities have been treated to. Ultimately, Bruce would play ten tracks off the record, the most since the first two shows of the European leg. Though Americans accustomed to the U.S. setlists may not see these as special, they must understand that Europeans have fixated on not being able to hear a lot of their favorite River songs on this tour, despite its name. The recent U.S. leg seemed to result in a lot of Americans taking these fantastic songs for granted, forgetting how rare and thus desired a lot of them are by Europeans; before this tour, “Independence Day”[5] had only been performed four times in Europe and “The Price You Pay” one time since the original River Tour.

Remember all of the Americans that constantly grumbled about the static, post-River portions of the U.S. setlists? The incessant volume of their complaints pales in comparison to how vocal a lot of Europeans fans have been regarding their disappointment in the lack of River tracks on recent setlists. When evaluating the quality of a setlist, we must take into account exactly who Bruce is constructing them for – the wishes of Americans following along at home are obviously trumped by what the crowds who are actually in these buildings want to hear.

Yet instead of just playing segments that lifted the exact, albeit predictable sequencing from the album, Bruce instead peppered a lot of these River songs throughout the setlist – thus preserving the cherished feeling on E Street that any song could be played next – in places where they perfectly fit: “I’m a Rocker” spiced up the tired second half of the main set, and “Ramrod” infused the always-static encores with some newfound raw, kinetic, and highly sexual energy.[6] In addition, Bruce playing some of the songs in a different order than they appear on the record allowed him to create unexpected groupings that showcased how well songs from different portions of the album both fit together and thematically comment on each other, reinforcing the brilliant consistency and unified wholeness of The River. Though coming from different sides of the original record, “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” and “Two Hearts” proved a killer two-pack because their tempos are so evenly matched. Even more breathtaking was “The Price You Pay” into “The River,”[7] both of which profoundly explore the potentially crippling sacrifices everyday life almost always thrusts upon us all.

These two masterpieces – some of the best songs on the entire album – were sandwiched in the middle of the best five-song stretch of the tour, one that was clearly intended for those audience members who belong to the third group above. If The River definitely satisfied group two and probably group three as well – though some may have grumbled that Bruce still refuses to play most of the rarer, slower songs on the second record, such as “Fade Away,” “Stolen Car,” and “Wreck on the Highway” – this phenomenal stretch rocked the very foundations of group three. “The Price You Pay” and “The River” were preceded by a sign request for the tour premiere – and fifth ever performance in Europe – of “Jole Blon,” an aptly fun and loose rendition that fit comfortably in the middle of a series of River songs because Bruce actually recorded the song for the album, and its live premiere occurred during the original River tour.[8]

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The official ticket and Pit wristband

After the aforementioned River two-pack of masterful ballads, Bruce finished up this stretch of rarities by leaving the album behind, granting consecutive sign requests for the beloved “Racing in the Street” and the tour premiere – and first performance of any song off the album on this tour – of “Lucky Town.” I’ve already written extensively about the power of “Racing in the Street” live in concert,[9] but in Gothenburg I noticed the integral role Max’s mighty drumbeat plays in successfully building Roy’s coda. Whereas mostly everyone agrees that “Racing” is one of Bruce’s greatest songs, very few would say the same about “Lucky Town.” Even so, it absolutely destroyed live, largely due to Bruce’s exceptional songwriting during this period of his career[10] AND his practically orgasmic, excessively extended guitar solo to close the performance.[11]

Having thoroughly satisfied group three, Bruce turned his attention back to group one by delving into some of his more crowd-pleasing stadium anthems that have served as the backbone for the second half of most of his recent main sets. Instead of exclusively appealing to the masses as it usually does, this familiar stretch was more than tolerable for the rest of the crowd both because the ridiculously energized run of deep cuts easily propelled everyone through these lesser songs, AND Bruce finally varied it up a bit: not only did he insert “I’m a Rocker” between “The Promised Land” and “Working on the Highway,” he also separated the Born in the U.S.A. and main set closing three-packs[12] with “Tougher Than the Rest.” Though not as powerful as the previous concert’s “Tunnel of Love,” this brief reprieve from the expected made the subsequent songs go down much easier.

Bruce also diversified the encores, opening with an always emotional “Jungleland”[13] and finally allowing “Ramrod” to, well, ramrod some much-needed spontaneity into the encores. With these slight alterations, Bruce allowed every type of audience member to lose themselves in this triumphant final stretch,[14] most notably the large but young man he invited onstage for “Dancing in the Dark.” Though Bruce at first paid attention to the little girl he invited onstage after him, she ended up being so frightened in the moment that she literally walked away from Bruce and towards the rest of the Band.[15]

After returning her to the comfortable arms of her mother, Bruce turned his focus to the young man, who had seemingly given total control of his limbs to the eternal power of rock and roll. He acted as if…well…as if he had finally been granted his lifelong dream of being able to rock out with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. He reveled in the moment as only a diehard fan could, not wasting a single second on inhibitions or insecurities and instead just living the dream as passionately and truthfully to himself as possible.[16] His internal love and appreciation for Bruce and the Band were palpable enough to be felt by each individual comprising the 70,000 strong crowd. And Bruce’s insistence on flipping his baseball cap around – thus allowing his face to properly appear in the inevitable flood of pictures and videos he’d receive afterwards – was yet another sign of how much Bruce cares about us in return.

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A commemorative plaque outside of Ullevi Stadium

This performance was the perfect tribute to what makes Swedish crowds so special. I’ve already written far too much about them here, but now that I’ve shared two shows with these unique fanatics, I feel I can accurately compare them to the other members in Bruce’s Crowd Pantheon. Though I still haven’t experienced a concert in Milan,[17] I’ve seen two in Barcelona. The tirelessly manic energy of the Spaniards wasn’t topped in Gothenburg,[18] but I feel that may just be because they connect to Bruce’s music in a different way. Whereas almost every Spanish concert I’ve ever attended has felt like a party celebration in some way – with constant audible and visible crowd participation, be it singing, dancing, chanting, clapping, jumping, etc. – the two shows in Gothenburg felt more like therapeutic conversations between Bruce and his adoring fans.

Perhaps due to the Swedes’ greater faculty with the English language, they seem to have a more personal, intimate connection with Bruce’s music. Though that connection is often and beautifully shared communally in the same style as the Spanish, Bruce’s songs often seem to resonate with them on a very deep level that’s impossible to convey through conventional crowd participation. Songs like “The Promise,” “Tunnel of Love,” “Something in the Night,” “Independence Day,” “The Price You Pay,” and “Racing in the Street” – amongst many others – were greeted not only with overt enthusiasm but also with respectful, almost hallowed silence. While looking around, I noticed an inordinate number of people closing their eyes, getting lost within themselves through the music. Though this shared soul searching is obviously somewhat communal, they didn’t seem as concerned with outwardly expressing the powerful impact the music has had, and will continue to have on their very being.

Amongst a crowd that seems to have an almost indescribably loyal and dedicated connection to Bruce, the Boss finally found a setlist template that allows him to connect to every type of fan in the crowd. If he continues to follow it, these two shows in Gothenburg will be remembered perhaps less for any individual moments and more for ultimately proving to be the always special turning points of a tour that separate the good setlists that came before from the great setlists that will hopefully come after. Without being able to trust the Swedes not only to come along for the ride but also to make the ride that much more ecstatic, perhaps Bruce never would’ve made this discovery. In the end, Bruce probably said it best at the end of the concert:

“This is a special place for us. A special audience for us. We appreciate your long support of our music.”

And then…

“We’ll be back in a few weeks!”

Gothenburg 3 is currently my early prediction to be the best show of the tour. I hope to see you there…

 

 

FOOTNOTES

[1] Of course not EVERY type of fan comfortably fits into one of these three groupings, but I’d say they cover a majority.

[2] These are the three songs that I really believe Bruce justifiably needs to play every night. You could also make an argument for the likes of “Badlands,” “Thunder Road,” “The Rising” (for younger fans who may have been introduced to Bruce through this modern classic), “Hungry Heart” and “The River” (both of which should definitely be played every night on a “River Tour”). Some may label such fan service as pandering, but why shouldn’t Bruce try to ensure that no one goes home even remotely unhappy? Playing these songs has just as much of a right to be labeled as pandering as Bruce playing deep cuts for the diehards.

[3] The only other song soundchecked was the not-played “Into the Fire,” another one off The Rising.

[4] I’m a big believer in the rule of threes…

[5] Though I thought Bruce subtly commented on Brexit with a portion of the night 1 setlist, in no way was him playing “Independence Day” related to it. In fact, he even included a speech before the performance, but it had nothing to do with the United Kingdom’s current predicament; instead, it was simply his usual explanation regarding his youthful perspective when writing the song.

[6] “Ramrod” is really one of Bruce’s strongest encore entries in his arsenal.

[7] My only real problem with Patti’s presence is that she takes the backing vocals on “The River” away from Little Steven. Those should always belong to him.

[8] He ended up later re-recording the song with Gary U.S. Bonds for his Dedication album.

[9] Simply put, it’s peak E Street in every sense of the phrase.

[10] Almost every song – even the lesser ones – from Human Touch and Lucky Town deserves the full E Street Band treatment on this tour. Please, Bruce, I’m begging you…

[11] The usual guitar maestro – Nils Lofgren – had a normal night after his multiple highlight performance on night 1. The only abnormality: he had a little shrine-esque looking set up of flags and medals and certificates and such behind his usual spot that I believe commemorated him recently receiving Sweden’s official award for – as Bruce introduced him at the end of the night – “the Swedish American of the year.”

[12] Also helping this stretch: he actually skipped “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day!” It’s a modern day miracle.

[13] Accompanied by cellphone fireflies from the crowd.

[14] Though I was fairly surprised he didn’t play the stadium-breaker, “Twist and Shout.” He’s probably saving it for night 3, but it really should be a staple at EVERY concert in Gothenburg.

[15] I’m still not sure where she was heading.

[16] He also planted an incredibly gigantic and passionate kiss on Bruce’s forehead at the end of the song.

[17] So soon! I did attend a show in Rome, but I’ve heard it’s just not the same.

[18] I mean, they didn’t even sing the chorus of “Hungry Heart” that loudly…

 

 

SETLIST

  1. Mary’s Place
  2. Out in the Street
  3. My Love Will Not Let You Down
  4. No Surrender
  5. Something in the Night
  6. Candy’s Room
  7. She’s the One
  8. Sherry Darling
  9. You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
  10. Two Hearts
  11. Independence Day
  12. Hungry Heart
  13. Jole Blon
  14. The Price You Pay
  15. The River
  16. Racing in the Street
  17. Lucky Town
  18. The Promised Land
  19. I’m a Rocker
  20. Working on the Highway
  21. Darlington County
  22. I’m on Fire
  23. Tougher Than the Rest
  24. Because the Night
  25. The Rising
  26. Badlands
  27. Jungeland
  28. Born in the U.S.A.
  29. Born to Run
  30. Ramrod
  31. Dancing in the Dark
  32. Tenth Avenue Freeze-out
  33. Shout
  34. This Hard Land
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