Posts Tagged ‘Of Concerts Past’

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.

As an example, here’s “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. As a result, I was much less shellshocked than the others, each of whom were longtime veterans of the E Street army. Still, even to me, the night had seemed off, with much of the new material lacking the intangible that separates the memorable from the mundane. The old material, meanwhile, was 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 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

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:

 

 

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