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Bruce Springsteen revisits ‘The River’ at Madison Square Garden

"When I put this record out, I didn't have a lot of money in the bank," Bruce Springsteen recently said about his pivotal double album "The River," released in 1980. Photo Credit: Joel Bernstein

As Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band tours go, this is a minor one.

It’s only 24 dates, including two shows at Madison Square Garden this week. No new material expected. No new album to promote. No new band members to introduce.

So why are Springsteen fans freaking out about these shows? Well, it’s “The River.”

At the tour’s opening night in Pittsburgh last week, Springsteen asked, “We’re gonna take you to ‘The River’! . . . I wanna know: Are you ready to be transformed?!”

“Are we ever not?” wrote Scott Mervis in his review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “This was even sweeter, because we witnessed a master doing one of his best albums, and one of the finest of all time, with the same conviction he had when he first created it. How could that not be transformative?”

Springsteen plans to play the landmark 1980 double album in its entirety — all 20 songs, weighing in at about 83 minutes — at these shows, a testament to its fully realized ambition, as well as its popularity. Before this tour, he has only played all of “The River” (Columbia) once before, at The Garden in 2009 during a run of album-themed concerts.

Though Springsteen had already made plenty of noise with his “Born to Run” album and the anthems from “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” he still hadn’t had a hit single and all that brings.

“When I put this record out, I didn’t have a lot of money in the bank,” Springsteen recently told Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show.” “It was critical at the time.”

And even faced with those practical concerns, Springsteen also had lofty artistic aspirations.

“I had a sense of what I could do — certainly what I wanted to do, how broad I wanted the story I was telling to be — and if I didn’t get it I just didn’t sleep well at night,” Springsteen says in the documentary “The Ties That Bind,” which accompanied the recent box set reissue of “The River” and all its outtakes. “You have a sense of your reach and you hope that you can get there.”

In the sessions for what would become “The River,” Springsteen had started the narrative writing that has marked his work ever since, embodying different characters in the songs so that he could tell the overall story of life during the late ’70s recession and how working people were struggling. (It’s no wonder that many of these songs resonate with people today, following the 2008 recession.)

“This was his first adult album,” says John D. Luerssen, author of “Bruce Springsteen FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About The Boss.” “It was his life at the time, the lives of his sister and brother-in-law — that was the catalyst.”

Springsteen turned a single album into his record company in late 1979, but famously asked for it back before it could be released. (That version of the album “The Ties That Bind” was also released in “The River” reissue.)

“It just didn’t feel big enough,” Springsteen says. “It just didn’t have the room to let in all of those different colors. … We were still carving out who we were and I needed a record that I felt had a very, very strong identity.”

He and the E Street Band continued recording for several months, working on dozens of songs before handing in what would become “The River.”

The ballads like the title track and “Independence Day” were still stripped-down and intimate. But many of the additions were upbeat and featured a rougher, more natural sound that Springsteen says they created based on the early-1960s work of Wheatley Heights’ Gary U.S. Bonds (“Quarter to Three,” “New Orleans”).

“The records we liked were noisy records,” he says. “We got it off of Gary Bonds, you know, the party noises that were on the great Gary Bonds records. We sort of took it from there. These records should sound like a house party.”

It was a potent combination that Springsteen intended to mirror the experience at one of the band’s legendary live shows.

“He wanted to have a balance,” Luerssen says. “He wanted to balance the painful with the playful and over the years, he always made those lesser-known ‘River’ songs part of the set because they were fun.”

The combination worked, with “The River” becoming his first No. 1 album and its single “Hungry Heart” becoming his first Top 5 hit.

Luerssen says Springsteen’s “Ties That Bind” tour is unusual for many reasons, which is adding to the excitement for the shows. “He’s celebrating his past, which he doesn’t often do,” he says. “Sometimes it seems he’s afraid to get nostalgic. This is a look back.”

In a way that’s what excites Luerssen the most about the tour, which he is looking forward to seeing. “I’m a fan,” he says. “The chance to go back and relive your youth is always one you want to take.”

And he hopes that Springsteen doesn’t stop these special remembrances with this tour.

“We can hope that ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ gets the same treatment when it gets reissued,” Luerssen says. “That would be over-the-top for anyone who’s a Springsteen fan.”

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