I must pause in the writing to acknowledge the passing of a legend… RIP Merle Haggard. I saw the Hag with Dylan about 10 years ago and frankly I enjoyed Merle more than Dylan. His voice was craggy velvet on whiskey. Haggard and Johnny Cash are all anybody needs to know about country music. Everything after them isn’t worth the effort to drop the needle onto the vinyl….. On with the review…
I went down to “The River” last night and I knelt to pray and I was cleansed. I haven’t had a chance to write much lately because my corporate overlords have been making life a living Hell. Nothing solves that work-despair like a good, old fashioned, rock and roll show. Especially when that concert involves the legend, the myth, Bruce Springsteen.
In the midwest in 1979-1980 you were hard pressed to find a Bruce Springsteen fan. A few of his tunes would make it to the radio but he wasn’t a wide spread phenomenon like he probably was in say, Philadelphia. I grew up in the provinces people. I like to think of myself as a drunken, much less talented Mark Twain. I remember February of 1980, getting up and scouring the paper for a review of the previous night’s Bruce Springsteen concert in support of his new album, “The River.” The reviewer said, “without a doubt we’ve seen the concert of the year and it’s only February.” I went to school and saw my buddy Brewster and lamented that we hadn’t gone to the show. Brewster and I would always go to shows together. He said, “Uh, Ken, uh, you might not have gone, but I went. I didn’t know you were into Springsteen… it was amazing.” It may have fundamentally altered Brewster and my friendship. Bitter, party of 1, your table is ready. Ironically Brewster was in from The Tall City, Texas last night and at the show and whilst his wife managed to keep us from speaking we were texting each other during the show.
“The River” album conjures so many memories. Unlike most people, “The River” not “Born To Run” was my first Springsteen album. (I bought “Born To Run” after sneaking into a Senior Skip Day party when I was a sophomore and making out with a beautiful girl… I had to stop to ask her what music was playing…”Born To Run” you idiot…”) “The River” was the first double LP I ever purchased, which was a huge commitment of lawn-mowing money back then. It was 12 bucks, much more than the usual 8 you’d plunk down for a single LP. Oh, my God, was it worth it. It’s a sprawling masterpiece. Springsteen said last night that he was attempting to capture the E Street Band’s mammoth live show on a record. I would say he succeeded. What I loved about “The River” was that Bruce let Little Steven (harmony/backing vocals/guitar) and Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons (saxophone) run wild on this album. The album was big but felt intimate. It was like listening to the world’s greatest bar band explode like a nuclear bomb. There was so much more joy on “The River” than “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” that it’s hard to think both albums came from the same group of guys.
The show opened up with a muscular version of the outtake “Meet Me In the City Tonight”, which like “Thunder Road” is a great invitation to an adventure. My buddy SB said, “Hey, which album is this on?” There are so many great Springsteen songs that no one has heard, but I digress. (Everyone needs to buy the box set “The Ties That Bind”, the outtakes are worth it, trust me). Then Bruce gave a nice preamble speech about “The River” and what it meant to him as an artist. As the band launched into “The Ties That Bind” I must admit, and not to be a chick about it, a tear welled up in my eye. Clearly this album meant a lot to me as a listener too. I can still remember, nervously dropping the needle on the vinyl for the first time, wondering if my huge investment in a double album by this “Springsteen guy” was worth it. I was taking a huge risk. When that riff burst out of the speakers it was like what I imagine heroin hitting the brain pan, my temples exploded with joy. I was hooked on Bruce and haven’t given up the habit yet.
The band was leaner last night – no back up vocalists, no full horn section – it was just the basic band, albeit with an extra guitarist, Nils Lofgren and a violinist Suzee Tyrell who weren’t with Bruce on the original “River”tour that Brewster caused me to miss (did I mention I’m still bitter). And, predictably, I have to say that Jake Clemons is a big dude, but he’s no Big Man. His uncle Clarence, whose loss still brings tears to my eyes, was a much more powerful player than Jake. But I will give Jake an A for effort.
As always with me, it was the ballads that were the most arresting moments of the concert. “Independence Day” which comes early in the show, (and closes side 1 of the vinyl LP) was particularly moving. It’s what Bruce described as a conversation between two people at a kitchen table. If you’ve ever had a problem with your father, this is the Springsteen song for you. People talk about “Adam Raised a Cain” as his ultimate “father” song, but “Independence Day” is a heart wrenching, moving song that sums up everybody’s relationship with their dad or at least my relationship. Eddie Vedder used to leave his house with his acoustic guitar and slip down to the park and play that song as a form of escape. I wish I’d been hanging around because Vedder and I seem to like the same music. The version of “Point Blank” with a long piano driven preamble was the highlight of the night. It was the most amazing version of an amazing song that I’ve ever heard. It was gripping and live music at it’s very best. You should buy a ticket to this show just for that song. The version of “Stolen Car” they played last night will haunt me, in a good way, for the rest of my life. “Drive All Night” has always been a personal favorite of mine, and last night’s version did not disappoint me. It’s the greatest love song ever written. I only wish Clarence was here to play that beautiful sax solo, but again Jake did fine, I’m knit picking.
The set after “The River” was explosive and fantastic. He managed to play over half of “Born To Run” including a fabulous version of “She’s The One”. It’s the songs you don’t hear on the radio from that album that make it so special. “Backstreets” was sprawling, rocking and amazing all at once. I had two firsts last night, “Because The Night” and finally after all these years “Rosalita” which I’ve waited a life time to hear. Late in the set they broke into “Tenth Ave Freeze Out” and again, when Bruce sang, “the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band” I felt tears well up in my eyes again. I toasted Clarence with a large, deep tumbler of rye after the show. “Tenth Ave Freeze Out” is a gentle reminder that the E Street Band is more than a band, more than a group of musicians, it’s a brotherhood. And the magic of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band is that on any given night, even out in the provinces of Kansas City, they can make you feel like you’re a part of that brotherhood.
Do yourself a favor. If you live in a city that Bruce is coming to in the next month or so, get a ticket and see his show. Dance in the aisle, sing along and for a beautiful 3 hours, forget you have to go to work the next day. Love life like it’s 1979 again and your buddy Brewster has called with tickets to the big show…..