When Winter Storm Jonas rolled through the Northeast last weekend, wreaking havoc, one of the by-products was the cancellation of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s concert at Madison Square Garden Sunday, January 24th. As a free gift to make up for the cancellation Bruce released his previous show ‘Chicago January 19th’ as a free MP3 download for a two day period. Naturally I jumped on that gift, and let me say, Thank you Bruce. I’ve already written about Springsteen’s archival downloads in another blog post, but I’m not sure if I mentioned he’s now releasing every show as a live download through his website like Pearl Jam has been doing for 15 years or so. I downloaded his Capetown, South Africa show from his last tour. He finally found a way to beat the bootleggers. Springsteen and the E Street Band are out on the road to support last year’s box set ‘The Ties That Bind’ which celebrates the anniversary of Bruce’s epic double album, ‘The River’. I would be writing about ‘The Ties That Bind’ but there was a mix up at Christmas and despite the box set being at the top of my Christmas list, here I sit in January with no present. Apparently it’s “on it’s way”. Sigh, Christmas…
As part of this tour Bruce is performing ‘The River’ in it’s entirety, from start to finish. Ah, the album playback-centric concert. It can be dicey. Playing an album as it was released can often produce mixed results. I saw Motley Crue do ‘Dr Feelgood’ a few years back and left disappointed. I saw the Cult do ‘Love’ and ‘Electric’ and those shows were amazing. Of course the Cult is a hard rock band (and could really be defined across genre’s) so there is a cohesion on those records that lend themselves to a concert treatment. Of course, for the ‘Electric’ show I was drinking vodka with the Rock Chick and my buddy Stormin’ in Denver and I actually got a VIP package and met the band so that may have influenced my feelings about that show.
‘The River’ was my first Springsteen album purchase. I grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City, in Kansas so Springsteen was a bit foreign to me. He didn’t get a ton of airplay out here. I had only recently switched my radio from Royals’ games to KY/102 the lone rock station in town. I’d heard some Bruce but wasn’t that familiar with him. “Hungry Heart” was literally the first “hit” he had out here. I can still remember standing in the record store, the smell of incense in the background clutching the double vinyl album wondering if it was worth the investment. A double album in those days could be close to $15 which was a fortune on a lawn mower/bus boy wage. In those days, if I liked the first single on an album I’d wait until I heard a second then a third song. If I liked all three it was deemed “purchase-worthy”. What can I say, cash was in short supply when you spent half of it on beer and gas. I can say, all these years later, thankfully I made the buy.
I remember the jolt I got when the needle found the groove and “The Ties That Bind,” the opening track, jumped out of the speakers. It was like a jolt of amphetamine. I realized I’d made a very sound investment. Springsteen had been kept out of the studio for 4 years after ‘Born to Run’ and then had been very selective on what he put out on ‘Darkness On the Edge of Town’ so he had a back log of great songs that he’d been playing live (and being bootlegged) for some time. He had originally submitted a single album but wisely pulled it back in favor of this sprawling, masterpiece. Over the course of 20 songs the Bruce and the E Streeters do everything – rockers, rockabilly, ballads, politics, love, breakups, a wreck on the highway, literally everything. Every double album that comes along gets compared to ‘The White Album’ but this one may actually earn that description. The title track to ‘The River’ is one of Springsteen’s finest achievements as a songwriter: he captures the political ramifications of an economic downturn in the most personal way, and it’s much more effective for it.
It appears on this tour Bruce is opening with a song from ‘The Ties That Bind’ box, “Meet Me In the City Tonight”. How did this song not see proper release long ago? I can only hope that some day I’ll actually get my Xmas gift and hear the studio version (Damn you Santa). “Meet Me In the City” is an awesome opener. It just shows the depth and quality of the material Bruce was writing at that time. From there the E Street Band takes you through ‘The River’ in it’s entirety. It’s an amazing start to this concert (and I do mean “start” the show is 3 1/2 hours long). ‘The River’, with the way the album was paced, is a great album to play in concert. It’s music and moods are varied enough to withstand a concert treatment. Bruce tells a nice story before “Independence Day” which was a song I listened to constantly in my “angry-at-my-father” stage of life (does everybody go through that?). “Drive All Night” may be my favorite Springsteen love song. “Baby, I’d drive all night, just to buy you some shoes” is the line that always gets me and the way my wife buys shoes ended up being somewhat prophetic for me.
After they complete ‘The River’ album playback, it’s party time. I’ve looked at the set lists from other shows and they vary wildly. On the ‘Chicago’ show he plays several songs from ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Born In the USA’ (including “Cover Me”, “Dancing in the Dark” and “No Surrender” where Bruce blows the intro twice). He also plays “Human Touch” a song I’ve never heard live and was surprised to hear. Bruce even does a nice acoustic/violin version of “Take It Easy” as a tribute to Glenn Frey which is understated and powerful (although I would have loved one of Bruce’s patented pre-song stories about, say, Warren Zevon and Frey and he hanging out, but those records are probably sealed). After a towering run through “Rosalita” the party comes to an end with the old R&B tune, “Shout”. I’ve heard Springsteen, Billy Joel, and Tom Petty all do this song, and frankly no one will ever top Otis Day and at the Knights from the movie “Animal House” but the E Street Band do a great version.
The vocals on this live show are right up front. The Capetown show I purchased, the vocals were down in the mix, which was disappointing. Not so on this album, the sound is terrific. Since Clarence Clemons passed away Bruce has augmented the band with an entire horn section. For ‘The River’ Tour he’s paired it down to only Jake Clemons, The Big Man’s nephew. I must say, I was impressed with Jake’s playing. No one will ever play with the distinct power of Clarence, but his nephew does him proud. I like this stripped down version of the horn section. I am also very happy to see Bruce’s wife Patti back on rhythm guitar and vocals, she’s been missing the last couple of tours. Little Steven, who co-produced ‘The River’ is up front and appears to have replaced Clarence as Bruce’s main on-stage foil. I think we all love Little Steve, so this is good news. The sound of this recording is really great.
I don’t think ‘Chicago January 19th’ is still being offered for free, but it’s certainly worth the purchase price. My advice is to look at the set lists for his different shows, pay particular attention to the songs after song 21 where ‘The River’ concludes and pick the set of tunes you like. This is an epic tour and it appears Bruce is working on yet another “solo” project so it may be a while before you hear the whole band perform together again. Fans of “Live Music” recordings, look no further.
Enjoy and as always, Cheers!