Coventry's appalling traffic meant that, although the start of the show had been delayed 20 minutes, we missed the first song, For You, performed solo. Eccentric choice, really, an album track from his debut way back in 1973, but then that's what you get with Bruce - shows tend to wander whichever way the fancy takes him, with the help of a few requests from the audience. He doesn't avoid crowd-pleasers for the sake of it, it's just that, for a superstar, he's had few actual hits, so there’s less commercial indication of what those crowd-pleasers might be. When I saw him in Sheffield all those years ago, I don’t remember being too disappointed that he left out Thunder Road and Rosalita, and slowed Born To Run down to an acoustic ramble, because there was always something else you didn’t expect just around the corner.
This jaunt had been billed, in the States, as The River Tour, with the entirety of that 1980 double album being performed. I can't say it's a favourite of mine, but here things were scaled back. It, along with Darkness On The Edge Of Town and Born In The USA, were well represented, but he left enough room to pull plenty of surprises.
One of the things I love is that he's so good at investing new meaning and spirit into songs that, on record, you're really not that bothered about. So, Sherry Darling became the perfect party singalong on a balmy night, and Crush On You, the slightest song on the original album, was a thoroughly raucous, garage-band stomp. No Surrender, all shiny 80s production on record, rose above its sometimes corny lyrics (the last verse is great, though) to become genuinely moving, and Drive All Night sounded better than it ever has before. Hungry Heart and Two Hearts were in there too, of course, with Steve Van Zandt joining Bruce on vocals for the latter, as ever – hard not to picture him with Silvio Dante’s alarming bouffant hair, if you’re a Sopranos fan like me, but he remains a great sideman, as does Nils Lofrgen.
It wasn’t all good-time rock n’ roll, either – Murder Incorporated, Death To My Hometown and Youngstown (from the underrated Ghost of Tom Joad album), crackled with as much anger as energy, and The River itself, perhaps his best song of broken and misplaced dreams, was delivered with a heartbreaking intensity.
That carried over into the second half of the evening. The Promised Land, Badlands and Born In The USA (not played that often these days) were positively spat out, and there was a searing version of Because The Night, with Lofgren’s guitar work outstanding.
The lengthy between-song chats seem to be a thing of the past, although there was as much bonhomie and good-natured showmanship as ever, and there were fewer cover versions, too, just the Isley Brothers’ Shout, mid-50s rockabilly number Seven Nights To Rock, and Creedence’s Travelin’ Band (a fixture on the original River tour, I seem to remember from my old Teardrops On The City bootleg).
He saved his anthem, Born To Run, and his best pop song, Dancing In The Dark, for the encores, plus Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, as a tribute to the late Clarence Clemons. Jake Clemons, given the near-impossible task of replacing the Big Man on saxophone, managed to do just that throughout the evening.
That, all three hours and more of it, would have been enough on its own, for all that some personal favourites were missing – I can’t think of anyone else who I’d put up with the vagaries of stadium acoustics and visuals for. But then he was back, centre stage, on his own, with guitar and harmonica and the song that, for me, remains his finest moment. Thunder Road was delivered with the same fragility and uncertainty that marks the version on the live box set, and I don't mind admitting choking back a few tears. Next time he's over here, I'll be there.