Bruce Springsteen celebrates 'The River' and the E Street Band at Royal Farms Arena


The packed crowd at Royal Farms Arena on Wednesday night showered Bruce Springsteen with this elongated chant — emphasis on the "uuuuu" — whenever a break between songs allowed, which was less often than you'd think during a three-and-half-hour celebration of working-class rock 'n' roll. You would have thought he was an all-time great Ravens tight end, given the reception.


It was that kind of night.

They already had it long before the first note, but Springsteen and his E Street Band earned the applause and adulation of the crowd with a set that showcased the band's down-to-earth, bar-band chemistry to a soundtrack whose significance has rightfully grown over time.

That soundtrack, for the majority of the night, was 1980's "The River," Springsteen's fifth studio record and first No. 1 album. (In December, Columbia Records released the expanded "The Ties That Bind: The River Collection.") The album still represents a turning point in Springsteen's career, marking the point where he grew up from writing through a youthful lens, he said, and began seeing life from a wider, more empathetic perspective.

"'The River' was my coming of age record," Springsteen, who last performed in Baltimore in November 2009, said Wednesday. "I wanted to make a record that felt as big as life, that felt like an E Street Band show."

The latter point resonated most. As much as Wednesday night was a retelling of one of Springsteen's most important records, the concert felt even more like a celebration of his musical backbone, the E Street Band.

Like its leader, the eight-piece band appeared to defy aging and slowing down. At one point, guitarist Nils Lofgren spun repeatedly while soloing, stomping his right foot on beat each rotation for emphasis. Saxophonist Jake Clemons, nephew of the late Clarence Clemons (who was honored with a video montage during "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out"), consistently made the crowd light up with his solos and riffs. Steven Van Zandt, often sharing a microphone with Springsteen in their trademark pose, supplied strong backing vocals. And drummer Max Weinberg, arguably the night's best player, kept the impressive rolls and fills coming.

Springsteen and his band, who wrap up the U.S. leg of this tour on Monday, were in fighting shape.

So starting with "Meet Me in the City," one of "The River's" recently unearthed "outtakes," Springsteen and the E Street Band powered through the double album from start to finish. These types of full-album celebrations are often driven by nostalgia, which can lead to lulls in a set (not every album cut works in an arena setting). But "The River" and its wide range of tones and styles made the practice work.

Upbeat, fist-pumping rockers like "Jackson Cage," "Ramrod" and "Cadillac Ranch" went over expectedly well. Early highlight "Hungry Heart" — with its Baltimore-referencing opening line — put the place in full-on party mode, with Springsteen holding the microphone out to let the crowd sing the first verse and chorus on its own.

But some of the best moments were the quietest. "Independence Day" — a detail-oriented slow-burner about a father-son rift — committed to the song's melancholy, which oscillates between inevitability and wistfulness. The delicate "Stolen Car" showcased vocal harmonies between Springsteen and the band.

But it was Springsteen and Co.'s ability to create moments that felt wholly unique — even if and when they weren't — that elevated the performance from great to superb. It wasn't surprising when Springsteen plucked a female fan from the crowd to dance with him a la Courtney Cox during "Dancing in the Dark." But a highlight came right after, when he let a young group of girls join him to twist and sing background vocals to finish the song. They, of course, made sure to snap selfies with Springsteen before leaving the stage.

Before "I Wanna Marry You," Springsteen spotted a sign in the crowd reading, "Engaged on Stage." He instructed the couple to come up and got a microphone for the beaming man, who was soon down on one knee, asking his girlfriend to marry him. She said yes.

"You are now pronounced in the name of rock 'n' roll as husband and wife," Springsteen said before posing for a photo with the couple. "That's just one of the services we provide as the E Street Band."

The show lacked flash. No pyrotechnics and no props — not even a backdrop of a photo from "The River" era — but just some timeless rock music against a black backdrop.


Perhaps with a catalog like this, there's no use for overblown pomp. That was clearest during the 12-song run after "The River's" conclusion. With the constraints of honoring an album lifted, Springsteen and the E Street Band truly let loose, turning the lights up on the entire arena to make the moment feel inclusive. Despite what was left out, there was no arguing with the song selection: "Prove It All Night," "Badlands," "Backstreets," "Born to Run," "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)" and "Thunder Road" all predictably captured the crowd.

Springsteen did not mention his decision to cancel his recent North Carolina date over the passing of a controversial law that dictates what bathrooms transgender people must use. It would have been nice to hear his thoughts, but he kept the banter to a minimum and instead filled the night with anthemic tunes. He did, however, take time to point out the relative small size of Royal Farms Arena.

"This is a nice little building you got here, like an oversized convention hall from Asbury Park," Springsteen said to cheers.

He and the E Street Band played with a gusto that backed up Springsteen's comparison. In Baltimore, they felt at home, and were received like it, too.