Posts Tagged ‘The River’

Life’s complexities during the early ‘70s seem simple and straightforward from today’s perspective, almost quaint and naive: We are stardust; we are golden; a new Eden is within reach. Though Joni Mitchell wrote the “stardust” and “golden” lines in “Woodstock,” much of the ethos can be credited to Crosby, Stills & Nash, whose 1969 debut ushered forth a softer sound that demanded more attention than their louder compatriots. They emphasized matters of the heart and soul, and even their political pontifications came, at least in part, from within. It was an est seminar set to song, just about, but long before that self-help movement joined the mainstream. While their 1970 collaboration with Neil Young, Deja Vu, added darkness to their light, the est quality remained. They were authentic and in touch with their inner selves.

Both albums helped give life to a new sub-genre of rock music, one that usually found itself in the crosshairs of critics: soft rock. It was “wooden music” (aka acoustic) or a wooden-electric mix with country flourishes and, sometimes, an orchestral backing. This wasn’t the folk and folk-rock of the early and mid-‘60s or even the folk-pop practiced by Simon & Garfunkel, though elements from all proliferated within soft rock. It was mellow, sensitive, soul-baring stuff – and, depending on the wordsmith, either illuminating or cliched. One of its biggest pluses, however, was that songs could be cross-marketed, as they fit multiple radio formats on the increasingly competitive FM band.

By 1972, soft rock was all the rage – Carole King, Don McLean, Neil Young, America and Cat Stevens topped the album charts that year, while Neil Diamond, Don McLean, Melanie, Nilsson, Gilbert O’Sullivan and Neil Young topped the singles charts with soft-rock songs. Also releasing albums that fell, at least in part, within the soft-rock realm: Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Loggins and Messina, and Paul Simon.

I start there, in this look at the debut from Dan Fogelberg, to add a little context. Music is never made in a vacuum; it’s generally a reaction to or a continuation of a larger trend. Such is the case with Home Free, which was released in October of that year. In many ways, it is a stereotypical soft-rock affair, sporting contemplative (if, at times, grammatically suspect) lyrics and sensitive sounds, harmonies galore and even sumptuous strings that accent the melodies, which often seem simultaneously familiar and not.

That’s not a knock. Consider this: He was likely 21 when he recorded the album; and probably younger when he wrote some of the songs. As such, I cut him – as I would any young artist – some slack because of that; he was still in the process of becoming. Plus, recorded in Nashville with producer Norbert Putnam, it just sounds great. Among the album’s personnel: David Briggs of the legendary Nashville Cats; and Buddy Spicher and Weldon Myrick of the equally legendary Nashville A-Team. Neil Young fans should also recognize the name of the drummer, Kenny Buttrey.

The album fades in – as if replicating the gradual awakening of the day – with “To the Morning,” about the promises each new day brings. Lyrically, it’s somewhat slight (“And it’s going to be a day/There is really no way to say no to the morning/Yes it’s going to be a day/There is really nothing left to say but come on morning”), but it does capture an element of life lost long ago: “Waiting for mail/Maybe a tale from an old friend or even a lover/Sometimes there’s none/But we have fun thinking of all who might have written.”

Even when the lyrics are clunky, it’s not much of an issue: A great case in point: “Hickory Grove.” It’s a lush, lush song that features suspect wordplay (“Hickory Grove, make the sun/Rise slower I don’t have much time/Hickory Grove, watch me run/down through the years of my prime”), but it doesn’t matter. You – or, at least, I – get lost in Fogelberg’s vocals, the melodies and overall production.

Of the “familiar”: As evidenced by “Hickory Grove,” the CSN influence is profound – and not just with the harmonies. In fact, “Stars” borrows its guitar refrain and melody from “Helplessly Hoping” while spinning a heartfelt ode to a long-lost lover (“For stars fall every time a lover has to face the truth/And far too many stars have fell on me.”) As with “Hickory Grove,” it’s a lovely song. By the time it ends, however overt the influence, you don’t care.

Other songs, such as “Looking for a Lady” and “Anyway I Love You,” are well-produced but – yes, I’m repeating myself here – lyrically slight. I could go on, and perhaps I should, but instead I’ll end with what is – for me – the album’s stand-out track: “The River,” which closes the set. It’s somewhat at odds with the nine songs that precede it, evolving from a piano-led tributary into a raging river accented by raucous guitars. Again, read by themselves, the lyrics aren’t the best – but matched to those guitars? And with his full-throated delivery? It’s damn good.

At the time of its release, the album didn’t do well in the charts – it peaked at No. 210 in early 1973. However, thanks to the success of his following albums, his label re-released it…and it went platinum. (Sales in excess of a million, for those not up on such things.) Overall, I find Home Free a solid first outing with – as I like to say – glimmers of greatness. My main criticism, which is likely evident from what I’ve already written: the lyrics. They remind me of the (bad) verse I and fellow classmates penned in my freshman poetry-writing class. That aside, as a whole, the album is worth more than a few spins – so long as you don’t listen too closely.

Here’s the track listing:

One thing to note: From what I’ve read, the original mix of Home Free is only available on the original LPs, 8-tracks and cassettes or the 2006 double-CD set of Home Free and Souvenirs from the Beat Goes On label; Fogelberg and Putnam remixed it for its release on CD in the late ‘80s. AllMusic’s’ Richard Foss details how those changes impacted the songs.

Also: Here’s the first mention of Home Free, from December 1st, 1972, I found on Newspapers.com; it’s part of the critic’s own attempt at (I think) hip verse: “Home Free, more than ever, Dan Fogelberg, on his way.”

Here’s another mention from one Holly Spence, which appeared in the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star on Feb. 28th, 1973: 

And here’s an excellent deep dive that appeared almost a year later, on January 13th, 1974, in the Hattiesburg (MIss.) American. It goes to show the shelf life of albums back then; a year-plus from its release, it was still winning over listeners. (I had to split it up, however, so parts of the article jump between the two images.)

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:

Diane and I were driving in the car this morning, on our way to brunch, with SiriusXM tuned to – what else? – E Street Radio, which was playing the February 2, 2016 concert from Toronto. It was the sixth date on that year’s River tour, which was tied to the 35th anniversary of the album and, too, the Ties That Bind box set released in 2015. (We’d see him 10 days later in Philly.)

For those unfamiliar with the specifics of that tour, Bruce and the band performed The River from start to finish. In this Toronto show, he introduced “Independence Day” – a song he wrote in 1977, debuted in concert in 1978 and recorded in 1980 – with a monologue similar to what we heard in Philly. “It was the first song I wrote about fathers and sons,” he explained. “It’s the kind of song that you write when you’re young and you’re first startled by your parents’ humanity.”

Today, the fourth verse stood out to me: “Well, Papa, go to bed now, it’s getting late/Nothing we can say can change anything now/Because there’s just different people coming down here now and they see things in different ways/And soon everything we’ve known will just be swept away.”

It’s about the father-son dynamics unique to Springsteen’s own (self-mythologized) life, obviously, and yet it’s also more. It’s about the changing realities everyone confronts, at some point, in his or her life. When young, such change is expected and embraced. In the song, it leads the narrator to set out on his own. But for the old? Though the world we knew is no more, the memories – and our faded hopes – remain. That’s when bitterness sets in.

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An Arctic chill spilled into Philadelphia late Friday afternoon. Grains of snow splattered against the car windshield on the way into the parking lot of the Wells Fargo Center, where wind gusts sliced our exposed skin once we started the (thankfully short) trek to the North Broad entrance; and those aforementioned snow pellets worked akin to salt in the newly opened wounds.

I’m exaggerating a bit, of course, but it was so cold that the concert promoters had their hands in their own pockets for a change.

Ba-rum-bump.

The last time I saw Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band in concert, in early 2012, the show – tied to his then-recent Wrecking Ball album – played like a Steinbeck novel, with the setlist of new and old songs chronicling life during the Great Recession. This night, however, the show unfurled like a collection of interconnected short stories. The reason: The tour is tied to The Ties That Bind, his 2015 box set that presents his 1980 double album, The River, plus copious amounts of outtakes; and, each night, he’s playing the album proper from start to finish.

The River, for those unfamiliar with it, is a sprawling set that’s home to both frivolous songs and sober treatises; and, like most great works, reflects and transcends its time. As I noted a while back, a malaise blanketed America during the latter 1970s that was deeper than just “the Carter recession” (as Springsteen, in his introduction to the title song, called the era’s tough times). A generation of young adults came to realize, during those years, that the complexities of life and love were more complex than they’d assumed, and – like a deer frozen by oncoming headlights – weren’t sure how to proceed. Springsteen was no different. The River, more than anything, marks his coming to grips with the paradoxes that are part and parcel of adulthood.

That recognition is something every generation grapples with, I hasten to add. It’s why The River still resonates.

The show opened with one of The River’s outcasts: “Meet Me in the City” – a rockin’ declaration that condenses the double album’s yin-yang themes into three-and-a-half minutes. “Everybody’s lost in romance/Do you feel the way I feel/I’m just searching, girl/For the blood, for the bone, for the muscle, for what’s real…”

And, then: The River in full. If you know the album, you won’t be surprised by the set’s highs – whatever your favorites are, those are them. Springsteen tackled the songs with reverence and affection, and even shared vocal duties with the audience on “Hungry Heart” and “The River.” That said, one highlight for me was a song that – as he says in the introduction – only a young person could write: “Independence Day.”

Another: “Hungry Heart,” which featured the Boss “crowd-surfing” (though it was more like “crowd-crawling”) his way back to the stage.

As The River flowed on, however, I realized that not everyone in attendance was aware of the concert’s design; and some had no knowledge of The River as a whole, just the songs from it that are played on whatever Classic Rock radio station is currently in vogue. Too many people yakked their way through the lesser-known numbers; you can hear them on my “Independence Day” clip, in fact. (Proper concert etiquette is a planned topic for a future post.)

The River closes with the haunting “Wreck on the Highway,” in which the narrator comes upon the aftermath of a car accident and, for the first time, recognizes the fragility of life. Such realizations, and they come at no set age, generally mark the final ascent into adulthood, I think. The diversions of youth remain with us to one extent or another for all our lives, true, but sans the same sense as importance and urgency. Life concerns, like love and death, take precedence.

Anyway, that is where most acts would have closed the main portion of the show, leaving the stage for a few minutes before roaring back for a two- or three-song encore. Not Springsteen. He kicked off a mini-greatest hits review with “Atlantic City,” quelling the boredom (I’m sure) of even the most casual of fans.

“Prove It All Night” rocked, too.

And “Jungleland” came close to blowing the roof off the Wells Fargo Center.

When the house lights came up for “Born to Run,” as they always do, it occurred to me – and not for the first time – that the soundtracks to many lives have been written by this street poet. He still shares the romantic dreams and visions of his fans, and recognizes the hard realities many of them face. It’s why he gives each show his all. Like Neil Young or Paul McCartney, he’s at an age (66) and stage in his career where he could easily cut the length of his shows in half and few would complain – yet, this concert clocked in at almost three-and-a-half hours.

The young 30-something who released The River and the young fans who first embraced it would likely laugh at the idea that, 35 years on, they’re still spirits in the night, albeit just for the night. And, on the flip side, Springsteen and some older fans may cringe when singing some of the album’s frivolous numbers – “Crush on You,” perhaps, or “I’m a Rocker” – but have enough faith in our younger selves to give it their all, anyway.

To twist a phrase from the old Pogo cartoon, “we have met the future and it is us.”

The setlist: Meet Me in the City/The Ties That Bind/Sherry Darling/Jackson Cage/Two Hearts/Independence Day/Hungry Heart/Out in the Street/Crush on You/You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)/I Wanna Marry You/The River/Point Blank/Cadillac Ranch/I’m a Rocker/Fade Away/Stolen Car /Ramrod/The Price You Pay/Drive All Night/Wreck on the Highway//Atlantic City/Prove It All Night/My Love Will Not Let You Down/Wrecking Ball/Human Touch/Jungleland/The Rising/Thunder Road///Born to Run/Dancing in the Dark/Rosalita/Shout

Here are a few (more traditional) Additional reviews:

Dan DeLuca in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Michele Amabile Angermiller in Billboard.