Last weekend, yesterday and again this morning, I played the latest installment of Bruce Springsteen’s Live Series, Stripped Down. It features acoustic renditions of 15 songs, from “Dancing in the Dark” at Neil Young’s 1986 Bridge Benefit in Mountain View, Cal., to “Empty Sky” from the final stop of the 2005 Devils & Dust tour in Trenton. Unlike the archival concert releases available on brucespringsteen.net, the compilations can be streamed from the usual suspects – in my case, Apple Music, but for those who eschew the subscription services, it’s also available (with commercials) via YouTube.

As one might expect, it’s a sterling set accented by songs that still resonate despite some – in theory, at least – being long past their expiration dates. The tales of tough times in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as depicted with a novelist’s eye in “Seeds,” “Youngstown” and “The River” are not dusty remnants of a bygone era, in other words, though some may initially hear them that way. As Springsteen sings in “Wrecking Ball,” “hard times come, and hard times go/yeah, just to come again” – and, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, tough times are back yet again.

“Youngstown,” to my ears, is the album’s pièce de résistance. Originally released on The Ghost of Tom Joad in 1995, it examines the corrosion of manufacturing jobs in what’s now known as the Rust Belt: “From the Monongahela Valley to the Mesabi Iron Range/To the coal mines of Appalachia, the story’s always the same/Seven hundred tons of metal a day, now sir you tell me the world’s changed/Once I made you rich enough, rich enough to forget my name…” It’s a detached, matter-of-fact portrayal of a working man whose way of life has been dispatched by the closing of a factory.

In any event, there’s little negative I can say about the live compilation except for this: None of the songs were recorded in Philadelphia, the city that championed Bruce first. C’est la vie. If you have Apple Music or Spotify, or access to YouTube, give it a listen – you won’t be disappointed.

The song list:

After a long-term relationship came to an end, Courtney Marie Andrews did what many an artist before her has done: Turned her grief (though that may be the wrong word) into the grist of song. The resulting 10-track album explores the love lost not with bitterness, but kindness and grace, and an embrace of what she and her ex forged during their years together. In the plaintive “Guilty,” for example, she sings that “Painful, love is painful/but I am thankful for/the time we shared.” And in “Together or Alone,” she confesses that “Now I’m the kind of person/who acts how I feel/and for a moment in time/I know what we had was real.”

I wrote in-depth about “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault” in June, so won’t delve deep into it here – beyond to say it’s a tremendous tune about taking responsibility for what befalls us.

Such recognition doesn’t alleviate the heartache and heartbreak, of course; in some respects, it just makes the pain radiate all the more. It’s far easier to blaze hate for the other, to blame him or her for everything that went wrong than to face the fact that, just like falling in love, falling out of love happens – sometimes for reasons that belie logic, other times not. In the title track, for instance, she confesses that “I don’t see you that way/not the way I did before,” while also asserting “I’m not your object to break” and “you can’t hurt me that way/not the way you did before.”

She also delves into the delicate dance that is moving on. In the aforementioned “Guilty,” she finds herself thinking of her ex while with another man; and in “If I Told,” she describes herself to a date with absolute clarity: “I am a loner, I am stubborn” before questioning whether he can handle the world she lives in.

Sonically speaking, Andrew Sarlo’s production is as uncluttered and intimate as the songs themselves, with the space left between notes essentially an additional instrument. In “Guilty,” for instance, when she arrives at the final lines, “I cannot give my love to you/when I’m guilty,” you all but hear a tear streaking down her cheek.

Often, such as with the hypnotic “Carnival Dream,” the songs build bit by bit, with the drums kicking in until they approximate a heart pounding louder with every beat. It’s mesmerizing, akin to a fever dream, and finds Courtney, by song’s end, repeating “Will I ever let love in?/I may never let love in” again and again like a mantra while the music – and intensity – swells high like the ocean tide at night. 

Even an old stoic such as myself finds himself submerged in the emotion of the song cycle. “How You Get Hurt” should stop even the most hard-hearted in their tracks.

In another era, Courtney Marie Andrews would already be name-checked alongside Jackson, Joni and the other stalwarts of the ‘70s singer-songwriter crowd. That said, Old Flowers is rightfully being heralded for its honesty in exploring – to borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens – the “ghostlier demarcations” of life and love. It’s one of the best albums I’ve heard in years. To quote from the poet Denise Levertov’s “Another Spring,” which is about death literal and metaphoric, “I am speaking of living/of moving from one moment into/the next, and into the/one after, breathing/death in the spring air, knowing/air also means/music to sing to.” 

The hot August night ended with myself and fellow Bruce Springsteen fans, including Diane, huddled inside my 1990 Dodge Colt, where the chilled air blasting from the A.C. provided little solace to the heat and humidity that gripped the night like a vise. To say the others were beside themselves would be an understatement; they’d passed that mark a few hours before, when Bruce and his Non-Street Band performed “Darkness on the Edge of Town” as if it were a karaoke tune. No, they were despondent, grieving the end of Life as They Knew It.

Here’s a performance of “Darkness” from MTV’s Plugged special, which was recorded on Sept. 22, 1992. It just sounds…weak.

Although I’d been a fan for some time, I should explain, it was my first time seeing him in concert – as I often say, “time and circumstance” (aka school, work and lack of cash) had kept me away. Which is to say, I was much less shellshocked than the others, each of whom were decades-long veterans of the E Street army. Still, even to me, the night had seemed off, with the new material lacking the intangible that separates the memorable from the mundane and the old material more akin to mimeographed copies than anything. “John Mellencamp put on a better show,” I said, referencing the January show I wrote about yesterday. 

Diane agreed and the others – not Mellencamp fans, as I recall – refused to argue. They were aghast at the comparison, mind you, but were so disappointed by Springsteen that they couldn’t and wouldn’t disagree.

Let me back up: 

In 1992, for those who don’t know the backstory, Bruce Springsteen released two solo albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town, on the same day, and then hit the road to promote them with a band that didn’t include the famed E Street Band (Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici, Garry Tallent, Nils Lofgren and/or Steven Van Zandt, and Max Weinberg), just the professor and Mary Ann (aka Roy Bittan and Patti Scialfa).

To my ears, Human Touch – which he worked on from late ‘89 to early ’91 – housed few solid songs and many flaws, including oft-generic lyrics and a sterile production that made it sound as if Bruce had joined Toto. Two good examples: The stark renditions of “Soul Driver” and “Real World” at the 1990 Christic shows are hypnotic, while the recorded versions sport sheens that seemingly court the fans of “Rosanna,” not “Rosalita.” (That’s not a snarky gibe directed at Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro, by the way, as he actually keeps a steady rhythm alongside bassist – and future “American Idol” judge – Randy Jackson, but at the gloss Springsteen and his production cohorts embossed onto the songs.)

Lucky Town, on the other hand, was (and remains) a smart 10-song set that finds Springsteen caught in a crossfire that he’s attempting to understand. The songs were primarily recorded at the end of ’91 and possess a zest lacking on much of the Human Touch material; they don’t sound labored over (though, no doubt, they were). If anything, they maintain the stripped-down template he utilized for Tunnel of Love. He handles the bulk of the instrumental chores himself, backed only by drummer Gary Mallaber, though Bittan, Jackson, keyboardist Ian McLagen and Trickster all make guest appearances.

If he’d only released Lucky Town, or glommed the best Human Touch tracks to it in some sort of Lucky Touch hybrid, perhaps the initial underwhelmed reaction to the recordings would have been better than it was. And if he’d gotten the E Street Band back together for the tour, but kept the legion of backup singers, including the legendary Bobby King, in the mix?

We’ll never know the answer to that, of course. Instead we have this, which occurred toward the end of the August night in question, when we were analyzing the show: Diane mentioned, and she wasn’t being hyperbolic, that Crystal Taliefero brandishing the saxophone during “Born to Run,” the second-to-last song of the evening, was akin to a dagger through the heart.

In retrospect, however, my hunch is that the show was better than we, as a collective, perceived. I expected the night to match the legendary bootlegs I knew like the back of my hand, while the others expected something in keeping with what they’d experienced firsthand. Instead, we saw a band that was still in the process of becoming, and should have expected as much. Bittan, former Lone Justice guitarist Shayne Fontaine, bassist Tommy Sims, drummer Zachary Alford and Taliefero, the group’s resident Captain Many Hands (guitar, percussion, saxophone and backing vocals) had only played together for a few months, after all.

The next night’s 32-song bonanza, which we also took in, was no better, just longer. But by December, when the band returned to Philly for two shows, the group was tighter and more cohesive, though Taliefero’s sax solo during “Born to Run” still hurt the heart.

The set:

  1. Better Days
  2. Local Hero
  3. Lucky Town
  4. Darkness on the Edge of Town
  5. Growin’ Up
  6. 57 Channels (and Nothin’ On)
  7. Trapped
  8. Badlands
  9. Living Proof
  10. If I Should Fall Behind
  11. My Hometown
  12. Leap of Faith
  13. Man’s Job
  14. Roll of the Dice
  15. Gloria’s Eyes
  16. Cover Me
  17. Brilliant Disguise
  18. Soul Driver
  19. Souls of the Departed
  20. Born in the USA
  21. Real World
  22. Light of Day

Encores:

  1. Human Touch
  2. Glory Days
  3. Bobby Jean
  4. Thunder Road
  5. Born to Run
  6. My Beautiful Reward

All in all, as I’ve written before, 1992 was a good year. Diane and I were young and in love, spring was in the air and magic was everywhere – especially within the concert venues in and around Philly. Memories of many of those shows have turned to mush, unfortunately, but I’ve retained vivid imagery of a handful – including John Mellencamp’s at the Philadelphia Spectrum on January 15, 1992.

Although “Hurts So Good” and “Jack & Diane” turned my ears and eyes in 1982, as videos for both were in rotation on MTV, it wasn’t until Uh-Huh – which was released during the summer of 1983 – that I plunked down cash for a Mellencamp album. Is there a better opening stretch on vinyl than “Crumblin’ Down,” “Pink Houses” and “Authority Song”? (FYI: I’m trading in hyperbole here.) “Play Guitar” was a crunchy good time, too. Aside from those glimmers of greatness, however, the album was solid, not stellar. Yet it set the stage for what came next: Scarecrow, one of the best albums of not just 1985, but the ‘80s as a whole. The Lonesome Jubilee in 1987 explored many of the same small-town themes while expanding Mellencamp’s sonic palette – fiddle, accordion and other Appalachian folk instruments. The underrated Big Daddy (1989) continued in the same vein. In 1991, however, Mellencamp shed the Appalachian vibe and returned to the straight-up rock of Uh-Huh with Whenever We Wanted – and, like Uh-Huh, it mixed the sublime with the so-so.

During the ‘80s, he was often (unfairly) compared to Bruce Springsteen – a heartland rocker with a conscience. But, really, the better comparison (if one is to be made) is probably to fellow heartland rocker Bob Seger, as he also kicked around quite a few years before coming into his own.

Work, school and cash had kept me from seeing him prior to this night, unfortunately, so I was beyond excited to finally see him in concert. I assumed that the night would emphasize Whenever We Wanted – and that was okay, as the songs I liked, I really liked. The title track, for instance, is sheer grace set to song… 

…though it may just be the guitars that get me. (The same’s true for much of the album. Though longtime consigliere/guitarist Larry Crane is missed, new guy/guitarist David Grissom, ex of Joe Ely’s band, elevates even the most mundane tracks, such as “Get a Leg Up.”)

In any event, Diane and I scored decent seats: The last row (on the aisle) of whatever first-level section we were in. The show was either sold out or close to it. (I don’t remember seeing any empty seats, at any rate.)

My first memory is of the oddballs we often attract at concerts. Simple etiquette dictates that standing vs. sitting is set by those in the front rows, not those in the back. After the initial thrust, most folks take to their seats – but, in our section, the two (drunken) guys right in front of us decided they wanted to dance the night away. After some back and forth, we reached a quick compromise: We traded seats.

My second memory: The concert started strong until the end of the first set, when two acoustic numbers (“Big Daddy of Them All” and “Jackie Brown”) failed to connect in the arena as they did on vinyl. The second half all but blew the roof off the Spectrum, however.

My third memory: Mellencamp shaped the 24-song setlist more as a greatest hits showcase, with six songs from Scarecrow, four each from Whenever We Wanted, Big Daddy, Lonesome Jubilee and Uh-Huh, and two from American Fool. 

My fourth memory: The intro to “Pop Singer,” in which he railed against turning pop and rock songs into advertisements. “I don’t want to be a TV commercial,” he exclaimed. It’s a rant well worth watching, falling at about the 1 hour, 20 minute mark of this video (not mine), which features the concert in full:

My fifth memory: Mellencamp’s band was, in a word, phenomenal. It featured drummer extraordinaire Kenny Aronoff, guitarists Dave Grissom and Mike Wanchic, bassist Toby Myers, accordion/keyboard player John Cascella, first-class fiddler Lisa Germano (whose solo albums are well worth looking up) and Pat Peterson and Jenny Douglas-McRae on backup vocals and percussion.

My sixth and final memory: “Whenever We Wanted” wasn’t one of the night’s chosen songs – and, by night’s end, I didn’t much care. It was a great, great night that reaffirmed my faith in this thing called rock ’n’ roll. If you have two hours and fifteen minutes to spare, crank up the video I embedded above; the second half is a concert masterclass.

First set: 

  1. Love and Happiness
  2. Paper in Fire
  3. Jack & Diane
  4. Lonely Ol’ Night
  5. Check It Out
  6. Rain on the Scarecrow
  7. Martha Say
  8. The Real Life
  9. Rumbleseat
  10. Get a Leg Up
  11. Big Daddy of Them All
  12. Jackie Brown

Second set:

  1. Small Town
  2. Minutes to Memories
  3. Now More Than Ever
  4. Pop Singer
  5. Crumblin’ Down
  6. R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.
  7. Play Guitar
  8. Hurts So Good
  9. Authority Song
  10. Pink Houses

Encore:

  1. Again Tonight
  2. Cherry Bomb