Bruce Springsteen in Albany: 24 Notes for 24 Songs
(Posted on the 32nd Anniversary of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s British debut, at the Hammersmith Odeon. The recording of that concert was released in 2005.)
1) Our iJamming! Pub friend, Jimmy B, who comes up with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band tickets at the last minute, is right: the Albany Times-Union Center is small for an arena. In fact, it quickly occurs to me with some surprise and perhaps even some shame, it’s the smallest venue at which I’ve ever seen Bruce perform. With the right seats, you could be fooled into thinking you’re in a theater.
2) Unfortunately, we all have the wrong seats – just to the side and behind the band. If we want to see Bruce’s facial expression, as opposed to a long-distance view of his hair, we have to look at the video screen. In (suitably) American parlance, this “sucks a big one” as the floor seats have been removed – enabling a good-natured crowd in front of the stage jig and jump their way through the performance. Wish I could have been among them.
3) As is well known, Bruce Springsteen has provided the voice for his generation, so it’s no surprise that the majority of the audience members in Albany are around his age; they’ve all grown up together. But it’s still a shame that there aren’t more young people here. When I went to see the Who in Bridgeport last year, it was greatly encouraging to see how many parents had brought their children to experience (what’s left of) the magic. They should have done so here, too, because there aren’t many – let’s make that more categorical: there aren’t any – American bands that have, over the years, put on a more energetic, lengthier, better-paced and ultimately, better value-for-money show than Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
4) They take the stage at 8:28pm. They leave at 10:42pm. The break for an encore lasts approximately sixty seconds. See what I mean?
5) That said, Bruce is starting to look just a little more rigid on stage. Four years ago, wrapping up what we then thought might be the last ever E Street Band tour, at Shea Stadium, he was still hanging upside down from the microphone and doing the knee-drops. There’s none of that tonight. Then again, Bruce is 58. Could you pull off the kind of show he does, night after night after night?
6) Opening breathless salvo: “Radio Nowhere,” “No Surrender,” “Lonesome Day.” A chance to get the sound right, vibe the crowd up, settle one’s nerves and prove one’s mettle before settling down to the show at hand.
7) The sound, booming cleanly from a 360-degree flown PA, helps compensate for the crap view. The stage set, minimal as always, with monitors hidden under the stage and lights serving the music rather than the other way round, conveys the sense that we’re all in this together.
8) The E Street Band have it down so pat that at times you could be forgiving for thinking they’re not trying. But don’t be fooled. Watching over the shoulders of Danny Federici (is that a Hammond he’s playing?) or at Nils Lofgren’s left hand when he deigns to face our way, the talent is more than evident. Springsteen has some of the best musician in the world by his side. They’re just trained not to show off. That’s the Boss’ job.
9) Indeed, Bruce is such a consummate showman I sometimes forget what a good musician he is himself. On “Gypsy Biker,” his guitar solo is positively blistering, a screeching high-pitched wail on the sturdy old Telecaster that any rhythm-guitarist-as-soloist (hi, Pete!) would be proud of producing. His lengthy extended harp playing at the start of Nebraska’s “Reason To Believe,” extending the album’s brief introduction into a five-minute blues work-out with Little Stevie, is equally earthy, unpretentious and effective, the kind of primitive sound any front-man-as-harpist (hi, Roger!) would be equally happy to emit.
10) Most acts with anything even close to Springsteen’s catalogue of hits milk it for all its worth. If they have a new album to promote, they know not to test your patience with it. Not Bruce, not tonight at any rate: he plays no less than eight of the twelve songs from Magic, his recently released, eminently solid – if occasionally workmanlike – album with the E Street Band. Kudos.
11) He also makes sure we understand what the songs are about. He introduces the title track – played acoustically, mainly just him and wife Patti Scialfa – as being about “truth twisted into a lie, and lies twisted into the truth.” In other words, he says, it’s not really so much about magic as about “tricks.” Though he doesn’t mention the words “current Administration,” you’d have to be asleep at the wheel not to know that’s what he’s referring to. “Living in the Future” is more overt, even on record: it’s hard to miss its references to “election day.” But Bruce still offers up a lengthy introduction to the song that includes references to “what’s happening now… illegal wire-tapping… attack on the Constitution… A song about sleeping through things.” The Boss has spent much of his working life pondering how to balance his role as a blue-collar hero with his duty to speak truth to power, and it doesn’t necessarily pay off: “American Skin” cost him many fans. The 2007 Bruce acknowledges his dichotomy, and as the band’s introductory volume increases over his didactic introduction to “Living in the Future,” he ramps up his carnival barker persona and backs off the lecture … “but we’re going to sing about it because we’re musicians.” And off they go to do just that. As such, when it comes to “Last To Die,” he doesn’t offer an introduction at all: do you really need one for a song whose hook line is, “We’ll be the last to die for a mistake”?
12) Before the show, we meet a fan on his 137th Springsteen gig. Why would someone keep coming back to see the same show? Because he never does see the same show. Late in the set, the Band digs out “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” from his second album the Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, with Bruce on acoustic, Federici on accordion, and I wonder if I’ve heard the band play it live before. Asbury Park is not just Bruce’s old stomping ground, by the way; it’s where my wife saw most of her new wave shows. “What’s the closest you’ve ever been to Bruce at a live show?” she asks. “A good seat at Madison Square Garden,” comes the slightly disgruntled response. She proceeds to tell me about the night she saw Marshall Crenshaw at the Stone Pony and Bruce got up to jam, right in front of her in the very front row. It sounds like a moment from the “Dancing In The Dark” video… but no, he didn’t invite her up on stage with him.
13) The next morning, Posie googles “Stone Pony, Bruce Springsteen, Marshall Crenshaw” and within seconds has called up the date of her close encounter: July 31, 1987. Had she stuck around two more nights, she’d have seen the entire E Street Band play a full gig at the same club. They were, at the time, the very biggest act in the world, Born In the USA having sold about 25 million copies – in America alone. I’ve seen the basic Who line-up play at a club and it satiated me. Everything from here is just gravy. I would like to see Bruce and the E Street Band in a similarly small environment before I die.
14) I apologize for the tangent. Following “4th of July,” the group plays “E Street Shuffle,” from the same second album, the guy in front of me goes absolutely bananas, and I am sure I have never heard this song played live. The following morning I do my own web research: I hit BruceSpringsteen.net, where the night’s set list has already been posted. Turns out both “4th of July” and “E Street Shuffle” were making their tour premieres (though the tour is already seven weeks old, songs show up and disappear with regularity). It also turns out those two songs have not appeared in the same show together since 1975. Hopefully it made that avid fan’s 137th Bruce gig a very special one.
15) Another tangent: Bruce Springsteen’s web site is alright, at least for a superstar. It’s not like you get free MP3s, but there are video clips from the tour and references to every night’s supported charity. The site is clean, easy to follow, features less-than-glowing reviews of the live shows (there’s already one up about Albany), and offers up each night’s set list, from which the visitor is only a click away from every song’s lyrics and a thirty-second sample of its music. One very simple click further and you’re presented with the entire catalogue up on iTunes. Because of the 99cents a song rule and because Bruce’s early albums tended towards fewer but longer songs, The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle, a 45-minute album, is available at iTunes for just $6.93.
16) Back in Albany, “the E Street Shuffle” is distinctive from the rest of the set for being so much more jazzy and funky than anything else we hear tonight. I remember that I don’t own a copy of Bruce’s second album. The next day, at allmusic.com, arguably the very most encyclopedic music resource on the web, I read William Ruhlmann’s five-star review of it: he says that Bruce “never made a better album.” Interesting; I never knew his “sophomore” record was held in quite such high esteem. But as a fan of This Is The Modern World, who am I to disagree?
17) I still don’t own a physical copy of The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle. But via iTunes, I have picked up the five of seven songs I was missing – for $4.95 – and the full set is assembled on both my iTunes and iPod. Next time I see the vinyl at a stoop sale, I’ll pick it up just for the album sleeve.
18) The first Bruce Springsteen album I ever bought was Born To Run, in 1975. I was 11 years old. I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I still do. I spent most of my time back then listening to the Who, that most English of bands, and Bruce and the E Street Band were something else: they represented America, the USA, a far and distant land and, on songs like “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” “The Night” and “Jungleland,” an exotic, dangerous place straight out of the movies. (Bruce was not my introduction to America; I’d bought David Cassidy and then Alice Cooper records beforehand. But Bruce was the first person I’d bought into to who sung about seemed to be a real America.) I still remember hearing all the fuss about Bruce Springsteen back in 1975 – “the future of rock’n’roll” and all that. I certainly recall, vividly so, Roger Scott on Capital Radio talking about Springsteen’s British live debut, at Hammersmith Odeon on November 18, as being one of the best thing he’d ever seen, this while “Born To Run” took up residence on the Capital Countdown, the listener-voted top ten that Scott hosted every day between 5.00 and 5.45pm. I can remember all that like it was yesterday, but I can barely remember what I had for dinner last night. Aren’t human beings amazing?
19) On the drive up to Albany, I play the recording of that British debut – Hammersmith Odeon, London ‘75 – belatedly released on CD in 2005. In the sleeve-notes, Bruce writes, twenty years later, of coming to a “London that was yet to see its first McDonald’s, that was still wrasslin’ with making a good cheeseburger and that seemed very foreign and exotic to a bunch of provincial Jersey Shore beach bums and musicians.” So I guess the feeling was mutual, huh?
20) At the Times-Union Center, Bruce plays “She’s The One” from Born To Run and it sounds as fresh as at on the Hammersmith Odeon recording, when almost the exact same band was exactly thirty-two years younger (minus three nights). Roy Bittan’s magical piano lines continue to inspire, and I wish he was given that much freedom on the current recordings. As for the Bo Diddley riff that revs up “She’s The One,” the Stones know, the Who know, every white rock’n’roll band knows… you can’t go wrong with it.
21) During the one-stop, five-song encore, Bruce plays two more songs from Born To Run. He dedicates “Thunder Road” to his best friend, with whom he has traveled across country on motorbike and by car, and who is 53 years old today. The performance seems restrained as a result, as if Bruce is trying to summon up some of the memories that first inspired that classic and trying to project its intent onto his best friend. It works. It’s magical. But the restraint carries over to “Born To Run” itself and, with the house lights turned up as always, I realize that this song has become a gift to the audience. The group doesn’t need to play it again. But the fans, they need to live it, to sing it, to feel it and to yearn in the process for those “glory days” of the mid-seventies. There’s a part of me that feels part of that. But there’s a bigger part of me that’s the forward-thinking critic, the part of me that prefers the Bruce who plays eight songs from his new album. Ultimately, I guess I feel about this song live as I do about the Who still playing “My Generation,” – that it’s long been time – and it’s probably too late – to drop the song from the set.
22) Tonight Bruce draws not just that unexpected deuce from The Wild, the Innocent… the predictable trio from Born To Run and the eight from Magic, but a surprising four from Darkness On The Edge of Town, including the title track, the set finale “Badlands,” “Candy’s Room” and, pertinently, follows up “Living In The Future” with “The Promised Land.” Curiously, there’s nothing from The River, and perhaps less so, given that it was more a solo album and not a very good one at that, nothing from Devils and Dust either.
23) The night closes – every night on this tour closes – with “American Land.” Available on CD only as part of Live In Dublin with the Sessions Band, “American Land” comes across as such an authentic Celtic jig that one could easily suppose it was another cover, as per the We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions material that inspired it. But when the lyrics are flashed up on the video screen in the hope we might sing along, Posie and I both spot the tell-tale lines that indicate it could only have come from the present tense/ions: “The McNicholas, the Posalski’s, the Smiths, Zerillis, too/The Blacks, the Irish, Italians, the Germans and the Jews.”… For it’s a sad truth that every new immigrant group suffered prejudice from those above them and that most passed it on to those below. In other words, old Irish rebel songs do not, typically, laud the blacks or the Jews. The Catholic Bruce Springsteen’s “American Land” celebrates the equal contribution from all those immigrants and in its deliberately drunken cheer at the end of the night – Bittan and Federici both on accordion, Scialfa of course on violin – it provides a positive, if arguably sarcastic, antidote to the fears expressed earlier in the set, especially via the songs on Magic: Springsteen points fingers at our leaders, but he never loses faith in his Promised/American Land. This does not mean he believes the promise came true for the immigrants of a hundred years ago, when he sings of the “treasure for the taking, for any hard working man/Who will make his home in the American Land.” It means he recognizes their struggle, and has never lost sight of the dream.
24) This closing song, all the more so because I had not previously studied its lyrics, proves extra poignant for me. I will next be in Albany, New York’s state capital, on November 29, where I will become an American citizen. When I take the oath, offer my allegiance and vow to take up arms if called upon, I will not be thinking of the country as it is ruled from the top, but the “American Land” that Bruce sings about from below, the one whose everyman’s hopes, fears, failures, aspirations and achievements he’s so eloquently sung about these last thirty-five years. That’s the one worth calling home.
(With apologies of sorts to Nick Hornby, who wrote far more eloquently than me aboutan Englishman’s childhood fascination with America and with Bruce in his 31 Songs)