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Bruce Springsteen: David Bowie tribute highlights River Tour opener

Plus eight other memorable moments from Saturday’s Pittsburgh show

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AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band reunited Saturday night at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center for the first stop of their 24-show River Tour. Fresh off December’s release of The Ties That Bind: The River Collection — a massive rarities set chronicling Springsteen’s storied 1980 River sessions — Springsteen has committed to playing The River top to bottom every night of the tour. If the Pittsburgh gig is any indication, Springsteen diehards and neophytes alike should get excited: Along with the River tunes, the E Street Band busted out some of its most enduring songs — and a fitting tribute to the late, great David Bowie (watch below). Read on for some of the highlights from Springsteen’s first night back on the road.

Kicking the set off with a Ties That Bind outtake

When Springsteen announced The River Tour in December, he called into SiriusXM’s E Street Radio to talk about the upcoming gigs — and to assuage the doubtful diehards who were concerned that a Bruce show with 20 of its songs pre-scripted would lack some of the Boss’ signature magic. “We plan on picking out some of the best of our outtakes for the end of the show, and there will obviously be some fan favorites,” Springsteen said. “I don’t know myself how it will play out. It should be interesting and a lot of fun for the fans.” Rather than opening with a hit or diving straight into The River, the E Street Band kicked off Saturday night’s show with the one Ties That Bind cut they’d play all night: the romping “Meet Me in the City,” first played on Saturday Night Live last month. Even with the house lights still on and the group still finding its groove, the rendition kicked butt and surely made some wonder why it took Springsteen more than three decades to unearth it from his vault.

Springsteen’s uninhibited crowd surfing during “Hungry Heart”

“Keith Richards works at seeming not to give a s–t,” New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote in a 2012 profile of The Boss. “Springsteen is the opposite. He is all about flagrant exertion.” Seven songs into Saturday night’s set, the rocker was already drenched in sweat and scampering around the Consol Energy Center, and during “Hungry Heart” — his first Top 10 hit on the Hot 100 — he upped the ante even higher. After performing a portion of the song on a riser erected a few dozen feet from the stage, Springsteen looked down at the cheering crowd sheepishly before trust-falling onto their outstretched arms and surfing back to the band. The unanticipated complication? The audience delivered him headfirst, forcing a grinning Springsteen to make emphatic rotating motions with his hands until saxophonist Jake Clemons leaned in to help him out.

The unexpected continuity between “The River” and “Point Blank”

The River‘s live context Saturday night created multiple awkward moments. The E Street Band’s adherence to the album’s sequencing made for uneven pacing, and some of the lyrics Springsteen penned as an unmarried 30-year-old sounded bizarre coming out of his 66-year-old mouth. But the back-to-back pairing of melancholy cuts “The River” and “Point Blank” — usually separated by switching between The River’s two halves — served as the night’s most poignant gut punch. Shimmering pianos and slinky guitars defined both songs, along with Springsteen’s plaintive lyrics about economic hardship and romantic loss.

Jake Clemons’ saxophone solo on “Drive All Night”

The evening’s format relegated sax-heavy E Street Band set pieces like “Thunder Road” to the end of the show, so Jake Clemons — the nephew of the band’s late “Big Man” Clarence Clemons — had to prove his chops in more subtle ways. After 18 songs spent providing colorful flourishes, Clemons took center stage for “Drive All Night” and belted out a virtuosic solo that led the lighting crew to redirect the spotlight that had been trained on Springsteen from the start. Underscored by rumbling swells from drummer Max Weinberg, the moment was less rock concert than ritualistic incantation.

Introducing the non-River portion of the show with “Badlands”

The River concludes with the masterful “Wreck on the Highway,” but on Saturday evening the song signified something much different: Springsteen would imminently dip into songs from the rest of his catalog. “Thanks a lot, that’s The River,” the rocker remarked before quickly launching into a raucous rendition of Darkness on the Edge of Town opener “Badlands.” The beloved song was just what the doctor ordered for the tiring crowd, which instantaneously perked up as the staple’s recognizable riff blared from the speakers.

Getting booed for mentioning the New York Giants during “Wrecking Ball”

Before Springsteen took the Consol Energy Center stage, many in the crowd seemed more preoccupied with the Pittsburgh Steelers playoff game slated for Sunday evening — and the Boss may have made some enemies by choosing to perform his 2012 track “Wrecking Ball,” which invokes his regional NFL team, the New York Giants. After he delivered the problematic lyric, the endearing cries of “Bruuuuuuuce” turned into honest boos, prompting Springsteen to exclaim “…Steelers?!”

Nils Lofgren’s guitar frenzy on “Because the Night”

As mighty as an ensemble as they are, the members of the E Street Band largely shied away from individual showmanship Saturday night. That general reticence bolstered moments like guitarist Nils Lofgren’s insane solo on “Because the Night,” the tune Springsteen penned with Patti Smith for her 1978 album Easter. The dexterous guitarist playfully wailed on his axe for minutes, eventually building to a climax where he pirouetted without missing a beat. It’s tough to upstage the Boss, especially when he’s duetting with his wife, Patti Scialfa, but Lofgren accomplished just that.

Honoring David Bowie with a cover of “Rebel Rebel”

Springsteen began his encore with a heartfelt tribute to David Bowie, who died on Jan. 10. “He supported our music in the early, early days,” Springsteen told the crowd, recounting meeting Bowie in Philadelphia as he worked on Young Americans in 1974. “I took the Greyhound bus there,” Springsteen added. “That’s how long ago it was!” With that the E Street Band launched into a spirited cover of Bowie’s anthem “Rebel Rebel.”

Dancing with an engaged woman during “Dancing in the Dark”

Even at 66, Springsteen remains a heartthrob. During “Dancing in the Dark” he spotted a woman holding a sign — “Be my last dance before I get married” — and invited her onstage to grant her wish. The moment was a poetic one: After the show, the woman explained that her fiancé had proposed to her to the tune of Springsteen’s Born to Run cut “She’s the One.”

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

Badlands

Wrecking Ball

Backstreets

Because the Night

Brilliant Disguise

The Rising

Thunder Road

Rebel Rebel (David Bowie cover)

Bobby Jean

Dancing in the Dark

Born to Run

Rosalita

Shout (Isley Brothers cover)