Posts Tagged ‘E Street Band’

Typically, ‘round here, this time of year becomes a bacchanal of music and memories I’ve come to dub “Remember December.” There’s rhyme, reason, Christmas music and good cheer, plus best-of lists, recaps, frankincense and myrrh, not to mention a countdown of my most popular posts of the past 12 months. I jumpstarted the best-of fun in late November, of course, so there’ll be a little less of that – and no Concerts of the Year countdown – but there are plenty of other knick-knacks to stuff in the stocking. That fun begins next week. Today, however, it’s my stream-of-conscious musings about matters large and small, while tomorrow I plan to share my thoughts on the Neil Young Archives website and Neil’s mammoth Archives II set.

Anyway, this morning – as most Saturdays – I found myself in a line of cars waiting for curbside pickup at a grocery store while soaking my soul in the music of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. No, not his Letter to You album, though it could well have been, but an archival delight I downloaded from his Live Downloads store last year: Their 1988 concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden. I began listening to it again a few weeks back – and, wow. Just wow. It’s an excellent show that features many songs from the Tunnel of Love LP, though only a handful of pre-River classics. There’s no “Badlands,” no “Promised Land,” no “Thunder Road.” “Backstreets” is present. “Born to Run” is, too, though in a slowed-down acoustic arrangement. There’s also this:

Depending upon one’s age and musical inclinations, you may or may not enjoy it. Me? I can’t get enough. Which leads to this: When the history of these times are written, what will be said? That I momentarily unfollowed someone on Twitter because she described Springsteen’s songs as “either boring or bellowing” and followed that with “I don’t care for his music”? Of course not. But, no doubt, scholars will note an uptick in such petty reactions (as mine was) to what, pre-pandemic, were minor annoyances generally ignored. Daily stresses cause that.

Joss Stone’s new single, “Walk With Me,” is a good way to relieve that tension. It’s quickly become one of my favorite songs of the year.

Of course, one reason for the overreaction to little things is that the big things, by and large, are beyond our control – the pandemic and politics. On the latter front, despite his Supreme Court loss, the tinpot despot’s nefarious plot to upend the U.S. election isn’t over yet. Now he’ll be pushing a slew of congressional prostitutes to screw the U.S. Constitution on January 6th, when Congress is scheduled to accept the Electoral College results. Their fealty to democracy is less than their fealty to cash – or, in this case, most likely the promise of cash from his new Save America PAC. (FYI: As the contractors who helped build his Atlantic City casinos discovered, he rarely pays out.)

Breath deep. Exhale. That’s what I tell myself, at any rate. And lose yourself in such cool performances as this one from Jillette Johnson. It builds and builds, but never explodes – a Mazzy Star-like rendition, if that makes sense. It’s hypnotic.

Death has been much on the mind of near everyone these past seven months. How could it not? As a result, although recorded pre-pandemic, the new album from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Letters to You, is in sync with the zeitgeist of the moment. The ghosts of lost friends haunt some of the 12 tracks, while Springsteen contemplates his mortality on others. He also rejoices in the days that used to be via three cast-off songs of yore. As a whole, the album explores the same basic themes that accented last year’s Western Stars LP and Western Stars movie, but trades the pop gloss for the glorious cacophony that is rock ’n’ roll.

“One Minute You’re Here,” the first song, is not raucous, however, but a stark rumination about the dark clouds gathered in his soul: “I thought I knew just who I was/And what I’d do, but I was wrong/One minute you’re here/Next minute you’re gone.” It’s not a sentiment unique to him, of course, yet those of us who long ago grabbed our tickets and suitcases and boarded his train to the land of hope and dreams may well hear ourselves in the lyrics.

The first single, “Letter to You,” ups the tempo, with electric guitars and an organ rising, falling and rising again like waves in rough water. Bruce has said the song is directed to us, his fans, but it matters not, really. It’s just a great song. His oft-used locomotive and religious metaphors continue with “Burnin’ Train,” with the band barreling down the long twin silver line.

“Janey Needs a Shooter,” one of the cast-off songs mentioned above, is next; like the other two, “If I Was the Priest” and “Song for Orphans”, it dates to the early 1970s and sports a tangible Bob Dylan vibe. (It was reworked as “Jeannie Needs a Shooter” by Warren Zevon and Bruce for Zevon’s 1979 Bad Luck Streak at a Dancing School album.)

There are other sonic ghosts, too. “Last Man Standing” finds Bruce recalling his first band, the Castiles. The initial song written for what became this album, it was influenced by the passing of former Castiles bandmate George Theiss and the realization that he was the last group member alive. (Though, best I can tell, there are a few short-term members still walking.) In spots, at least to my ears, it conjures the Drifters’ “On Broadway” – especially when Jake Clemons takes a sax solo.

In similar fashion, the piano intro to “House of a Thousand Guitars” conjures another song: “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do).” (Listen to both back to back for proof.) That said, it’s a great song about the salvation inherent in rock ’n’ roll: “So wake and shake off your troubles my friend/We’ll go where the music never ends/From the stadiums to the small town bars/We’ll light up the house of a thousand guitars…”

“Ghosts,” the second single, is yet another killer track from the album, this one also inspired by the passing of Theiss: “I hear the sound of your guitar/Comin’ from the mystic far/Stone and the gravel in your voice/Come in my dreams and I rejoice….” Another ghost rises from the grooves by song’s end: the late Michael Been, as the outro conjures the Call’s “When the Walls Came Down.”

Sonically speaking, the E Street Band sounds huge; to borrow Bruce’s penchant for train metaphors, they’re often like a mammoth locomotive rolling faster and faster down the tracks, except that when they need to stop, they stop on a dime. There’s also something of a Neil Young and Crazy Horse ethos throughout, as it was primarily recorded live in the studio with minimal overdubs. The result marries Born to Run’s Wall of Sound (in this case, a tsunami of guitars) with Darkness on the Edge of Town’s straight-ahead attack. It’s real, it’s raw, it’s rock ’n’ roll. It cleanses the soul.

Years long ago, making a long-distance phone call for any length of time required one to first take out a mortgage. I’m being a tad facetious, of course, but consider this: In 1974, the first three minutes cost about $12 and each minute thereafter set one back four bucks; in today’s money, in other words, a five-minute call clocked in at $105. (See this ArsTechnica article for more.) By 1987, the average price had fallen to just shy of 30 cents a minute (69 cents in today’s change), but “average” is just that, with high per-minute rates on weekdays and lower rates late at night and on weekends. As a result, for all but the rich, hearing the voices of far-away family and/or friends was generally saved for special occasions or emergencies.

(For those curious, this MEL article explains why long-distance calls were so expensive.)

Stationary, envelopes and stamps were the communications currency of the era, in other words. One scribbled. One thought. One reflected upon and shared recent events in one’s life, and sometimes connected them with long-ago transgressions and triumphs. Some letters were a page long, others 20, and depending upon one’s scrawl, some words could be confused for others…or only understood in the context of the words that surrounded them. Things began to shift in the ‘90s with the mass embrace of, first, online services like AOL and Prodigy and, eventually, the Internet, email, instant messaging and Facebook.

Which is to say, these days, it’s a rarity to send or receive a letter.

Those are my first thoughts upon listening to “Letter to You,” the title track – and first single from – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s forthcoming album, which is slated for an Oct. 23rd release. It harkens back to a simpler age in both sound and style.

“I love the emotional nature of Letter To You,” says Bruce in the album’s announcement, which was shared on Thursday Sept. 10th. “And I love the sound of the E Street Band playing completely live in the studio, in a way we’ve never done before, and with no overdubs. We made the album in only five days, and it turned out to be one of the greatest recording experiences I’ve ever had.”

My second thought: Bruce never articulates what exactly he “found out through hard times and good.” His lyrics sum up the letter without revealing its contents; instead, he trades in the broadest of metaphoric strokes: “I took all the sunshine and rain/all my happiness and all my pain/the dark evening stars and morning sky of blue/and I sent it in my letter to you.” (In some respects, the song could well be a harder-rockin’ spin-off of “Hello Sunshine.”)

My third thought: the letter’s intended recipient is his younger self. Such letters are a part of some psychological therapies, after all, helping those who write them to either come to terms with or overcome long-ago issues and anguish.

My fourth thought: the letter isn’t meant for his younger self, but his long-departed father and/or his mom, who has Alzheimer’s. It’s a way for him to communicate with them, still.

My fifth thought: Who the letter is to or what it contains doesn’t much matter. The guitars are great and drive the song, Mighty Max lays down a big beat, and Roy Bittan’s piano accents the proceedings like occasional drops of rain on an overcast day. The only thing missing: Clarence’s saxophone. That absence echoes the melancholia that underpins the song, I think.

My sixth and final thought: Damn COVID-19. My hunch is that Bruce and the E Street Band would have been launching an arena tour not long after the album’s release, with this song kicking off every night. Now? I have doubts about whether they’ll collectively set foot on a stage again.

On Monday Sept. 25th, 1999, less than 24 hours after blowing the proverbial roof off the hallowed hall known as the Spectrum, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band wrapped a six-night stand in the City of Brotherly Love with a concert for the ages at the oversized barn known at the time as the First Union Center – aka the F.U. Center. (It’s since been re-named the Wells Fargo Center.)

After the Sunday extravaganza, which opened with “Growin’ Up” and closed with “Blinded by the Light,” Diane developed some health issues that briefly caused us to consider canceling this night’s foray to South Philly. I say “briefly” because, of course, seeing Bruce and band is an elixir for just about anything that ails you. (in that sense, it’s a far more potent tonic than the so-called “miracle water” pushed by snake-oil preachers the world over.) Which is to say, as planned, we met up with friends in the parking lot prior to the show…and, thanks to someone’s relative who worked in the building, the lot of us were soon ushered inside so that we could eavesdrop on the soundcheck from the concourse. 

As we entered the building, “Incident on 57th Street” – Diane’s longtime holy grail, which she only saw once in the ‘70s – echoed throughout the cavernous arena. She all but swooned into my arms, ecstatic. According to Brucebase, the pre-show set in full was “If I Should Fall Behind,” “Incident on 57th Street” (times four), “Crush on You,” “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” and “New York City Serenade.” Given the passage of time, however, I can’t confirm anything beyond “Incident” and “Crush on You” – and that Diane, to borrow a lyric from Van Morrison, was “higher than a cloud and living in the sound.”

A song performed at soundcheck doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll make the same night’s concert, of course, so we crossed our fingers. Once the doors officially opened, we parted ways with our friends and made a long trek to the worst seats we’ve ever had for a concert: Directly opposite the stage in the second level. My memory has us in the last row of the section; Diane, however, remembers us being in the second or third row. Whichever it was, this we agree on: When Bruce and band filed onto the stage, they looked like ants scrambling across a sidewalk. 

But no matter. The first notes of “Incident” swept through the sold-out arena and ushered Diane to heaven yet again…

…and the set that followed was filled with moments that, for me, were just plain nirvana (though others, I’m sure, would find them perfunctory). Nils Lofgren’s guitar histrionics on “Youngstown,” for instance, take me places no matter how often I hear them, just as the anthemic “Badlands” lifts me toward the sky. And with “Murder Incorporated” sandwiched between them? It doesn’t get much better for me, save for the 1975 trifecta of “Jungleland,” “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road.” Those songs stop time, just about.

I won’t lie and say that the lousy seats didn’t cause a disconnect on occasion, yet it was an incredible sight when the house lights came on to reveal the 20,000+ fans raising their arms and singing along as one. In that sense, this night was more than just an opera off I-95; it was a revival meeting that provided sustenance for all who sought it, be they saints or sinners, losers or winners, whores or gamblers, or lost souls…

These past few days, I’ve been re-living the concert again (and again and again) thanks to its release via the Live Bruce Springsteen/nugs.net store. Whether or not one was at the show, it’s well worth the download: The sound quality is excellent and performance beyond reproach. And let’s hope that the other five Philly shows eventually see the “Light of Day,” as well…

The set: