Archive for the ‘Bruce Springsteen’ Category

In many respects, the magic and mystery of music has melted away much like a tape left atop a dashboard on a hot summer’s day. And since most folks never bought pricey blocks of Maxell XLII-S and TDK-SA cassettes, or even the cut-rate packs of Realistic wonders, they don’t care. Tapes, and the music therein, hold little value to them. (This is a half-assed metaphor, I know, but bear with me.) To them, mixtapes (and even mixCDs) are a thing of yore that they never bothered with except, occasionally, as unwanted gifts.

Growing up, I believed there were two types of music fans: AM and FM. The AM set enjoyed the hit singles, while the FM variant immersed itself in albums, and that belief held even when, for music, the AM band faded to staticky silence. I’ve come to realize that I was wrong. Simply put, there are those who care deeply for music, be it the latest hits or yesteryear’s album tracks; and there are those who care deeply for background noise.

A college professor of mine, way back in the early ‘80s, observed that many people are afraid of silence – and not just when around others. He said they turned on the TV or radio when they arrived home out of an unconscious fear of being alone with their thoughts. It makes sense. In today’s world, of course the “TV or radio” usually translates to a smart phone or computer, and the noise accompanies them while they surf the modern equivalent of tabloid newspapers (aka social media).

They don’t buy music. They don’t rent it via subscription tiers. Instead, they click-click-click into readymade playlists on ad-supported streaming sites and leave it at that. A simple search within those same sites often gives one the ability to hear specific songs after commercials, too, so music – at the top tier, at any rate – has become commercial bait. (In a way, the illegal-downloading boom spurred by Napster and its clones assured that entire generations would know of no other experience.)

That my Top 5s feast at the same trough I decry is an irony not lost on me. And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Relics of a Bygone Age…

1) Bruce Springsteen – “Thundercrack.” A 1973 performance by Bruce and an early incarnation of the E Street Band from the Ahmanson Theater, Los Angeles.

2) Jackson Browne – “Running on Empty.” A Joel Bernstein photo montage set to the classic song, which – along with its album namesake – was reissued in remastered form on July 5th.

3) Lucy Rose – Live at Decoy Studios. Lucy’s artistry harkens back to a time when fans dropped LPs onto their turntables and studied the lyric sheets. This short set of No Words Left songs features “Conversation,” “Solo(w),” “Song After Song” and “Treat Me Like a Woman.” 

4) Caroline Spence – “Who’s Gonna Make My Mistakes.” The sterling singer-songwriter owes a big debt to ’90s-era Sheryl Crow on this Mint Condition tune. (The video was released on July 9th.)

5) Anna Calvi – Live at Salle Pleyel. The fine folks at ARTE Concert have shared this intoxicating concert, filmed earlier this year in Paris, from the always mesmerizing Ms. Calvi, who seems to have stepped through a time portal from an era when music mattered for art’s sake, not commercial gain. (It helps, of course, that she channels everyone from David Bowie to Maria McKee (circa Life Is Sweet). 

The second of the three Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band reunion-tour shows I attended was no mere concert, but a blow-out bash; and while not the favorite Springsteen concert that I’ve enjoyed, it ranks near the top. Originally slated to take place on September 16th, it was pushed back eight days due to Hurricane Floyd’s unexpected visit to the East Coast. That meant the shindig fell on the day following a major Springsteen milestone: His 50th birthday. 

Unlike the other five nights in Philly, the concert took place at the Spectrum, which seemed positively tiny and quaint in comparison to the barn-like First Union Center. The site holds a special place in Springsteen lore for two reasons: When he and the E Street Band first played it on June 6th, 1973, during a 13-date stint opening for Chicago, they were greeted – for the first and possibly last time – not by shouts of “Bruuuuce!” but actual boos; in response, Bruce is said to have flipped the finger to the over-eager fans, who were no doubt clamoring for “Roxie” instead “Rosalita.” (Oh, wait – wrong Chicago!) Fast forward three years, however, and he and the band played their first and second large arena shows as a headliner at the venue on Oct. 25th and 27th, 1976. (Both nights, as all nights in Philly, sold out.)

My first memory of this show: The traffic and parking, which were insane. The Phillies were at Veterans Stadium, which was situated across the street from the Spectrum, and the Flyers were hosting the New York Rangers at the F.U. Center, which was next door. The Schuylkill Expressway and I-95 were both backed up, and Broad Street was at a standstill. We pulled into and parked in a distant lot that, I’m fairly certain, was in Timbuktu.

Although – as I mentioned in my post on the Sept. 20th F.U. Center concert – my ticket stubs have been lost to time, I recall Diane and I being situated in first or second-level seats, about 5 o’clock to the stage’s midnight. Not the world’s best, obviously, but much better than one show in ’92 when I found myself sitting in one of the Spectrum’s “obstructed” seats (aka behind a cement pylon).

My next memory: Bruce strolling stage center with a boom box, which he held to the microphone. He played a song that a fan – a neighbor of his mother’s, no less – had sent to him for his birthday. After that, he launched into one of my favorite songs by him, “Growin’ Up,” and soon enough we were havin’ a party. As on the 20th and the 25th, highlights included the five-song stretch from “Youngstown to “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” In short, the night was raucous and meaningful at once, exactly what this thing called rock ’n’ roll is supposed to be about. 

Unfortunately, video-capable cell phones were still a ways away, so YouTube is not littered with clips of the concert. But two cool, fan-shot videos, both from behind the stage, are present. The first: the first performance of “The Fever” since the Darkness tour…

The other: the closing number of the night, “Blinded by the Light.”

All in all, for me and mine, it was a great show.

The set:

  1. Growin’ Up
  2. No Surrender
  3. Prove It All Night
  4. Two Hearts
  5. The Promised Land
  6. Spirit in the Night
  7. Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street
  8. Mansion on the Hill
  9. Independence Day
  10. Youngstown
  11. Murder Incorporated
  12. Badlands
  13. Out in the Street
  14. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
  15. Working on a Highway
  16. The Fever
  17. Backstreets
  18. Light of Day
  19. Bobby Jean
  20. Born to Run
  21. Thunder Road
  22. If I Should Fall Behind
  23. Land of Hope and Dreams
  24. Blinded by the Light

In 1999, after a decade apart, Bruce Springsteen reformed the E Street Band. March saw the band engaged in private and public rehearsals at Atlantic City’s famed Convention Hall, where the Beatles played in 1964, with the practice interrupted only by Bruce being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The 15-month tour began in Spain on April 8th, and remained in Europe for the next two-and-a-half months – a smart plan, really, as it guaranteed the band was in peak form by the time they hit the States.

And hit the States they did: On July 15th, Bruce and band kicked off a sold-out 15-night run at the Continental Airlines (aka Meadowlands) Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., followed by five nights in Boston, three in D.C., two in Michigan, and a half dozen in the city that championed him first, Philadelphia. (In total, including Europe and Canada, Bruce and the band played 133 concerts in 62 cities; as the tour wore on, there were more one-and-dones.) Most tickets cost $67.50 (or $103.76 in 2019 dollars) prior to the TicketMaster charges.

That six-night residence in the City of Brotherly Love, I should mention, saw him play five nights at the home of the Flyers and 76ers, the F.U. (aka First Union) Center, and one at the former home of the same sports teams, the hallowed Spectrum, the site of his first arena show in 1976. I had tickets for three (Diane had five) and, in fact, my first night of the fun was slated to occur on the 16th at the Spectrum, but Hurricane Floyd caused the concert to be pushed back to the day after Bruce’s birthday, the 24th. As a result, this night – our 18th wedding anniversary, no less – turned out to be the first that I took in.

Though the ticket stubs have been long lost, memories of each concert remain, including one (the 25th) where Diane I sat exactly opposite the stage in the last row of the second level; and the Spectrum gig (which has gone down in Bruce lore as one of his best – I plan to write about it in the future). This night, however, is the first that springs to mind – and not because of the music, but a little girl.

Diane and I were accompanied by our good friend (and Diane’s longtime Bruce buddy) Luanne and Luanne’s 6-year-old daughter Loren, with the four of us sitting in the first level – section 102 or 103, I believe, somewhere in the 8 o’clock range. Good seats, in other words, but far from great. On that tour, however, Bruce had a member of his crew roaming the hall to offer instant upgrades to the front row; while running into this person was akin to hitting the lottery, it happened, and not just for folks in the nose-bleed sections.

I know that last part for a fact, as it happened to us this very night – almost, that is. 

Let me set the stage: We arrived somewhat early, found our seats, ran to and from the bathrooms and food vendors, and sat back and watched the arena slowly fill while talking about what we hoped for from the night. I wanted “Candy’s Room,” and a set anchored by Darkness on the Edge of Town; Diane, who’d studied the set lists up until that point, thought that unlikely. Somewhere in there, we noticed the crew member navigating through our section toward us. (The backstage pass dangling around his neck was the tell.) Words were quickly exchanged. “I can’t,” he said once he realized Loren was with us. “She’d get crushed.” People rushed the stage, he explained, and little kids could get hurt.

He moved on.   

Still, it was a great show. “Candy’s Room” led into “Adam Raised a Cain,” and three more Darkness songs were sprinkled throughout the set (though not “Promised Land,” the lack of which always disappoints me). As with every night of the tour, though some sections of the set changed, others did not. So, as on all other nights, an electric “Youngstown” – one of my favorite live songs by Springsteen with the E Street Band, as it melds the folk and rock traditions (and also features a mesmerizing solo from Nils Lofgren) – gave way to “Murder Incorporated,” “Badlands,” “Out in the Street” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” Everyone was on their feet, dancing and singing along, fists pumping the air.

Everyone, that is, except for Loren. At some juncture, as only little kids can, she sacked out. Her eyes closed and head drooped, and despite the joyous din she found herself in, she fell fast asleep. (To this day, it’s one of the sweetest things I’ve witnessed.) By the time Bruce and the E Street Band lit up the arena with “Light of Day” and “Ramrod,” wave upon wave of bodies crashed upon the stage as if it was a seawall; she heard and saw it not, but she was safe while her mother, Diane and I were thoroughly enjoying ourselves, our so-so seats notwithstanding.

Anyway, since no video of this night exists on YouTube, here’s “Youngstown” from Live in New York City, which was filmed in April of 2000:

And, from the fifth night (7/26) of the Meadowlands stand, here’s “Light of Day”:

And, last, since it was a highlight for Diane then and now (“I’ve got goosebumps,” she just said), here’s “Back in Your Arms” from the 14th night (8/4) at the Meadowlands:

The set:

  1. Candy’s Room
  2. Adam Raised a Cain
  3. The Ties That Bund
  4. Prove It All Night
  5. Two Hearts
  6. Darlington County
  7. Something in the Night
  8. Mansion on the Hill
  9. Independence Day
  10. Youngstown
  11. Murder Incorporated
  12. Badlands
  13. Out in the Street
  14. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
  15. Working on the Highway
  16. The Ghost of Tom Joad
  17. Back in Your Arms
  18. Backstreets
  19. Light of Day
  20. Ramrod
  21. Bobby Jean
  22. Born to Run
  23. Thunder Road
  24. If I Should Fall Behind
  25. Land of Hope and Dreams

The romanticism of youth doesn’t necessarily give way to regret and self-recrimination as we age, but Bruce Springsteen depicts life’s arc as just that in his CinemaScope-lensed Western Stars, which is essentially a John Ford western set in the modern age. The sonic anthology opens with a drifter on the side of a road, his thumb out in hopes of a flagging down a ride. “Maps don’t do much for me, friend/I follow the weather and the wind,” he sings. “Got what I can carry and my song/I’m a rolling stone just rolling on.”

As “Hitch Hikin’” evolves, the album’s tone is set: Symphonic flourishes accent the songs, the bulk of which simmer with a fraught tension. “The Wayfarer,” the second cut, conjures Dion’s “The Wanderer,” the classic oldie that’s deeper and darker than, at first listen, it seems; and “Tucson Train” continues down the same thematic stretch of tracks; one has no doubt that the narrator waiting for his baby on the five-fifteen will, at some point, be hitting the road alone again. He’s compelled to move on, to escape.

The music often echoes the mainstream pop of the 1960s – everything from the cosmopolitan country sounds of Glen Campbell (think “Wichita Lineman”) to Burt Bacharach’s collaborations with Dionne Warwick, where strings and orchestral flourishes welled and jelled with the emotive melodies. Harry Nilsson’s rendition of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me” is another point of reference, as is “Ballad of Easy Rider” by the Byrds. (For more on the latter, see Ann Powers’ excellent review over at NPR.org.) As I wrote in this piece, I hear it as Springsteen framing adult stories via the adult sounds he heard as a youth and young man.

As the Bacharach mention infers, Western Stars is not a “country” album, per se, though it is western-themed. From the New Jersey turnpike to the “rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert,” open expanses have often played central roles in Bruce’s songs. Early on, the wide berths of land usually equated with freedom; now, not so much. 

In addition to the hitch hiker, characters include an aging actor, a stuntman, a ranch hand, a failed songwriter, and other men damaged by life. They’re invisible to many, and a source of derision to others – but they ache all the same. (In Time magazine, Andrew R. Chow posits that these folks are veterans still coming to terms with their service, but I think Springsteen cast his net wider than that.)

In Springsteen’s worldview, work is an escape, too (as his unwillingness to leave a concert stage shows). In “Tucson Train,” the narrator’s a crane operator: “Hard work’ll clear your mind and body/the hard sun will burn out the pain.” Likewise, in “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” the narrator admits that, “I make sure I work till I’m so damn tired/way too tired to think.”

The hitch hiker surfaces again in “Somewhere North of Nashville,” a potent and powerful song despite its brevity: “I lie awake in the middle of the night/makin’ a list of things that I didn’t do right.”

The album concludes with “Moonlight Motel,” a song that echoes the haunting “My Father’s House” from Nebraska. Instead of returning to his childhood home, however, this time he finds himself revisiting a motel where he and a lover once enjoyed carefree afternoons. Instead of mourning the un-atoned sins of his youth, he mourns a love that tumbled away like leaves in the breeze.  

In short, Western Stars spins tales of life’s casualties who invariably take two steps back for every one step up. Springsteen’s sympathy and empathy for them ring clear, perhaps because he sees himself in them – as should we all. (“There but for the grace of God go I,” in other words.)

The track list: