Category Archives: Bruce Springsteen

Bruuuuuuuuuce in the Lion’s Den, going the distance once more. Again. Still.

It’s a death trap! It’s a suicide rap! And so on.

My love of Bruce Springsteen is not exactly news. It may no longer even qualify as infotainment. He played the single best concert I’ve ever seen anyone play, out of hundreds of bands and artists. (This is merely a partial list.) There is nothing remotely controversial about the assertion he is the greatest live performer in the history of rock and roll.

I wrote all of this down three years ago, after I saw him play his penultimate show of 2009, in Baltimore’s appealingly small and out-of-date sports area, the end of a busy two-year tour wherein he also made one of his worst albums. Basking in the glow of that remarkable show in the days afterward, I knew if I were never to see Springsteen and the E Street band play again, I’d be fine with that.

I had a Born in the U.S.A. on cassette when I was a little kid, but it wasn’t until college that I became a hardcore Springsteen fan. His Live 1975-85 album (three discs, because I got it in the CD era) and his solo acoustic, recorded-in-his-bedroom Nebraska album were the documents most directly responsible for my conversion. At the time I was discovering this music, Springsteen hadn’t toured with the E Street Band in seven years. Another four would pass before they’d announced they were reuniting.

Those reunion shows in 1999 and 2000 were remarkable. I saw five concerts on that tour. They were different from the shows Bruce and the band had played in the 70s and 80s, the ones I had heard only on cherished (and in the pre-broadband era, expensive) bootlegs. There was no intermission. Bruce’s meandering, easily parodied, improvised on-stage stories were gone, replaced by a gospel preacher schtick. The shows tended to be about two-and-a-half hours long — a generous amount of stage time from anyone but Springsteen, who had regularly broken the three-hour mark all through his twenties and thirties.

His twenties and his thirties. Continue reading

Well, Since You Asked . . .

What did I think of Bruce?

I think you don’t try for subtlety at the Super Bowl. I think the Prince halftime show of two years ago is the only one I can remember ever being any good at all (although that one was really good). I think Bruce just carries his own gospel choir around with him everywhere he goes nowadays. I think he let Landau talk him into putting in that snippet of “Working on a Dream,” which sounds like a Born in the U.S.A. B-side to me, but not in a bad way.

All things considered, I thought Bruce was great. He generated more excitement in 12 minutes than Tom Petty has in his entire 96-year performing career. I mean, to play the Super Bowl and emerge with your dignity intact is no small thing. (I died a little when U2 did it in 2002. “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bridgestone Nokia Clear Channel FedEx Nike Tribute to 9/11 Victims! Yeee-haaaaaaaawww!”)

Bottom line, I was not embarrassed to be a fan the way I usually am when an artist I admire plays the Super Bowl. And closing with “Glory Days” might’ve even been Bruce’s sly acknowledgment that with 60 just around the corner, even his expiration date could be looming. I never thought he played that song enough live anyway.

Well, yes, he was out of breath. Not sure what that was about. Just last August, I saw him play a three-hour, five-minute show with no apparent undue physical strain.

I Wish I Were Blind: The (Often Terrible) Album Covers of Bruce Springsteen

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The cover to Working on a Dream. I know, right?

Bruce Springsteen once wrote a song called “I Wish I Were Blind.”  The tune appears on Human Touch, easily the most reviled album in a recording career that goes back to 1973.  Released  in 1992, after a five-year drought of new music wherein Springsteen — gasp! — fired the E Street Band, Human Touch gave us The Boss at his Billy Joel-iest, a synthy, syrupy snoozefest that even die-hard Boss fans (Hi!) omit from their iTunes libraries.

But while Human Touch might be the worst Springsteen album to listen to, it’s far from the worst to look at.   No, that dubious honor might have to go to The Boss’s imminent Working on a Dream, which officially arrives tomorrow (though it leaked online two weeks ago and has already been streamed via NPR’s website) wrapped in a velvet-Elvis style tableau that looks like something a member of the Backstreets staff paid an art teacher at Freehold Community College to paint on the side of his van.

That the album’s cheesy grill stands out as particularly egregious in the Springsteen oeuvre really says something, because it would be tough to find another musician with career album sales far north of the 100 million mark who has shown such consistently guileless aesthetic judgment when it comes to packaging.   Many of the Boss’s releases would have looked better  the way Bruce spent much of the 1984-5 Born in the U.S.A. Tour: sleeveless.  Don’t believe me?  Walk with me back through Boss-time; you’ll see.  We’re including only albums that Springsteen (presumably) had some say in how they looked, so no bootlegs.

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Magic (2007)

The canonical predecessor to Working on a Dream (released only 16 months before; an eyeblink in Bruce-time) employs sepia-toned Photoshoppery to get around the fact The Boss (who just has to have his mug on the cover, again) was 58 years old when this thing came out.  The message?  Seven years after George W. Bush came to power, the world is a coppery, piss-colored cloud.

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Live in Dublin (2007)

Here’s a no-frills cover that gets it done.  The live album/DVD documenting Bruce’s surprisingly successful roadshow marriage of his boisterous live aesthetic to that of old-timey, pre-rock-and-roll folk and Nawlins jazz, suggests a Hatch Show Print-style handbill.  This was the only tour (so far) on which Bruce was regularly seen taking shots of whiskey onstage.  Curiously, it’s not one of the several album covers on which The Boss appears to be sporting a ’69-chevy-with-a-three-ninety-six hangover.  (See:  Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Devils and Dust.)

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We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006)

Not nearly as exciting as Live in Dublin, this is an album recorded in four days over the course of ten years.  The subtitle The Seeger Sessions is kind of a misnomer, as Seeger popularized many of these songs but wrote almost none of them.   The cover is is a photo of the sprawling band Bruce assembled for these raucous sessions, dirtied up with that coppery-gold wash Bruce loves, suggestive of dust-bowl grit, with a logo that wouldn’t look out of place on a bottle of whiskey.

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Devils and Dust (2005)

This  solo-Bruce outing in the style, sort of, of Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad, greets the world with an acid-washed image of Bruce wincing in pain, implying a more morose album than this ultimately is.  Aside from the Iraq-set title track, these songs are rumored to have been sitting around since the late nineties.

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The Rising (2002)

On the People’s Glorious Don’t-Call-It-a-Reunion Tour of 1999-2000,  Bruce introduced a number of top-shelf new songs written for the E Street Band, among them “American Skin (41 Shots)” and the show-closing anthem “Land of Hope and Dreams.” A new album with the E Street Band seemed certain swiftly to follow.  In fact, it took two years — and the 9/11 attacks.

The Rising attempted nothing less than to bind our national wounds and to vest us with the strength to see our way safely through The Valley of the Shadow.  Marketed (inaccurately) as the first E Street band album since 1984’s mega-selling Born in the U.S.A., The Rising swung for the fences and did a lot of things right.  But its cover — a blurry, out-of-focus medium shot of a white guy whom we infer to be internationally famous rock star Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen, underneath the album’s almost-as-vague title rendered in fiery orange Impact font — was not among them.

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Live in New York City (2001)

Recorded on two nights at Madison Square Garden during the ten-night stand that closed the first E Street tour since 1988, this album did a pretty good job of capturing something of the grandeur and flow of a typical gig of this era, along with the superb new arrangements of many of the songs in the setlist.  The cover is courtesy of Hatch Show Print, the great southern shop that made smart-looking posters for Elvis and Johnny Cash and pretty much everybody since.  The depiction in silhouette of Bruce with the unmistakable Clarence “Big Man” Clemons is a callback to the iconic Born to Run cover 26 years earlier, instantly communicating that the E Street Band is back.  Simple but effective.

51cjcujptwl_ss400_Tracks (1998)

Springsteen has always been an artist of Prince-level prolificacy, holding back many more complete songs than he’s ever released.  Much of the material that surfaced on Tracks had circulated among hard-core fans for decades prior to its sanctioned release in this four-disc, 66-song collection, but this was just the tip of the iceberg.  There’s material from every phase of The Boss’s career here — the set opens with legendary A&R man John Hammond’s voice introducing Bruce’s 1972 demo of “Mary, Queen of Arkansas,” and ends with a couple of songs recorded with the E Street Band in 1995 as bonus tracks for that year’s Greatest Hits.

And how does Bruce chose to allude visually to this treasure trove of riches from every Boss era — even the wilderness of the early 90s?  With a photo of himself reclining on the couch.  If you weren’t already a fan, would seeing this  make you want to sample this box set’s contents?  I mean, not that a newbie would ever start here, but still.

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The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995)

A dusty, somber, E Street-free (though Roy Bittan is around) collection of ballads about twitchy ex-cons, conflicted border guards, and luckless Mexican immigrants, this one — named for the hero of John Steinbeck’s dust bowl novel The Grapes of Wrath, long a Bruce favorite —  might be Springsteen’s single most underrated album.  Eric Dinyer’s painted  cover is a winner.  Who cares if that’s Bruce or not?  It’s a guy who looks like he’s not having a lot of luck trying to put together a few peaceful hours of sleep, a luxury few of Tom Joad‘s richly-drawn characters enjoy.

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Greatest Hits (1995)

The cover of the 1995’s misnamed Greatest Hits (it’s neither a strict assembly of Springsteen’s best songs nor his chartologically-determined most popular) looks like a hyrbid of the cover for Bruce’s two monster Born albums,  . . . to Run and  . . . in the U.S.A. In fact, the shot is one of the 899 other photos Eric Meola shot at the Born to Run cover session in 1975.  But there’s no Clarence, even though the E Street Band are present on 15 of the 18 songs included.  Two long-requested Born in the U.S.A. outtakes, “Murder Incorporated” and “This Hard Land,” finally see the light of day here (though “Light of Day” does not).

“Murder Incorporated” was released as a single in 1995 (with a Jonathan Demme video) and performed at every show on the 1999-2000 tour.  And the latter?  Only one of the most joyous Springsteen songs ever.  Anyway, pretty good cover.  Rumors swirled of a 1995 tour with the E Street Band, but other than a few video shoots and an appearance at the opening concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that year, the E Street train would remain stuck in the station for almost another half-decade.  The fact that this image looks like it could be a scarecrow Springsteen, a Bruceelganger if you will, is pitch-perfect (if accidentally so) reflection of where Bruce was at this point in his career: struggling to break free of his own myth and to make trenchant new music — with his old pals and without them.

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Plugged (1993)

Yeah, so Bruce showed up to tape a concert for MTV’s popular “Unplugged” series and plugged in after one song.  The sole acoustic number was the previously unheard “Red-Headed Woman,” the first Springsteen track I can think of with a cunnlingus reference — and he’s totally talking about his wife! (Springsteen and the carrot-topped Scialfa married in 1991, when Scialfa was pregnant with their second child.)   The show was a mixed bag, redeeming some of the Human Touch numbers from their limp studio incarnations and presenting some E Street-era classics like “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “Atlantic City” in exciting new ways.  Plugged also contained a performance of the 80s leftover “Light of Day,” and it smokes.

The cover seems like another, probably unintentional, summation of Bruce’s confusion during this period.  Two Bruces, looking in opposite directions?  From this picture, you’d think them album had failed to synthesize Pre and Post-Breakup Bruce rather than (largely) succeeded.  Most bootlegs look better than this.  Embarrassing.

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Lucky Town (1992)

Ladies and Gentlemen, short-lived Latin hip-hop star Gerardo!  Does Bruce not have a wardrobe person on staff?  Or a graphic designer?  Does Columbia Records?  The unbuttoned-shirt thing is a matter of taste, but those sunglasses?  Clearly, Bruce had no one to tell him “no” by this point in his career.

Lucky Town happened when Bruce returned to the studio near the tail end of the meandering 18 months of sessions that begat Human Touch to record one final track.  He came up with the fantastic “Living Proof,” and producer/manager/svengali Jon Landau told him to keep writing.  Thus the 10 songs on this album were all conceived and executed in a few weeks, and show no sign of the limpness and uncertainty of the Human Touch stuff.  The decision to release those two albums on the same day in the spring of 1992 is second only to the formal dismissal of the E Street Band as the dumbest call Springsteen and Landau ever made.  Lucky Town is actually quite good — better than you think, anyway — not that you’d ever be moved to give it a chance if you happened to catch sight of its cover in one of the countless used CD bins it has inhabited for 15 years.

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Human Touch (1992)

The knee-jerk aversion I have to this cover has nothing to do with its base aesthetic properties.  I love the idea of Bruce making solo albums (like Nebraska), or albums outside of his usual idiom with non-E Street players (like The Seeger Sessions).  But an album in the E Street style, that could have benefitted from the presence of the E Street band, made without them?  Heresy.  That’s all this cover makes me think about.  Admittedly, it’s more semiotic weight than this boring image of a vaguely gypsyish, studded-belt and bracelet-wearing cat holding a guitar, can possibly bear.  Hate is not a rational emotion.  But I hate this cover, along with about 70 percent of the album.

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Tunnel of Love (1987)

Troubling:  Bruce’s last beginning-to-end brilliant album is more than 20 years old.  Born in the U.S.A. was the unstoppable singles machine, but its 1987 follow-up, taking on the mysteries of fidelity, is a stronger, more cohesive album.  (Its release prefigured Bruce’s separation from his first wife, Julianne Phillips, by a matter of months.)  Annie Leibovitz shot the cover, once again, and once again, it’s just about perfect.  Bruce looks like he’s arriving to take you on a date on this, the first  cover for which he appears to have showered, combed his hair, and donned clean clothes.  The bolo tie clues you in that things might be a bit different from what you’re expecting.  This is appropriate, in that this is an album entirely concerned with romantic relationships, and while the E Street Band is here, they’re present in a more subdued role than before.  Newly ascendant are the synthesizers that date the album and have prevented it from getting its due , even though the album did win Album of the Year in Rolling Stone‘s 1987 critics poll, beating out even The Joshua Tree, U2’s very own Born to Run.

51btfcks-ml_ss500_Live 1975-85 (1986)

The only album in the canon credited to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Bruce is in a funny pose in this photo, lifting his left leg slightly like a dog visiting an unfamiliar tree.  Is he walking forward?  Is he preparing to do the crane kick that allows poor, wounded Daniel LaRusso to put down “Sweep the Leg” Johnny at the end of The Karate Kid?  (“One of 1984’s best movies,” raved Roger Ebert.)  Despite this, it’s a great, even iconic image of Bruce staring out into the fog of the audience, blinded by the footlights — and by the sheer exhilaration of being probably three-and-a-quarter-hours into a three-and-a-half hour performance at, say, the the Roxy, where nearly a quarter of the album’s 40 songs were tracked.  I’ve always imagined that this cover is, in effect, the video for “Raise Your Hand” (track 11 on disc three), wherein he stops mid-song to chide the crowd for not cheering fervently enough:  “Do you think this is a free ride?” The Boss demands.  “You want to play, you got to pay!”

The album was originally released as five vinyl albums, but by the time I got around to it in the mid-90s, it was available as a three-CD set.  Live 1975-1985 remains the second best-selling live album ever in the U.S., behind Garth Brooks’ Double Live. Garth is an even commoner common man, it would seem.  Maybe if Bruce had had Garth’s saavy, he’d have called his album Triple Live on CD or Quintiple Live on vinyl.  Then, perhaps, the crown would still be his.

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Born in the U.S.A. (1984)
People who know nothing about rock and roll can sing the chorus of the title track and recognize this image.  “The picture of my ass looked better than the ones of my face,” Bruce once said of the Annie Leibovitz session that produced the iconic cover.  (Other photos from the sessins showed up in the 1995 Greatest Hits set, and — appropriately — on the cover of the 1990 issue of Rolling Stone that summarized the eighties.)
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Born in the U.S.A. even accomplished the unlikely feat of turning Bruce into a sex symbol, briefly, kind of.  Think that  shot of Bruce’s caboose had something to do with it?  Much later, Bruce said the photos from this period look like “a caricature to me.”
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Nebraska (1982)
Recorded on a four-track TEAC in Bruce’s bedroom on January 3, 1982 (the date was going to be the title for a while), this spare masterpiece was birthed from the same sessions that produced the original, ascetic “Born in the U.S.A.,” as everybody knows, but also “Downbound Train.”  The photo, a grainy monochrome image shot out the windshield of a car hurtling through, presumably, “the badlands of Wyoming” (as we hear in the title track), is perfect.  The little peel of snow on the hood of the car one of those details that say everything, like the way Bruce punctuates so many lines on the album with “Sir.”
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The River (1980)
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.  The River, like Born in the U.S.A. later, was a long-delayed album for which Bruce wrote dozens of songs, only a fraction of which made the record, even though it was a 20-song double LP.  A whole bunch of them finally came out on Tracks 18 years later, confirming that Bruce held back a lot of Grade A material in favor of a lot of filler in 1980, and even some outright crap.  (When I saw Springsteen play the Richmond Coliseum last August, he responded to a fan’s sign requesting the deep River cut “Crush on You” by pointing out, “That’s the worst song we ever wrote!”  Of course, he played the tune anyway, for the first time in 28 years.)
The back cover photo — a closeup of a paper-cutout wedding-cake figures — would have been a great image for the front cover, what with the title track’s story of an accidental pregnancy, and a premature, soon-to-be-loveless marriage, not to mention the deep cut “I Wanna Marry You.”
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The front cover is another forgettable shot of a haunted (or hungover) Bruce — but in black-and-white this time!  Yawn.
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Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)

Yeah, he looks like he went and knocked up Mary, all right.  Oh, wait, wrong album.  Born to Run may have been all about the fantasy of “pulling out of here to win,” but the guy on the front of Darkness on the Edge of Town — released three years and one protracted legal battle with former manager Mike Appel after Born to Run — sure looks like he’s settled in the “town full of losers” referenced in “Thunder Road.”

This is the cover my Bruce-loving friends and I have most often cited as evidence of Bruce’s poor taste in choosing album covers, but in retrospect, this image is a pretty good representation of the dark turn Bruce’s writing takes on this album.  The street operettas like “Backstreets” and “Jungleland” are done now, not to reappear for three decades.  (Working on a Dream makes an awkward attempt to revive this aspect of Springsteen’s legacy.)  So this one gets its own special award:  Most Improved!

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Born to Run (1975)

So it was 1987 or 1988, and it must have been the Friday  before a school vacation or something, because Mr. B., the teacher I and everyone else in m sixth-grade class at Oak Hill Elementary just adored, was playing the radio in the classroom.  And this corny song comes on with this goofy saxophone vamp, and I start singing along for the amusement of my friends:  “Doo-wop, shoo-be-do!  Doo-wop, shoo-be-do!” And Mr. B — ordinarily a cool car, patient and unflappable  — gets flushed like I I’ve never seen him, and demands, “Chris, do you know who that is you’re making fun of?” He was really mad.

And I’d be mad too, nowadays, if I was grooving out to “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” from Born to Run, the kingmaking album of Bruce Springsteen’s career, and some chubby little 11-year-old know-it-all started shoo-be-doo-ing along.

The funny thing is, I knew who Bruce Springsteen was then.  We had MTV at my house.  I had Bruce’s other Born album,  . . . in the U.S.A., on cassette.  And when Mr. B told me I was mocking Bruce Springsteen — the man who wrote “Glory Days!” — I was  crushed.  Secretly. I kept making fun of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” in a hapless attempt to save face, but my heart wasn’t in it.

Anyway, Born to Run is where the Springsteen myth reached its cruising altitde, and part of that legend is the Band of Brothers that he would 30 years later refer to as the “hip-shakin’, history-makin’, booty-quakin’, viagara-takin’ E Street Band.”  “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” is the creation myth — “Well there came a change uptown, and a big man joined the band” — and this album cover, of Bruce leaning on Clarence’s shoulder, is part of that myth, too.

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The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle (1973)

The album is a staggering progression from the folky Greetings, though it came only eight months later.  The cover photo becomes more meaningful as the years wear on because of how shaggy and hippie-ish the 23-year-old Bruce looks.  But I’m not sure what this photo might have expressed upon the album’s initial release, other than that facial hair isn’t for everyone.

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Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973)

Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat!  Or something!

I’ve always liked the postcard motif cover of Bruce’s debut, released in the first week of 1973, the year of Bowie’s Aladdin Sane. Who ever heard of Asbury Park before they heard of Bruce Springsteen?  Bruce’s romanticization of the boardwalk and the nobodies who populate it would get more evocative and specific not much later, but it all begins here, as the title and the cover image portend.

“Under Lincoln’s Unblinking Eyes”: We Are One

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U2 perform “Pride (In the Name of Love” at the Lincoln Memorial Sunday.  Photo by Martin Locraft.

Yeah, words largely fail me these last few days here in Our Nation’s Capitol.  Or more truthfully, my will to sit at home trying to think of the right words has failed me, because there’s been too much to do, see, and experience.

I covered the big We Are One all-star concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday for DCist.    But after watching our new president take the oath of office yesterday  (albeit via  Jumbotron), down on the National Mall with one to two million of my closest fellow citizens, that seems like no big deal now. 

Read all about it anyway!

Chorus as Punchline

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My John Eddie (who?) review is my first since the Paper of Record scaled back its music coverage in the paper-paper, and against expectations, it’s in the paper-paper. But much easier to find here.

Bruce Bowl I

I was hours behind the curve when the Man called Feedom pointed me towards this bulletin this morning, reacting to the announcement that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band will play the Super Bowl Halftime Show in February. (A few hours later, E Street Band guitar man, “Yankee Stadium” composer, and local hero Nils Lofgren announced he will undergo double hip-replacement surgery tomorrow.)

Anyway, let the setlist-handicapping commence!

Bruce has a history of throwing curveballs in at high-profile appearances with limited stage time. The Sept. 2, 1995 concert celebrating the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland was one of only a handful of times when he performed with the E Street Band between 1989 and 1998, and he threw “Darkness on the Edge of Town” in his short set. When he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame himself in 1999 (Bono gave him an induction speech for the ages; Bruce returned the favor when U2 were inducted in 2005), he and the ESB played “The Promised Land,” “Backstreets,” “Tenth Ave. Freeze-Out,” and, er, “In the Midnight Hour” with Wilson Pickett, who looked younger at 58 then than Bruce looks at, well, 59 now.

For the Super Bowl, my best guess is he’ll do career-shortest versions of:

Tenth Ave. Freeze-Out
The Rising
The Promised Land (if Obama wins) or Darkness on the Edge of Town (if it’s McCain)
Born to Run
American Land (snippet)

To New or Not to New?


On their 1992 Zoo TV Tour, U2 opened with six-to-eight songs in a row from their then-most-recent album, Achtung Baby, and the crowd was with them. But they didn’t have the confidence to repeat this approach on the 1997 PopMart Tour — and of course, the POP album was far less popular than Achtung, especially in the U.S.

Ace Paper of Record music critic J. Freedom du Lac pre-viewed his re-view of Jackson Browne’s Warner Theatre concet with this blog post, chiding Brown for apologizing for his new material.

Since you asked, here’s my take:

If you’re going to apologize for playing your new stuff, you forfeit the right to refer to yourself as an artist, I think. Based on JFdL’s review (I wasn’t at the show), I’d give Browne a pass for apologizing once on account of the album not having been released yet. It sounds like he was apologizing repeatedly, though, which is just weak.

But bellowing out song requests is almost always obnoxious. Sure, there are exceptions — like when the performer asks, “So what do you guys want to hear?” But few artists work that way, and no artist worth listing to works that way all the time, and the idea that a performer just walked out there without having made up a setlist that expresses whatever it is they want to express is borderline insulting. More irritating still is when the request-shouters call for obvious warhorses — like “Running on Empty” or “The Pretender” — that everybody knows with 90 percent certainty they’re going to hear anyway! If you’re only interested in the half-dozen or so most familiar tunes in the artist’s catalogue, why bother attending a concert? Make a playlist, save yourself an evening and $150 or so, and spare the members of the audience who actually know how to show their appreciation in a respectful way the headache of having to deal with you all night.

A lot of this depends on what kind of artist you’re dealing with. When U2 or Bruce Springsteen tour a new album, they typically play half to three-quarters of the new material at least for the first leg or first couple of months. Radiohead are playing In Rainbows in its entirety and then some, including bonus tracks that (I think) are only included on the pricey deluxe editions of the album. R.E.M. are playing most of their new album this year, but then again, the album is less than 35 minutes long, leaving plenty of room in the set for crowd-pleasers and rarities alike. With an act like Tom Petty or the Rolling Stones, you’ll hear maybe two or three of the new songs, tops. But when Aimee Mann played the Birchmere last February to preview songs from Smilers several months (not one week) before the album was on sale, she didn’t apologize for playing the new stuff. She believed in the songs, and she sold them. Period.

I also believe a lot of artists are more willing to risk playing a preponderance of new stuff in a small venue than they are in a large one. (The Warner would be about mid-size, I guess.)

Bruce Is Loose

Bruce Springsteen’s handwritten setlist for his show in Richmond last night reveals we were narrowly spared a performance of “Drive All Night,” a strong contender for the worst song Bruce Springsteen has ever put on a an E Street Band album. The Boss disagrees: As he told a sign-waving fan at the start of the hour of encores in that swelled last night’s show to 185 minutes, “We’re all in agreement [“Crush on You”] is the worst song we’ve ever put on a record.” He went on to say he stole the riff from “Car 54, Where Are You?” and that the band definitely didn’t know the song. He huddled with trusted lieutenant “Little” Steven “Silvio Dante” Van Zandt. “There’s no bridge, right?” he asked.

The version of “Crush on You” (sample lyric: “She might be an heiress to Rockefeller / She’s probably a waitress or a bank teller”) that followed was rough and rowdy and glorious, but Bruce’s exchange with the (apparently non-English-speaking) fan who requested it was just as great, so let’s hear some more: “That’s your favorite song?” Jesus. How old are you?”

“Crush on Yoooouuuu!” says the girl cheerfully.

“Yep. How old are you?”

“Crush on yooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuu!”

It was only the most jaw-dropping example of Bruce’s newfound obsequiousness. Since the Magic tour shifted from arenas to (predominantly European) stadiums this year, the show has morphed away from the sober political lament that Bruce brought to the Phone Booth for two nights last November. Last night’s show was nearly an hour longer than either of the two DC appearances, featured only five numbers from Magic despite its Springsteenian-of-old duration. Twenty-eight songs, something like a quarter of them actually selected by the audience, via those signs: “Stand on It.” “Cadillac Ranch.” “Backstreets.” “I’ll Work for Your Love.” “Crush on You.” “Quarter to Three.” And “Rosalita,” though he appears to have been playing that one already this leg. But still!

I’ve read that Bruce has sometimes become visibly irritated by the presence of the signs on prior tours, but on this final stretch of the Magic run, they almost seemed to be the show’s raison d’etre. Certainly, there was more life in the unscripted portions of last night’s show than in the segments where Bruce eventually steered it back to the Magic template as established last fall.

Bruce usually begins tours with a specific theme in mind. You can expect most of the new record plus a smattering of catalogue tracks, culled with great care from his back pages to support the thesis advanced by the new material. It usually takes a few weeks for the setlist to start to move around more than five or six songs per night. On the evidence of last night’s largely free-form revue, Bruce seems to think the Magic tour has accomplished its mission. Or at least, he’s said what he wants to say about the decline of American moral authority under the Bush Administration.

Whether his audience has heard him, or wants to hear him, is another matter. Bruce’s rap about the litany of disgraces added to “the American picture” at the beginning of “Livin’ in the Future” last night was definitely the most tired section of the show, and it was hard to divine the sentiment of the audience from the chorus of cheers and boos that greeted Bruce’s editorial. Were they boing him, or booing the concept of indefinite detention without charge? Were they cheering the theoretically lawful, human-rights-respecting principles our country was supposedly founded on (finally extended to black people in the 1960s) at the end of Bruce’s speech, or applauding the fact that he had finished his lecture and was ready to rock again?

The high allowance for spontaneity in last night’s show is the kind of thing I normally praise unequivocally, and it did provide the evening’s most riveting moments. The loosey-goosey vibe was the best and worst thing about the performance, contributing both for its funniest moment (“Crush on You”) and its most moving (“Backstreets”), but also occasionally giving the long set a listless quality. A 13-minute version of “Mary’s Place,” easily my least favorite thing the E Street Band has released since Bruce reconvened them in 1999, was interesting for the way it showed Bruce taking a flagging crowd (one comprised mostly of his contemporaries, whose personal trainers are nowhere near as good as his) and demanding that they up their energy level so he could continue to perform.

“I want to go to that river of life,” he roared in the the preacher-voice he began using on the 1999-2000 reunion tour, though he repeated himself an awful lot, as if trying to remember his lines. “You can’t get there by yourself!” This went on for an awkward minute or three (it was, as I say, a 13-minute version of a song that feels interminable in its six-minute studio take), until Bruce said something that suddenly put everything in context: “If you can’t get there, we can’t get there!”

I remember thinking during the first half that this show probably wouldn’t turn out to be one of the three-hour marathons he’s been playing of late, based on the reticence of the audience. But Bruce roused them from their middle-aged slumber, which was something to see and something to feel.

Other Stuff: I was impressed by the abundance of signs for obscure tunes I saw. “Anything from Steel Mill, PLEASE!” read one. “Incident.” “Roulette.” The sign he picked out for “I’ll Work for Your Love” had “Brilliant Disguise” written on the other side, which I would have much preferred — I love me some Tunnel of Love — but it would be churlish to complain. A lot of these people seem to follow the tour from show to show. Bruce pointed out a “friendly stalker” near the front and asked him how many shows he’d seen. “This tour?” the guy replied. “Nineteen.”

Bruce pulled kids out of the pit to sit with him onstage at least twice. One boy looked like he was about 10 or 11, and he was signing and pumping his fist on whatever song it was. Bruce sent him back to his owners with a one-arm hug and what looked like a kiss on the top of the head, which made the boy freak out the way any 11 year old male would faced with an open display of affection from another dude. Later on, he had a girl up there with him who couldn’t have been much older, and he actually picked her up and handed her back down to her parents (?). Wonder if he’d have done that if Patti were there.

One of the other sign-request numbers Bruce did was Gary “U.S.” Bonds’s “Quarter to Three,” which was a number one Billboard single in June 1961, when Bruce was 11 or 12 years old. So it has the same resonance for him that . . . actually, I have no fucking idea what the equivalent would be for me. Prince’s “Kiss,” maybe? I bought The Joshua Tree and Tunnel of Love when I was 11. Simple, danceable pop? Er, I know I had Bryan Adams’ Reckless on cassette. And the soundtrack to La Bamba, with Los Lobos covering the then-30-year-old titular hit. I had a vinyl copy of George Michael’s Faith that I’d got from a WAVA “The Power Station” giveaway before they went to a Contemporary Christian format, and I knew the singles off that one from MTV, though I don’t think I ever played the record.

Damn. What was the of-its-moment pop confection that charmed my 11-year-old self so much that I might still want to perform it (assuming, you know, I had a band and 15,000 people looking at me) when I was pushing sixty? I’ll have to think about this.

Finally, the Richmond Coliseum, while I thoroughly unimpressive, utilitarian buidling with horrible acoustics, is still a more inviting venue than the Phone Booth in at least one important sense: The relatively paucity of advertising. There’s isn’t a flat surface in the Phone Booth that isn’t smeared with some corporate logo, but the Richmond Coliseum (so named because it’s in Richmond; not because someone paid to give it a meaningless, tell-you-nothing-about-it moniker) has few ads, and they’re mostly for hard-to-object to products and entities, like the Richmond Department of Parks and Recreation.

Finally: I thought I might learn something from seeing The Hold Steady and their obvious inspiration each perform within four nights of each other. But I didn’t, really.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Richmond Coliseum, Richmond, VA, Monday, August 18, 2008

The Setlist

01 Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
02 Radio Nowhere
03 Out in the Street
04 Prove It All Night
05 Lonesome Day
06 Spirit in the Night
07 Stand on It (fan request via sign)
08 Cadillac Ranch (via sign)
09 Backstreets (another sign – “My band just broke up. Please play ‘Backstreets.'” Bruce does, then remarks during the bridge, “It’s tough when your band breaks up.”)
10 For You (Bruce solo piano)
11 Youngstown
12 Murder, Inc.
13 She’s the One
14 Livin’ in the Future
15 Mary’s Place
16 I’ll Work for Your Love (another sign)
17 The Rising
18 Last to Die
19 Long Walk Home
20 Badlands
ENCORE:
21 Crush on You (first performance since 1980; via sign; hilarious)
22 Quarter to Three
23 Born to Run
24 Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
25 Bobby Jean
26 Dancing in the Dark
27 American Land
ENCORE 2:
28 Twist and Shout

The Band

Roy Bittan – piano
Clarence “Big Man” Clemons – sax, tambourine
Charles Giordano – keys
Nils Lofgren – guitar
Garry Tallent – bass
Soozie Tyrell – violin, guitar, vocals
“Little” Steven Van Zandt – guitar
Max Weinberg – drums
Bruce – vocals, guitar, piano, harmonica

That Resurrected Feeling: The Hold Steady @ 9:30

Now’s that‘s a rock and roll show.

The Setlist

01 Constructive Summer
02 You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came to Dance With)
03 You Can Make Him Like You
04 Chips Ahoy!
05 Sequestered in Memphis
06 Curves and Nerves
07 Massive Night
08 Party Pit
09 The Swish
10 One for the Cutters
11 Chillout Tent
12 Ask Her for Adderall
13 Girls Like Status
14 Lord, I’m Discouraged
15 Yeah Sapphire
16 Your Little Hoodrat Friend
17 Slapped Actress

    ENCORE:

18 Stay Positive
19 Stuck Between Stations
20 Southtown Girls
21 Killer Parties

    ENCORE:

22 How a Resurrection Really Feels

Adam Raised Some Cains: Drive-By Truckers at the 9:30 Club

The best show I’ve seen in double-aught-eight thus far, and not by a little. So, so much better than shivering in front of Radiohead, the World’s Chilliest Band. (TM) That cover of “Adam Raised a Cain”? Just nuts. I only wish Shonna had sung one of her three fine tunes on the new record.

Drive-By Truckers at the 9:30 Club, Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Setlist

01 That Man I Shot

02 Self-Destructive Zones

03 The Righteous Path

04 A Ghost to Most

05 Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife

06 Daddy Needs a Drink

07 Bob

08 Why Henry Drinks

09 Sink Hole

10 Three Dimes Down

11 Adam Raised a Cain (Springsteen cover!)

12 Ronnie and Neil

13 Marry Me

14 Steve McQueen

15 (unknown; sung by Mike Cooley – a cover?)

16 Puttin’ People on the Moon

17 Shut Up and Get on the Plane

18 I’m Eighteen (Alice Cooper cover)

19 Let There Be Rock

    ENCORE

20 Zip City

21 Eighteen Wheels of Love w/ “the rest of the story” from Patterson

22 Lookout Mountain

23 Buttholeville / State Trooper (feat. The Dexateens)

24 People Who Died (feat. The Dexateens)

The Band

Brad Morgan – drums

? – keyboard, lap steel

Shonna Tucker – bass, vocals

John Neff – guitar

Mike Cooley – lead vocal, guitar

Patterson Hood – lead vocal, guitar

Scrolling the BrucePod!

brucex-large.jpgElysa Gardner has a nice feature on Bruce in USA Today, er, today. But what’s really cool about it is the interactive graphic that lets you scroll through Bruce’s iPod.

The opportunities for analysis here are endless (The only Johnny Cash track is a freaking Sting cover!? The only Steve Earle song is a Johnny Cash cover? The lone Sleater-Kinney tune is a Bruce cover; did you even know S-K did “The Promised Land”? From Lucinda Williams, he’s got her gorgeous tribute to my former address, “Ventura.” And only one from Patti Scialfa?), but come on: iPods are the 21st century closets; we’ve all got some skeletons in there.

Actually, there are only one or a handful of tracks for most artists, suggesting that either the Boss has the blue-collar model iPod, with a capacity of maybe one gig, or else this was a carefully edited list pulled off his is iTunes library by his personal assistant for redlining by the Man Hisself. I’ve done stuff like this in my checkered professional past.

I spotted Elysa Gardner (saw her nametag, I mean) at the press preview for the Edward Hopper show at the National Gallery last fall. I really wanted to walk up to her and say, “You wrote the introduction to U2: The Rolling Stone Files!” But since I was there in a semi-professional capacity, it seemed important that I not appear insane.

Is there an Ottawa Turnpike?

Why yes, that is Win Butler and Regine Chassagne of Arcade Fire up there with the Boss. They were invited onstage during the encore portion of Bruce and the E Street Band’s gig in Ottawa, Ontario Sunday night, first performing Bruce’s “State Tropper” (first video below) and then their own “Keep the Car Running” with the help of the E Street Band (second video.)

Bruce Stringsteen and Arcade Fire – State trooper
Uploaded by trendwhore

Wow.

Wow.

I’m going to both Bruce/E Street shows here in Our Nation’s Capitol next month. The last time I saw them play here in DC was in August 1999, when the special guests who showed up during the encore were Bruce Hornsby, Jackson Browne, and Bonnie Raitt. Nothing wrong with any of them, I guess, but nowhere near as exciting as this. I mean, just listen to that guy! (Not Bruce or Win; the guy holding the camera, or standing next to him. Apoplexy time.)

Bruce Stringsteen and Arcade Fire – Keep the car running
Uploaded by trendwhore