That staple (some call it a cliché) of rock 'n' roll, the double live album, rears its head once again this week in the form of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's Live in New York City (Columbia). And accompanied by the video of the concert -- here, an exclusive HBO special to be broadcast on Saturday. As this writer's devotion to Springsteen is a matter of public record (see my appreciation in the October 14, 1999, New Times), there's little point in reentering the debate over songs. Instead, let's look at these artifacts' merits on their own terms, as concert documents.
First things first. When Sony initially announced the track listing for the two-CD set, Internet fan groups lit up over what was missing, so let's clear up one thing: While drawn primarily from the July 1, 2000, Madison Square Garden concert (a few songs come from June 29, as the E Street Band held a 10-night NYC residency), this is not intended as a blow-by-blow reproduction. The final gig of the '99-'00 reunion world tour ran 28 songs and lasted well over three hours, while the main body of Live in New York City is only 13 songs -- 14 on the video -- and about two hours (the CD also adds six "bonus tracks" -- more on that in a moment). Right off, then, the question arises, what did Springsteen have in mind with this set? Clearly, he wasn't concerned with usurping the bootleggers' turf; every date from the tour is in underground circulation, and one bootleg label, Crystal Cat, issued a professional three-CD edition of the entire July 1 show titled Legendary Night.
Another strategy Springsteen passed on was to mount a comprehensive tour anthology modeled on the earlier Live/1975-1985 boxed set, or even a "best-of" of the 10 nights that would have spotlighted the many rarities he hauled out, not to mention three other new songs ("Further On Up the Road," "Code of Silence," "Another Thin Line") performed during the Garden run.
Bruce Springsteen Monday, April 16, at midnight; and Sunday, April 22, at 8:15 p.m
As Springsteen albums have always been meticulously structured in an attempt to communicate meaning to the fans, this one, too, has its own internal logic. It comprises five distinct "movements" (which I've labeled with my own headings, in parentheses): "My Love Will Not Let You Down"/"Prove It All Night"/"Two Hearts" (The Power of Love, Faith and Camaraderie); "Atlantic City"/"Mansion on the Hill"/"The River" (Raised Hopes, Dashed Dreams); "Youngstown"/"Murder Incorporated"/"Badlands" (A Refusal to Lie Down); "Out in the Street"/"Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" (Celebration and Release -- including, on the video, "Born to Run"); "Land of Hope and Dreams"/"American Skin" (Transcendence and Passage). Basically, Springsteen has distilled his show down to its essential philosophical core. These themes have frequently appeared in his work over the years, and consistently so during the reunion tour. A songwriter's driving force, after all, is to set forth images, ideas and ideals with the hopes that his audience will, as Springsteen has suggested in interviews, glimpse themselves in his work and in turn grasp the larger connections -- the ties that bind. (It's not a "greatest live hits" package, either, given the inclusion of two new songs and material from Nebraska and the Tracks boxed set. The only concessions are to consumer value: a one-minute gap separates "American Skin" from the six bonus tracks, which then fill out Disc 2 to a tidy 75 minutes. Among them: an astonishingly grandiose "Lost in the Flood," a newly definitive acoustic slide guitar arrangement of "Born in the U.S.A." [just in time for the Bush II era], a heartfelt version of "Jungleland," and another Tracks rarity, "Don't Look Back.")
This bottom line is even more vividly evident on the documentary. By the time Springsteen & Co. hit MSG, they were the most well-rehearsed garage band in the world, and it shows. As directed by Chris Hilson and edited by Thom Zimny, the concert film glows with a you-are-there vérité crispness increasingly rare in the post-MTV era.
From the viewer's perspective, the filmmakers worked unobtrusively (one hardly detects any cameras or crew in the scenes) and remained faithful to the experience itself, only once employing effects, brief slo-mo superimpositions of band member close-ups near the end of "Land of Hope and Dreams." More crucially, the editing technique strives for economy, efficiency and rhythm. Cuts, pans and dissolves are deployed in synch with the music, each song forming a perfectly contained visual dynamic existing within the broader thematic context and overall concert flow. From long shots that establish the E Street Band staking out a simple white stage in a sea of constantly moving fans to intense close-ups of band members' faces that reveal a swathe of expressions and emotion, the film, with a loving, fluid grace, captures something that is precious and true.
Highlights to watch for? A wonderful alternating shot between Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt at the mike in the closing call-and-response segment of "Prove It All Night"; Steve's Richard Nixon impersonation and Bruce's vocal snippet from rock oldie "It Takes Two" during "Two Hearts"; a dramatically rearranged, jazz-noir version of "The River," with Bruce singing most of the tune with eyes clenched shut, opening them only for the key lines, "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true/Or is it something worse?" (pay attention to how he subtly directs the band with almost imperceptible hand gestures at the end of the song). There's the panorama of the entire Garden on its feet marching and chanting "Whoah-oh-oh," during "Badlands"; shots of band members mugging shamelessly during "Out in the Street"; a hilarious do-si-do dance from Clarence Clemons and Nils Lofgren; Springsteen leaping onto Roy Bittan's grand piano during an extended intro for "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" and literally wringing drops of sweat from his black shirt. Later, fans eagerly reach up to strum Bruce's guitar as he leans over the edge of the stage during "Born to Run." In the same song, band and audience lock into a tandem groove caught by a stage-rear camera rolling subtly up over the shoulders of the E Streeters, then tilting down slightly into the crowd. It is an undeniably sensual, visceral and physical moment of documentary cinema. Show a little faith, there's magic in the night, indeed.
Yet the most riveting moments arrive via the two new songs, "Land of Hope and Dreams" and "American Skin (41 Shots)." Their closing-concert positions are significant -- in fact, the latter came earlier in the set list but has been resequenced for album and film as the final song -- suggesting that their author considers them definitive, culminating statements of what he's termed the "rededication" of the E Street Band, clearing the way for the future. (A new E Street Band studio album reportedly is in the works.)
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Stylistically, too, both tunes are unique within the Springsteen oeuvre, a decisive step forward. Both contain subtle elements of "Backstreets"-style orchestral anthemism; present is a serene, gospel-like vibe familiar to fans of latter-day Boss ("Secret Garden," "Streets of Philadelphia"); the lyrics, while suffused in religious imagery, have precise dramatic arcs not dissimilar to those found on much of The Ghost of Tom Joad. The musical synthesis, however, is striking, and the subject matter is the product of someone grown older, wiser and intensely reflective.
"LOHAD," which closed every show on the reunion tour, is about brotherhood and redemption, clearly descended from Woody Guthrie's folk populism and Curtis Mayfield's gospel soul. In concert, it's optimistic and uplifting, transforming the Garden into a joyous, all-inclusive tent revival.
"American Skin (41 Shots)," by contrast, is darker, more veiled, lined with tragedy, although not without its own glimmers of hope and dreams. It partly concerns the wrongful slaying by New York City police of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo, and its performance at all 10 Garden shows earned Springsteen a misguided police boycott. In a broader sense, however, it too is about how we inevitably strive toward brotherhood and redemption even amid the undermining factors of paranoia and violence our culture fosters. Sings Springsteen, "We're baptized in these waters and in each other's blood/It ain't no secret/No secret my friend/You can get killed just for living/In your American skin." The band moves gracefully, riding a heartbeat bass rhythm and hymnal organ melody toward a thunderous climax featuring a startlingly angry guitar solo from Springsteen. Clarence Clemons answers him, as if in reassurance, with a gentler sax solo, then the song murmurs down to a soft fadeout.
"We need some quiet," admonishes Springsteen, bathed in blue light and extending one arm as if conjuring a spell. He waits a few measures, then edges into the solemn invocation: "41 shots . . . and we'll take that ride." For those of you listening or viewing at home, if what you feel is a slight shiver, a catch in your throat, or perhaps even a tug of moisture at the corner of your eye, then the artist's journey toward an envisioning of meaning in our shared lives has been a fruitful one. Climb onboard; the next stage is about to begin.