What we really are in hard need of is a humane immigration policy right now.
When I attended Bruce Springsteen’s Albany performance during his Devils and Dust solo acoustic tour in 2005, I sat near the back. Wikipedia records a sellout that night, 8,325 seats, but there were empty seats all around me. (I think the online scalpers took a hit on the tour, and I’m glad; I started clicking the minute tickets went on sale and ended up a mile from the stage for 87.50 plus convenience charge.) After the third song, a woman asked her companion, “Where’s the rest of the band?” “They come out one at a time, don’t worry.” (I don’t think the speaker was Jonathan Demme.)
It was that kind of night where I was – surrounded by people who would normally take a bathroom break and refill their red Solo cups during an acoustic song, faced with a setlist where nothing sounded familiar. “This sucks” was a common refrain, and many didn’t stay for the entire 2-hour set. Springsteen’s stage picture didn’t help – heavy velvet drapes, antique chandeliers, and monochromatic, sepia-tinged lighting. The effect was grandma’s parlor, which didn’t reflect or particularly complement the imaginative force behind the songs and their sonic presentation.
After a furious start to the Springsteen Archive series of full concert releases, with new installments dropping at 6-week and then 8-week intervals, it’s now been 11 weeks since we first heard LA Sports Arena, California 1988. The newest chapter was finally released on Friday, September 25 – two days after Springsteen’s birthday, which would have been ideal. (Another head-scratcher is the original artwork, listing the venue as the Schotteheim Center. Strange for a series of otherwise remarkable quality.)
Schottenstein Center, Ohio 2005 was recorded just two weeks after the Albany concert I attended. The audio mix places the listener on the stage (with the exception of Ramrod, first song of the encore; Springsteen is apparently distant from the microphone, and the sound board operator battles feedback to boost his level.) The quality on the recording is intimate and precise; even the creaks from the pump organ are distinctly audible. Moving from the rear of the house to sitting on stage with the artist makes all the difference – this release reveals new facets of Springsteen’s master showmanship. He switches instruments from song to song, and employs microphone techniques that reflect his production experience, as well as four decades of live performance. It’s one of the most sonically varied and subtle recordings in Springsteen’s entire catalog.
I’ll leave it to Backstreets to outline the tour- and world-premieres in the setlist, just as I’ll leave it to the message boards to wonder “why this date and not [my favorite], you morons…” These are my highlights:
Reason to Believe, with distorted harmonica and vocal (courtesy the love-it-or-hate-it bullet mic) crackling like distorted transistor radio through Alan Fitzgerald’s droning keyboard, played offstage. Percussion is provided by Springsteen’s boot dropping on the stage next to another mic. The number suggests an alternative “Howlin’ Wolf Sessions,” if Springsteen had chosen a slightly different direction for his next project. (Another song in this vein is 2008’s A Night With the Jersey Devil.)
For You is piano-accompanied, a great companion to the Hammersmith Odeon rendition from 1975. Springsteen’s piano is merely serviceable alongside Roy Bittan’s, but his weary vocal benefits from thirty years of accumulated wisdom, as well as technique.
State Trooper is opened up from its Nebraska incarnation, with a colorful guitar introduction that gives way to the percussive repeated chords that drive the rhythm. Springsteen’s vocal is high and almost unhinged, far more interesting than the album’s weary desperation.
Reno is one of Springsteen’s most divisive songs, a graphic short story (or tone poem) about an encounter with a hooker that becomes a wistful meditation on loss. I count it as one of his masterpieces, like Meeting Across the River in its ability to conjure a remarkably complete character in a fully realized setting. This version is pristine and heartbreaking.
Valentine’s Day has long been my favorite Springsteen album-closer (it narrowly edged out New York City Serenade when I first heard it in 1987, and hasn’t yet been supplanted.) Again, Alan Fitzgerald backs this from offstage with a subtle keyboard, providing just a touch of color. (I was puzzled at the concert I saw in 2005, unaware that an unseen musician was helping – I love the sound, although some complained it wasn’t a solo concert, as billed. They might have a point.) In any case, I’d consider any concert that included this song special, and it’s a highlight of this set.
Jesus Was an Only Son is preceded by a casual talk about religious iconography in Springsteen’s work, which he ends up tying to his own ongoing vocation as a parent. It’s funny and touching, with additional spoken interludes during the song.
The Hitter and Matamoros Banks are back-to-back renditions from Devils and Dust that feel like continuations of the stories from The Ghost of Tom Joad. Their placement at the end of the main set finished the concert on a thoughtful note – if Springsteen wrote Nebraska 25 years earlier under the influence of filmmaker Terrence Malick, and The Ghost of Tom Joad was a reflection on John Ford’s version of The Grapes of Wrath, these songs demonstrate a storytelling sensibility which, although still cinematic, now more uniquely belongs to the songwriter himself instead of being dominated by his influences. Both are superior to the album versions, and serve to underline the themes of the evening; among those, difficulty is often more compelling to life’s narrative than simple rock & roll abandon.
Dream Baby Dream closed the concert for most of the Devils and Dust tour; it’s the number that made the evening for me when I first heard it in Albany. Not a Springsteen original, it’s a cover from the band Suicide, and a brilliant choice. The lyrics might have been distilled from Springsteen’s own philosophy over the years: dream, keep the fire burning, I just want to see you smile. They’re simple and repetitive, delivered in an increasingly hoarse voice as the song crescendos. At the apex Springsteen walked off the stage as Fitzgerald continued the droning chord changes underneath. Haunting, mystifying, and uplifting in equal measure.
When I attend the concerts of an artist I love, I’d rather not hear songs I know well. I want new textures, fresh perspectives. Springsteen delivered those elements during the Devils and Dust tour, kicking off yet another stage in his restless artistic development. This recording is a beautiful document, with a higher-than-usual quota of “you haven’t heard this before.” At the start, Springsteen asks for “as much quiet as I can get,” and that’s a good way to listen. This is music for grown-ups – pour a Scotch, sit back, and save your red Solo cup for the Magic tour.
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – LA Sports Arena, California 1988
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