Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band – Chicago 2016/01/19

bs160119_01Because the snowstorm called Jonah caused the cancellation of a gig in New York City, the Springsteen organisation made available a free download – for two days only – of a Chicago gig of a few days before. It was the 19th January 2016, just the second date of the 2016 River Tour. You can still buy the gig for $9.95, but it’s no longer a freebie.

Being unaffected in any way by the cancellation or the snow, I availed myself of the free download.

I have mixed feelings about tours where an artist plays through a whole album. When I go to a gig I want to hear the favourites from all eras. Usually I wouldn’t play a record all the way through at home. I’m an inveterate track skipper. The whole of The River? Really? All of it? But then you realise that there isn’t a single bad track on The River and that songs like ‘Wreck on the Highway’ or ‘Drive All Night’ aren’t performed live that often – and deserve to be.

Bruce Springsteen is 67 years old this year.

By coincidence, this night in the Chicago was the night Bruce played an encore that included ‘Take it Easy’ in tribute to Glen Frey, who had just died – at the age of 67. One of the things I’ve been wondering is whether the Springsteen of pensionable age would still be able to do justice to the songs of the 30-year-old Bruce who was angry enough on his 30th birthday to throw a cake into the audience. It’s true that his voice isn’t the supple and subtle instrument it was when he was recording in the 70s and 80s, but he’s doing a lot better than Sinatra was at the same age, and better than Macca, and certainly better than Dylan.

Personnel on this tour seems to be somewhat stripped back. I guess the point is, they’re trying to play The River, not reinvent and re-arrange it. No extended horn section, no row of backing vocalists. We’re back with Steve, Nils, Patti to supply the ragged BVs and just Jake Clemons to supply the sax-ulacrum of the Big Man.

The gig opens with ‘Meet Me in the City’ – a perfectly fine, stomping song that was rejected in 1980 and didn’t make it onto The River. The band then play through the actual album – yes, all of it, even ‘Crush on You’ – in sequence. The concert finishes with a whistle-stop  song selection (‘Night’, ‘No Surrender’, ‘Cover Me’, ‘She’s The One’, ‘Human Touch’, ‘The Rising’, ‘Thunder Road’), followed by an encore of ‘Take it Easy’, ‘Born to Run’, ‘Dancing in the Dark’, ‘Rosalita’ and ‘Shout’. Nothing from Darkness on the Edge of Town, nothing more recent than ‘The Rising’.

So if you were to go to one of these gigs, I guess the non-River part is going to be a kind of pot-luck, but you’re going to be short changed if you don’t want to hear all those River tracks.

The first disk of the double tends to get all the headlines: ‘Ties That Bind’, ‘Hungry Heart’, ‘Independence Day’, title track, and so on. But when you listen to the album you always remember that the real emotional climax of the cycle is ‘Drive All Night’, which on record is a tour-de-force vocal to match ‘Jungleland’. Can the older Springsteen pull it off? At first he sounds tentative, not reaching for the hard stuff. But then, he starts to warm to it, and it builds to a satisfying and sensitive finish. The lack of finesse on the BVs this time around really helps show how plugged in to classic 60s pop The River was. You can hear the Crystals and the Ronettes in all those ‘Don’t cry nows’.

Jake Clemons manages to play the solo just like Clarence did. It must be hard to subsume your own style to ape another’s. His is a thankless task: the audience applaud his ability to reproduce what his uncle did so many times, and he must know that the applause wouldn’t be quite so enthusiastic if he did his own thing.

So we want to see this. Portugal in May, Italy in July. Does that mean London in June?

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The Ties That Bind – The River Collection

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I’ve written quite recently about The River, and it has been at the forefront of my mind lately, mainly because my younger daughter has grown to love Springsteen, and we have conversations about which is my favourite album. And it comes back to this, the Springsteen album that I got for my 18th birthday, and which was still new and fresh to me throughout the year that followed: the year I left school, left home, experienced life on the dole, the economic realities of the Early Thatcher period.

One of my enduring regrets is that in the summer of 1981, when both Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen played in London, and I was offered the chance to see one of them, I chose Dylan. At the time, I loved Dylan more, had loved him for longer, and when there was just enough money for one gig, it was him I chose. That was during his evangelical period, but the news was that he’d lightened up on the concert front and started playing some of the old hits again. I didn’t know then what I know now, which is that a Bob Dylan concert will always be an event, but that he will never play the songs you love in the way you love them to be played. Wanting to see Dylan live was a hangover from my school days; a friend of mine had gone with her big brother to see him on the 1978 tour, maybe the Blackbushe Aerodrome concert, and I remember feeling envious. So 1981 was a way of getting over that, I suppose.

But it could have been Springsteen, that June in London, it could have been Bruce. The Dylan concert wasn’t terrible, but it was indifferent at best, and the next time Springsteen came to London, when I finally got to go, in 1985, it was a stadium gig. It was a different kind of show. I know the lore. From The Bottom Line club days, through to the arena concerts, that was a different vibe. By the time he was playing the big stadia, that was a different kind of show altogether. The sweet spots were the ’78 and ’81 tours: he had so much good material by then, but was also still playing a venue small enough for there still to be a connection with the audience. Back then he catered for the larger audience by playing multiple nights in the same venue. Hard on the band, sure, but such a band.

The 1975 E Streeters were funky and I want to say loose but they weren’t loose in the sense of out of time. They were tight in that sense, but had that soulful swing that went with the flared trousers and the long hair, beards, and floppy hats. You can see them at their best in the Hammersmith Odeon show. Back then, Roy Bittan, Max Weinberg, and Steve Van Zandt were all fairly new to the band, which was really much more of a backing group for Bruce the frontman. By 1978, supporting the hyper-real Darkness on the Edge of Town, they were hard driving, disciplined, road-hardened rockers. The shows were brilliant, and they were really focused on Bruce and Clarence, the mutual adoration and interplay between those two. By the time of The River tour, this version of the E Street Band had so many miles behind it they could do anything. And the shows were different again: there was Bruce the frontman with impressive sideburns and a quiff, along with his sidekick Clarence, but also, moments when Garry Talent and Steve Van Zandt would bounce down the stage in unison. The entertainment was growing larger to cope with bigger venues, and the breadth and depth of the material was astounding.

The River, as I wrote before, is Springsteen’s best work. This new boxed set attempts to place it in a context: the third in a trilogy, yes, but also an attempt to capture something of the live shows because of that oft-repeated criticism that Springsteen on record was nothing like as good as Springsteen live. Which is saying something, when you consider how brilliant both Born to Run and Darkness are. This was an attempt to capture on disc the sound of the band, with basic tracks recorded ensemble, allowing the sounds of the instruments to mesh together with overspill. The history of music is often a history of the battle between musicians who know how music sounds live, and sound engineers, who want to control everything.

The boxed set does a good job. First of all, you get the aborted single album version of The River, which is packed full of decent songs but ultimately feels thin and insubstantial. Springsteen wanted to include some light and shade, but it just didn’t work at single album length. So he did what he seems to always end up doing: he took it back and went to work again.

Amazingly, there are several songs on the 10-track single album version (“Be True” being the most notable) that didn’t make it onto the 20-track double. You can’t help observing that Springsteen throws away more good songs than most other artists have good songs. Listening to the 22 songs on the Outtakes disc, I was struck by the thought that this album of rejects was obviously better than The Clash’s London Calling, which always seems to make critics’ lists of “best albums”, probably because they wouldn’t want to be accused of ignoring that whole punk/new wave era.

In the accompanying documentary, Bruce laughs ruefully at the notion that he left “Roulette” off The River and instead included the insubstantial “Crush on You”. But he was right, I think, because “Crush on You”, “Ramrod”, “Cadillac Ranch” and others manage to capture the irreverent life-affirming joy of the live shows. The River is an album that captures the struggle and despair of working people’s lives and at the same time includes the escapist, wondrous music that saves those same lives. How is it possible to feel so good and so bad at the same time? Everybody’s got a hungry heart.

So my big issue here is with the documentary. While it’s great to hear Bruce talk about this stuff, and his process, and his struggles with sequencing, balance, and tone, I would also like to hear from some of the other people involved. Springsteen mentions how he kind of deliberately set his perfectionist manager Jon Landau against the Wall-of-Sound advocate Steve Van Zandt, creating a conflict that he could resolve as the one in the middle. When he said that it made me think of the “Classic Albums” documentary about Damn the Torpedoes, and the clash between Jimmy Iovine and Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch. I would like to hear from Miami Steve, the other musicians, from the engineers, from Landau. After all, what happened next speaks volumes.

First of all, Bruce abandoned the band, and the recording studio, altogether in favour of a TEAC home 4-track and the stripped down Nebraska. And then, during the recording of Born in the USA, Van Zandt left the band, to be replaced on the subsequent tour by Nils Lofgren. After that album, it was a long time before Bruce attempted to record with the E Street Band again. So I think there’s a story there about how hard he is to work with, and how frustrating he has always found the recording process.

But there it is. Maybe one day, we’ll learn something more. For now, this is the fourth version of The River I’ve bought/owned. I really wanted this for the live show on the DVD, but the rest of the package is good, too. The photo book is hefty, and there’s also a facsimile of a note book with scribbled and typed lyrics, mostly of songs that didn’t make the cut.

So who is this for? Fifty quid bloke? Fifty-something bloke? Yeah, probably. That’s me. I can’t see this as an entry point for someone, and I’d struggle, actually, to come up with a way in for the genuine newcomer. Anything you might offer as a playlist would be horribly patronising and off the mark. Probably watching some YouTube clips would be the best bet, these days. But how do you make the leap from watching a 5-10 minute clip to sitting through all the albums or a whole show? How did my own 15 year old daughter get into Bruce? He was just there, in the house, in the same way that Frank Sinatra and The Beatles were for me. For the record, she says it was the song “Wrecking Ball,” which she discovered on the iPad and played over and over, and then went from there.

People these days will fall over themselves to get tickets for the live shows, but how many of them are really there for their first experience? What is music, anyway, in 2016? I just… I just… I just don’t know.

The River and Southeastern

I entirely blame the crapness of the iTunes curators for this, but Jason Isbell and his album Southeastern completely passed me by until recently, when I read about him in an article by one of my two trusted sources for Country music news and information. The first of these is Grady Smith, who has been writing about Country for the Guardian for a while. I think he started around October last year, but it took a while for me to notice, because as far as the Graun is concerned, this is something for their US edition and doesn’t get the prominence on the UK home pages.

The second source is Chuck Dauphin, whose column The 615 on Billboard.com is a useful source of release information. While both sources are male, both are critical of the Country music industry’s current sexism and obsession with (subtextually racist) songs about trucks and beer. Their tastes don’t exactly match with mine, but they at least offer a path to check things out.

The problem with Jason Isbell is that iTunes doesn’t even categorise him under Country but (depending on the album) under Blues or Singer/Songwriter, the latter of which is possibly the least useful genre category that music can offer.

Southeastern came out in 2013 and is under Blues, which is just ridiculous. I mean, yes, all pop music has its roots in the blues, but watch the video above of an excellent performance of the wonderful song ‘Stockholm’ on the Letterman show and tell me you’d file this one under Blues. I love it when a good album has a truly excellent track like that, because it means there is absolutely no work involved in deciding whether I like something or not. So, thanks to whichever of my two sources it was, Grady or Chuck, I downloaded Southeastern and have now pre-ordered the forthcoming Something More Than Free.

I really like his sound – guitars and keys with a bit of violin, it’s quintessentially Country. He has a smooth voice with some break in it and writes great melodies. ‘Stockholm’ is my new jam.

Meanwhile, back in 1980, Bruce Springsteen released an album called The River. There are a few things I remember around the release of this record. The first is that Julie Burchill wrote a scathing review of it in the NME, which was never a publication known for identifying a stone classic on initial release. Turns out, Burchill’s sneering at Springsteen’s use in his lyrics of simple girls’ names ending in -ie or -y (why, like Julie, Julie?) and what she saw as his over-use of cars and highways, was kind of missing the point. The second thing I remember is that the double album was priced as a single and came in a single, non-gatefold sleeve. I was slightly disappointed at the use of tiny black and white photographs (for example of the art installation Cadillac Ranch, immortalised in the song), but can’t knock him for trying to look after his fans’ pockets.

And the final thing I remember is that I got The River for my 18th birthday and left home (just like in the song ‘Independence Day’) about three weeks later.

So what of The River? Did it deserve the Burchill sneers, or does it stack up as the pinnacle of a great musician-songwriter’s career, Springsteen’s equivalent of Blood on the Tracks? Well, of course I’m biased, but there are a number of reasons I think this is his best work. Born in the USA, while it was a huge seller and transformed his career, is spoiled for me through the use of nasty synths and that wardrobe-falling-downstairs-in-a-cathedral 80s drum sound which is just horrible. Following that, Tunnel of Love was less bombastic but equally compromised by 80s production trends, while the Human Touch/Lucky Town release dumps the E Street Band and have the air of a mid-life crisis. They meant a lot to me at the time, but I don’t think they hold up today.

Of course, and to continue to draw the parallel with Dylan, Born to Run is his Highway 61 Revisited, and I’m not for one moment suggesting that it and Darkness on the Edge of Town aren’t essential. But The River has a scale and a breadth and a maturity in terms of songwriting that make it stand out for me.

To address the car thing: yes, it’s not a mistake that so many of the songs feature cars. It’s an album which rests on the automobile as a metaphor for freedom, prosperity and social mobility, Springsteen’s version of the green light in The Great Gatsby. Cars are for driving – but in this case it might be driving your girlfriend’s mum down to the unemployment agency. Or it might be driving endless highways in fear of ending up buried in the ground at the Cadillac Ranch, a symbol of the dead American dream. Or it might mean driving all night because it’s the only job you can find; or driving a stolen car both fearing and hoping you’ll get caught. It’s about the way you keep doing the thing you used to do because it’s all you know how to do, because you don’t know how to change and are trapped in your life.

I repurchased The River for the third time (!) the other day and I’ve been listening to it as an album for the first time in over 20 years. Whereas my restless younger self would keep skipping tracks and playing favourites over and over, as was my habit, I’ve been listening all the way through, from start to finish. And it’s great. Not a single dud track, which is incredible, given its length. It helps that my younger daughter is really into Springsteen right now, and it’s so great to be seeing this stuff through her fresh perspective. You cease to doubt something’s status as a classic when it speaks so powerfully to a different generation, 35 years on. Thirty-five years, and it sounds fresh and bright and full of raw emotion – and a river runs through it.

In many ways a pessimistic album, it was released at the beginning of the Reagan/Thatcher era, and the start of the decline of our civil society into the cauldron of nasty selfishness that has replaced human decency and empathy as far as political discourse is concerned. But to listen to The River is to remember that humanist values are still the best that we have, and that our ability to empathise with other people is what makes us good.

An ambulance finally came and took him to Riverside
I watched as they drove him away
And I thought of a girlfriend or a young wife
And a state trooper knocking in the middle of the night
To say your baby died in a wreck on the highway

Sometimes I sit up in the darkness
And I watch my baby as she sleeps
Then I climb in bed and I hold her tight
I just lay there awake in the middle of the night
Thinking ’bout the wreck on the highway