There are so many triumphant moments built into Bruce Springsteen’s performance of “The River” that Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden felt like a thrilling victory lap 36 years in the making.
There’s his bodysurfing during “Hungry Heart,” as the crowd passes him over their heads back to the stage. There’s the bit during the lovely “Sherry Darling” where he has one arm around his wife, Patti Scialfa, and another around his right- hand man, guitarist Steven Van Zandt — all singing gorgeous harmonies while smiling ear to ear.
And, of course, there’s the roar from the audience that greets him after he declares, “That’s ‘The River,’ following the two-hour journey.
“I wanted to make a big record that felt like life,” Springsteen said, following a rousing intro of “Meet Me in the City.” He said “The River” was his first album where he tried to move from an outsider into the inside of pop culture.
Well, it worked.
Before this tour, Springsteen and the E Street Band had only played all of “The River” once, at The Garden in 2009 during a run of album-themed concerts.
Doing it now — all 20 songs — is a testament to how well it was made in 1980 and how well it has held up over the years.
It’s also a testament to how great the E Street Band was then and how great it is now. Van Zandt was thrilling throughout the night, offering call-and-response vocals or well-worn harmonies, while also offering metaphorical support. When Van Zandt pounds on Springsteen’s chest with his free hand during “Two Hearts,” it’s like best-man backup for the love song, but also confirmation that “two hearts are better than one.”
That was proven even when Springsteen blew the opening of “I Wanna Marry You” twice, forgetting that he and Van Zandt had worked out a gorgeous extended opening. “Sometimes the tightest band in the world,” said Springsteen, later adding, “Didn’t want to leave that out.”
Though it may seem a bit meta to build a concert around an album that was meant to mirror the experience of a Springsteen concert, it certainly makes for a sturdy combination.
The push and pull between party anthems like the Stones-drenched “Crush on You” and wrenching ballads like “Stolen Car” and “Independence Day” has only grown stronger over the years.
It was as if the crowd was transported back to 1980, when Springsteen was fierier and more straightforward in his writing and delivery. The crowd sang the opening verse of “Hungry Heart” effortlessly without prompting, a reminder of how potent Springsteen’s first Top 5 single still is. That nostalgic feeling was amplified by Jake Clemons’ saxophone solo, which replaced the organ solo of the original.
The only nod to the present during the first half of the show was his reference to the blizzard that led to his Sunday concert being postponed to March 28. (Tickets for shows at Barclays Center on April 23 and 25 go on sale at 11 a.m. Friday.)
In the final part of the three-hour show, Springsteen showed how his writing had grown deeper and more layered since “The River,” especially on the stirring “Wrecking Ball,” which he sped up and extended, leading the crowd in a lengthy loop of “Hard times come and hard times go.” That was followed by another recent anthem of shaking off setbacks, “The Rising.”
Springsteen then shifted in party mode, rolling from “Thunder Road” to “Born to Run” to “Dancing in the Dark.” By then the house lights were up and the crowd at the sold-out Garden could see everyone else was as giddy as they were, shouting along and pumping their fists with teenage abandon.
Springsteen didn’t stop there, bringing out his good-time anthem “Rosalita” and pairing it with a raucous version of The Isley Brothers’ “Shout” that brought the house down.
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 / She’s the One / Candy’s Room / Because the Night / Brilliant Disguise / Wrecking Ball / The Rising / Thunder Road / Born to Run / Dancing in the Dark / Rosalita / Shout