Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – LA Sports Arena, California 1988

LA Sports Arena, California 1988

LA Sports Arena, California 1988

Jerry Falwell, he can kiss my ass three times baby.

So this is the missing link. We’ve long had the officially released LIVE/1975-85 (1986), and many subsequent Springsteen tours have been released on audio or video. The Tunnel of Love Express tour was represented on the 4-song Chimes of Freedom EP (1988); although that was fantastic, the production (huge drums, cavernous reverb) made it seem like a “special edition” add-on to the 1975-85 set. Those of us who didn’t make it to a show saw a few bits on The Complete Video Anthology, 1978-2000, and also MTV’s Inside the Tunnel of Love special. We knew the setlist was unusually consistent, that shows started out with Terry Magovern in a carnival booth, handing tickets to each band member as they came onstage. We knew the band had been re-arranged from their traditional spots, and we knew about the horn section.

We knew that Springsteen recorded the Tunnel of Love album on his own, then invited the E Street musicians, one at a time, to “beat the tape.” They had to re-audition for their places, and if their contribution was deemed worthy it was included on the album. That seems particularly cold, and many of them have cautiously expressed their hurt over the years. It was the same Springsteen (“Don’t call me Boss”) who fined stagehands for touching his guitar cases, and fired others for minor offenses once he became a global superstar.

When the Tunnel of Love album came out (1987), it was my favorite Springsteen album. That has something to do with where I was in life – I’d just turned 18, and love was on my mind. Springsteen was writing about relationships; although Born to Run and Nebraska were nominally “concept” albums, Tunnel of Love was unusually consistent in that regard. Perhaps more than the previous seven studio albums, it felt like the songwriter was baring his soul, during a specific moment of personal and artistic maturation. (Paul Simon also took heat for dropping Art Garfunkel’s parts from his similarly personal Hearts and Bones album; also a cold move, also one of my favorite albums.) Also, I’d never heard love songs like these: “Bobby said he’d pull out, Bobby stayed in.”

Toby Scott continues his remarkable series of Springsteen archive releases with LA Sports Arena, California 1988. It’s been 8 weeks since we first heard Brendan Byrne Arena, New Jersey 1984, and I’ve clicked “refresh” on about 3,500 times over the past two weeks, waiting for the next concert. It’s still hard to believe these are coming out so quickly, so cheaply, at such an astonishingly high level of production quality. I’ve said it before, and it holds true with this release: the real value in this series is to chart Springsteen’s artistic development over the years. By providing entire concerts instead of carefully curated individual selections, we get chapters in a serialized memoir. Like so much of what Springsteen has done in his career, the archive series is yet another “something new.” It’s fantastic.

The new release was recorded April 23, 1988. The tour had begun on February 25; this was the 28th show (the players also rehearsed longer than usual, about 6 weeks.) The E Street Band had been told there might not be a tour, and if there was a tour they might not be included. In a way, that’s reflected in the sound of the recording. Guitars are much less present, Clarence Clemons’ saxophone takes backseat to the 5-piece horn section (The Miami Horns, re-christened here as The Horns of Love), and the E Street piano/organ sound isn’t as prominent. Like the previous tour, synthesizers are a big part of the arrangements, although they’re more sophisticated here; whereas Born in the U.S.A. and Dancing in the Dark now sound dated (the sounds never jibed with Springsteen’s musical intelligence), the atmospheric fills and lead synthesizer lines on the Tunnel of Love album and tour hold up.

Like the other archive releases, LA Sports Arena is mixed similar to its corresponding album, and the listener is positioned differently for each. In this case, we seem to be in a luxury box that cuts out most of the audience noise – we’re distinctly removed from the crowd, Bruce’s voice is front and center. To my ear, this is the cleanest rendition of the lead vocal in the series. Unlike the mix on the Chimes of Freedom EP, the drum sound is muted, particularly the snare – I’m pleasantly surprised by the balance. The bass is powerful and full underneath, another great showcase for Garry Tallent. Backup vocals are distinct and well balanced (I can’t find any evidence of additional singers, but some of the harmonies are so good you’ll think they must be there); this is also my favorite recording with Patti Scialfa, who is often too prominent in Springsteen mixes.

The concert on the whole is wonderful – part of the pleasure is the thrill of discovery, and part is how much of a departure the tour concept was. The great Tunnel of Love songs are well represented, a few of which I’ve never heard live before. I was surprised at the long story Bruce tells before All That Heaven Will Allow – I’d previously thought the extended stories dwindled after The River tour. Ain’t Got You is a big improvement over the album track, leading into an roadhouse version of You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch) – in context of the evening’s relationship theme, the amazing line “She didn’t get me excited, she just made me feel mean” takes on new weight. That weight is apparent throughout, which caused many reviewers and fans to declare the tour a downer, or “a dark ride.” It might be, but only if you’re one who gets depressed listening to Darkness on the Edge of Town all the way through.

The Tunnel of Love tour concept might have been a stronger statement if Springsteen hadn’t felt compelled to satisfy those who just want the hits over and over again, or at least some semblance of the same-old raucous E Street Band sound. (Of the two bands Springsteen assembled for later tours, the first was like an E Street cover band by way of REO Speedwagon, as pointless as the simile suggests, while the second was successful precisely because it was a complete departure. Mr. Tallent has said he thought the E Streeters could have done what Springsteen did with the Sessions Band, and he might be right; Springsteen seems to have only recently become aware of how versatile his faithful sidekicks are and always were.)

Roulette is a highlight of the show – a B-side that has some of Springsteen’s fiercest singing. And many of the “lighter” (not dark) songs are great – I’m a Coward is a fantastic R&B number that features Springsteen-the-Evangelist; Have Love, Will Travel is another fun throwback that showcases the horn section; also Sweet Soul Music. Those numbers all would have been great for the 2012 Apollo Theater show, and highlight the seemingly effortless versatility of Springsteen & Co. Several of the “catalog” songs don’t fare as well with the approach – Backstreets, Hungry Heart, Glory Days, Rosalita, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out all sound like too-slick Vegas versions of themselves. Not inexpert, just less inspired.

Listening to the recording now, knowing the musicians wouldn’t play together again for more than a decade following the tour (less than four months after this concert), adds poignancy to the proceedings. The acoustic Born to Run played here (released on Chimes of Freedom, although not from this concert) remains one of Springsteen’s most beautiful and affecting songs. If this concert doesn’t have the manic, sometimes desperate energy of the 1970s concerts, it solidifies Bruce’s reputation as a master showman. Another home run – thank you to all involved, especially Mr. Scott. In six-to-eight weeks, I’ll be clicking again.

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – Brendan Byrne Arena, New Jersey 1984
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – Nassau Coliseum, New York 1980
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – Tower Theater, Philadelphia 1975