R.E.M.’s “Out of Time” 25 Years Later

25 years ago, I was the label manager for Warner Bros. in Tel Aviv. I’ve written about this a little bit before; it was a gig I fell into because I was in the right place at the right time, spoke English and had been working at the outer edges of the U.S. music business for a couple of years. There was a lot of music I was continually told would not ever be popular in Israel, and R.E.M. was one of those bands.

Except that it wasn’t true. We broke them in the territory during Out of Time and sold so many records (relatively) and I campaigned hard to get the band to do a promo tour of the country for Automatic For The People, back when it was hard for bands to play the country, much less come over to do promo. I was one of the many indie kids who came of age when R.E.M. were college radio darlings (I published the first R.E.M. fanzine, radio free europe and some day I will digitize the fucking things), and then later moved up in the business, and we were all busy opening the door as wide as we could for the music that we loved…which in this case, now happened to be beyond enormous.

I wish I could dig out the photographs (and I wish I had more of them) but the one pertinent story I will offer was later retold by Mike Mills at the 40 Watt Club in Athens in 1992, when the band played a benefit for Greenpeace. I came into work the next morning and found a fax from one of my BFF’s/old-time R.E.M. road compatriot, with the setlist in full, and “STORY ABOUT CARYN” written next to “Losing My Religion.” I then had to wait interminable months until I got a tape of the show.

Anyway, you should buy the anniversary release because it has amazing liner notes from the great Annie Zaleski and you should check out this fantastic BBC Radio documentary. And I can’t believe it’s been 25 years.

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Vulture’s “All 314 Bruce Springsteen Songs, Ranked From Worst to Best”

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Late last year, an editor I was working with at Vulture asked me if I was interested in taking on the assignment of ranking and rating all of Bruce Springsteen’s songs, similar to other major ranking projects they have on their site. I immediately said “yes.” I like hard assignments that take me out of my comfort zone and give me a chance to go deep.

We deliberated a bit on what made the list — no covers, only officially released songs — and I went to work.

This isn’t a list of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs. If you’ve read anything on this site you know that. Personal lists are also ever-changing, and that’s how it should be. I wanted to create a strong list based on objective criteria and then I had the job of backing that up in writing, on a song-by-song basis. You can’t just say “This song sucks.”

The criteria always has to be the lyrics and the music. It can’t be anything else for this kind of list. I allowed for the song’s live performance to provide a bump or a bonus when I wasn’t sure, but it couldn’t be the governing factor — but equally, it couldn’t be ignored, either.

Even with the parameters, I still went back and forth on ‘No covers.’ How can I write this list without “Trapped”? What about “Jersey Girl”? But it soon became clear that they didn’t fit the notion of the exercise, especially once I established criteria for ranking. He hasn’t written the lyrics for the cover, and not every cover has been rearranged, so then you’re ranking an opinion of an interpretation and that’s a different exercise. The covers were out. (This also eliminated Seeger Sessions, which could be its own project.)

There is no website that has all of the songs. I had to get this from a friend who keeps these kind of lists. (Thank you.) To formulate the initial ranking, I wrote every song on an index card, and then I went to a hotel for a long weekend so I could spread everything out. I took some initial photos of this process:

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This is because I am An Old, and I’m still tactile. I needed to see the songs in order to sort them.

Once I had an initial order I was happy with, I re-ordered the master Google sheet I had with all of the songs. The Google sheet would then let me sort by range, so I could sort each album within the ranking: “Is this really the best song on ‘Born To Run’?” The ranking had to make sense that way, for sure, and I definitely moved some things around based on the results of that exercise. That presented a challenge when it came to Tracks, as it’s not constructed as an album, but with Tracks, you have to remember that some songs didn’t make the records for very good reasons.

I had every song on a portable hard drive–I don’t have everything on my phone, I like too much other music–so there was obviously a lot of listening. Even when I was sure I knew what I was talking about, I went back and re-checked it. I listened with headphones, I listened with speakers. There were songs I remembered as better than they actually were. There were songs that had great personal meaning to me, but once I spent time with the lyrics and the music, realized they did not actually rank that highly as per the criteria.

The songs that were the hardest were the ones that ranked lower down. It took me almost an entire day to research “American Land” sufficiently in order to be able to adequately express why I do not believe this to be a good song.

I had a few trusted friends look at the list, sworn to secrecy. I picked people whose Springsteen opinions I respect, but that do not mirror mine exactly–I am interested in how they think about him but did not expect them to agree. I wanted to hear what they thought was missing, what they thought was wrong, what they didn’t agree with but thought “Bold choice, I could respect that there.” They did not read the descriptions, just looked at the raw list. They asked some good questions and basically confirmed that I was on the right track, and I did get some indirect encouragement to move some songs I had been uncertain about further up and down the list. (I’m being deliberately vague.)

The writing went on for some time. This is a piece that’s going to hang around for a while so I wanted to make sure it was tight. It was fact-checked by my own personal fact-checker, who also fact-checks Backstreets. (My favorite correction: “It was the Whole Foods in Middletown, not Red Bank” – this about “Queen of the Supermarket”.) I edited the heck out of this piece, writing and rewriting and checking and rechecking, before finally filing back in April (the original deadline, based on the fact that the tour was supposed to end in April back when I got the assignment).

I didn’t expect this to be 20,000 words but I write large easily–concision is what stymies me most. I love large projects that let me dig deep into history and allow me to do tons of research. I love large projects that are out of my comfort zone. I love the excuse to reflect and think and challenge my own preconceived thoughts and notions. This assignment did all of those things, and I’m thrilled to have my byline on it.

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On Prince, Bruce Springsteen, & Mourning In Public

I was happily off the clock last weekend at the Springsteen show in Brooklyn, until Bruce opened with “Purple Rain.” By the time the show hit “Backstreets” I had an idea of what I thought I wanted to say, and woke up Sunday morning and basically let the piece write itself. My debut for NPR Music.

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Fact-checking Martin Scorsese’s “Vinyl” on HBO

It would have been good if I’d remembered to post about this sooner, but suddenly it’s Episode 7. Over at Salon I’ve been recapping “Vinyl” each week from a music fact checking perspective. If you know me, this is basically the equivalent of “sitting next to Caryn while she’s watching a music documentary.” If you don’t, you get to have this delightful experience in writing form. Best way to follow along is my author page over at Salon; posts go up every Monday morning.

(This is not a debate about whether or not the show is good. I’m not addressing that, I’m just critiquing the music history and what they get right or wrong.)

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Review: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Madison Square Garden, March 28, 2016

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This was my fourth show on this 2016 outing for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. (As a matter of principle I am not going to call it “The River Tour” because that already happened.) This was the reschedule for the snowed-out show back in January. I was curious how the show would play this far into the tour and if there would be a special treat since it was a makeup gig. I was hard side stage behind Charlie, picked up on the original drop for this show and acquired from someone who could not make the rescheduled date.

Bruce was in an excellent, jovial mood. He played to the back often and even acknowledged the fans up on the Chase Bridge seats in the rafters. The crowd also was engaged and energetic and the overall crowd energy was a million times better than the first Garden gig. They were loud. They sang in all the right places. The joint bounced from “Meet Me In The City.” You remember why you love seeing Springsteen at the Garden on nights like this.

But surprisingly and disappointingly, I can’t say the same about the E Street Band Monday night. The performance was loose in a casual way, not in a relaxed way. They were wound tight as a spring at the beginning of the tour, and with good reason, this was a hard performance to pull off. But there was none of that precision this evening. There were many missed notes, as well as far too much feedback in the goddamned PA for an organization of this caliber. (More on this later.)

Things didn’t pull together until “Point Blank,” probably because they couldn’t have executed the piece otherwise, it demands attention. But that said, it was excellent. Bruce stood facing Max, eyes closed, until Roy reached that last crescendo and then Bruce’s hand came halfway up his chest, he opened his eyes, and conducted the band into the song. It was magnificent. (I had several friends at the show tonight who had never seen Bruce before, and I texted them when the song was done to say, “And that’s my favorite part.”)

I was hoping that the strength of the performance would get things back on track but it did not. There’s always a problem around “I’m A Rocker” for reasons that escape me; I kind of get the beer run during “Fade Away” (I mean I don’t, but I do). Speaking of “Fade Away,” both it and “Stolen Car” (of all things) felt rushed, of all things. There was just no groove, you know? E Street has a groove and they could not find it tonight.

Regarding the sound, I know I wasn’t out front but my ticket cost exactly the same as those that were and the sound was not good tonight. I always figure it’ll get better if it’s rough at the start but it just got worse throughout the night. By the time we were at “I’m A Rocker” I could hear Charlie but only very faint Bruce vocals. Bruce made a joke during “Ramrod” that I could not hear because of the sound. At the start of the tour I was willing to say, “Well, Bruce pulled this together so fast, they didn’t have time to get it together, etc. etc. etc.” But at this point, and at these prices, there is literally zero excuse for poor sound at a venue they have played at countless times.

I am happy to report that after many informed reports from the West Coast of Bruce’s voice not being at its best, it seemed fine tonight, but I did note that there were parts of “Point Blank” that he chose to speak-sing rather than just sing. He had some scarf-like contraption wrapped around his neck and tucked under his shirt but I can’t tell you for sure if that was for his throat or just his often questionable sense of fashion.

There were good things tonight: “Point Blank.” “I Wanna Marry You.” Bruce and Patti shooting each other little smiles all night. “Brilliant Disguise.” “Ramrod,” where he saw his mother dancing in the seats–Adele Springsteen has more energy than I do on a weeknight–and he went over to dance with her, and do the butt shake together. I was a crabby curmudgeon about the people waving their phones during “Drive All Night” but by the second sax solo it became something magical, one of those spontaneous moments that elevated the crowd and the band and the performance.

But the real magic tonight was when Bruce announced, “This is something special for New York” and we heard the chords for “Meeting Across The River.” In that moment something shifted and there was that amazing feeling you get in that particular room, that space where so much history has happened before. Everyone was excited; everyone was at attention. And in that moment I was a 14 year old kid again, listening to that record through my headphones, imagining that some day I’d get to see it happen, and wondering what that would be like. I imagined it for what seemed like so long before I got to see it happen, and when it happened, it just didn’t seem possible that I was witnessing something that I’d dreamed and imagined, something so wonderful, even more wonderful than I had imagined it to be.

And “Jungleland.” “Meeting” finishes and we all know what’s coming next, but the fact that we all know makes that instant of anticipation before the first note that much more intense. Bruce asks, “As we take our stand,” and we answer–we shout–we affirm: “DOWN IN JUNGLELAND.” You pump your fist. You play air piano (no? just me?), you root for Barefoot Girl, you shout about the poets, it becomes a form of incantation, of remembrance, of offering, of prayer.

And at the end, you stand there, fist aloft in tribute matching Bruce holding the guitar in salute, and wonder how you got to be so lucky.

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Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA, February 12, 2016

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I reviewed this show for Backstreets (look for February 12). These are some additional thoughts (not a review).

There was so much to like about Philly. That said, I thought it lacked the intensity of Pittsburgh or the focus of MSG, and it definitely took a while for the band to get momentum going during the album segment. But it is so great to be in a room with the people of Philadelphia watching Bruce Springsteen. There were a lot of moments tonight where it felt like the Spectrum (without the lack of women’s bathrooms). There were vibes. Philly showed up and was loud and proud. It was nine million trillion (yes, this is a precise measurement) times better than the crowd at the Garden.

I find it curious that there has been no attempt to swap out “Meet Me In The City” as the intro song, as though “Roulette” would be some kind of poor crowd pleaser or would somehow diminish the energy. Or “Loose Ends.” Or “Be True.” I will raise the issue of the lack of outtakes once again, given the recent interview in Rolling Stone with Mr. Van Zandt where he discusses all the outtakes and how he’s looking forward to playing them. (Then again, SVZ also talks about the ‘residency at the Stone Pony’ which is simply a thing that never happened.) 

Steve makes the point, however, that The River got lost between Born To Run and Born In The USA and while there is part of me that cannot wrap my mind around that, I think he has a point. After tonight, I have reached the opinion that the people who go to this show are going to see Bruce Springsteen, who just happens to be performing The River in its entirety. Bruce, and others, assume that people are coming to see the album being performed. They are not.

This is why the crowd’s energy dissipates right around “I’m A Rocker.”  That is the end of the material that they are vaguely familiar enough with. So once again, there was Bruce out on the center platform in the middle of the show, trying to raise the energy, telling the crowd to jump at the end. I know there were some Europeans in the front pit tonight because I could see them pogoing at the requisite moments, but otherwise Philly started hard and went flat in the middle, before perking up again after “Wreck On The Highway.”)

(How on earth does he think he’s going to go to Europe and deal with this in the largest of the European football stadiums, or a muddy field in the Hague? I know the press release hedged on this point particularly–“The River Tour 2016” can end up being whatever he says it is–but I shudder to think about what that will be like. Don’t tell me that the Europeans don’t talk or they’re better–yes in the front pit I won’t have 50 year old men busy reading their email during “The Price You Pay” like tonight but past the pit and in the stands it will be the exact same thing.)

There were so many lovely moments this evening–listening to him talk about “Independence Day” with Bruce’s mother and sister present; the ease and playfulness during the “I Wanna Marry You” introduction (my favorite part was “It’s not the real thing—but I’ve got these maracas, I don’t need the real thing,” at which Patti, sitting on the piano riser, smiled knowingly and raised her eyebrows and shot him that “How did I end up with him again?” look.). Also moving were the various moments of him interacting with his mother, coming over during “Sherry” and then again during “Thunder Road,” to acknowledge the family. Even Steve came over to say hello to that section later in the show. I was hoping Adele would be the lucky lady chosen for “Dancing In The Dark” but she is in her 90’s, not that it stopped her from standing and dancing from time to time, and the smile on her face was a delight to observe.

And once again, that end of side 3/side 4 was quite simply outstanding.  “Stolen Car” was heartbreaking and breathtaking; I was in tears, riveted in the moment. I was not ready for “Ramrod” afterwards, I just wanted to be able to drink it in some more.  “I Wanna Marry You” was gorgeous–“Here She Comes Now” is one of the great gifts of this tour, “The Price You Pay” transcendent, and “Point Blank” continues to amaze in its depth and majesty. Max and Roy on the intro are phenomenal. I mean, we already know that Roy Bittan is the best musician in the band, but during “Point Blank” I am so so glad he took this gig. These are performances I will carry with me as some of the greatest musical performances by the E Street Band, and it is these moments that define the purpose of this tour.

The back half was also a pleasant surprise. At least Bruce is changing it up; at least there is some variety. “Atlantic City” was appropriate, and wistful, the city fading back into where it was when this song was written. “My Love Will Not Let You Down” confounded the audience (who thought it was “Dancing In The Dark” somehow?) but also very very very appropriate for a Philadelphia audience.

“Human Touch” was very adult, for lack of a better word. It felt very Tunnel of Love–yes, I understand that can’t be possible since that record came beforehand. But if you saw Tunnel you know what I mean. It was unabashed, it was very much about Bruce and Patti’s relationship on that stage in front of 18,000 people. Next to “Stolen Car,” and watching Bruce sing “Thunder Road” to his family, it was my favorite part of the night.

I welcomed the appearance of “Jungleland.” It is always good to hear “Jungleland” in Philadelphia. It felt like a reward and an acknowledgement, and it felt like you were standing in the old Spectrum for a second or two, Bruce holding the guitar aloft in tribute, the way he used to hold it up as though he was going into battle. It got a little performative towards the end–I don’t think we need to Brooooce in the middle of “Jungleland”–but it didn’t bother me that much, because the crowd’s energy was very present in the song, it was very much the old timers remembering and the middle generation being glad they have a memory of it, something to compare it to, and the new generation losing their shit that they got to see “Jungleland.”

The epidemic of “Dancing In The Dark” signs is at a point at which all signs need to be banned from the pit. (I wrote about this more here.) I could not see the stage for many moments last night.  And “Shout” remains as lightweight an end to the show as ever. It is really just beneath the abilities of the E Street Band. The Medley can’t come out in Philly, of all places?

P.S. Bruce Springsteen Is Not Your Babysitter, aka Egregious Offenses in Brucebait Part II

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Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Madison Square Garden, 1/27/16

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I reviewed this show for the Village Voice. This is the inside baseball edition.

Pure and simple, it was a barnburner tonight. Somehow the band were even tighter than Pittsburgh, for the entire night. It was absolutely insane, in the best way possible.

Two shows have showed them how they need to run this thing, and there is zero lost energy between songs. There is just none. You think that it doesn’t matter, but to me it was such a marked difference. It doesn’t feel rushed and if you aren’t someone who obsessively watches production details you probably won’t even notice. But it kept things moving, kept the energy up, kept the momentum going. Even the difference of a minute can lose the crowd in this song sequence. It was most noticeable in places like “Jackson Cage” into “Two Hearts,” or Bruce starting “Independence Day” before offering the introduction, or going into “Out In The Street” immediately after “Hungry Heart.” There wasn’t the even the tiniest fraction of a second break.

Even with all that, people around me all shifted into reading their email during “Crush On You.” He’s really having fun with that one now, and the crowd down front does too, so I don’t get why that was the moment that everyone stopped trying, screens all white around me.

“Fade Away” was the number where people just gave up, and there was a steady exodus out of GA, and up the stairs in the side sections. But it was a curious crowd tonight; there was almost no reaction during “Meet Me In The City,” I don’t get it, because even if you haven’t heard the song, the chorus is easy to catch onto and the hooks are killer, but it just kind of fell flat. Maybe the problem is the house lights still being up; I don’t know. But this would be a repeated problem during the album set. Bruce kept trying to get people to jump up and down, that foray to the back platform during “I’m A Rocker” because it was just dead, flat out in GA. Then again, when hedge fund dudes are buying 4 GA tickets at $1200 a pop (this is a thing that actually happened; I know someone who knows a hedge fund dude), what do you think the floor is going to be like? I know there are ways of getting around this and you can’t do paperless tickets in New York; at least make the front of floor will call only or enter immediately or something. I am reminded again by the very dude audience last night how much I miss the diversity of the audience in Europe.

I said after Pittsburgh that I had no idea how this show was going to play in the stands. Well, now I know. I was in section 117, row 8, so close to the stage and the floor. The people around me had some connection to acquire their tickets; most had E Street Lounge passes or bitched that they didn’t get them. (If you have never been in the E Street Lounge, it’s not ‘backstage’ but rather a room with a cash bar, and the only advantage really sometimes is that there’s a private bathroom, and sometimes free water.) I offer this caveat as a base line between sitting in a section with fans who had to work for their tickets, and sitting with people who have some kind of connection. Still, they were chatty but I could still focus, but I attribute the latter to what was going on on that stage.

I do not understand why people were not moved by “Stolen Car” or “I Wanna Marry You” or “Fade Away” or “Point Blank” — I was going on about “Side Four” but it really is “the end of side three into side four”. I thought it was amazing in Pittsburgh, it was absolutely STUNNING tonight. It almost feels like Bruce is perversely relishing the challenge of delivering these songs to a chatty crowd, his old bar band instincts kicking in.  That is a great thing to witness, but I wonder about it wearing him down round about show #10, or #20, or even after that. Like, I get that he’s Bruce Springsteen, but having 16000 of 18000 people yakking it up through songs you have gone out of your way to indicate are important to you has to get to you after a while. Even if you are Bruce Springsteen, it is hard to perform those songs. It is hard to run that part of the show. There is a real physical and emotional effort that’s even more than a normal show.

And the talking people are crazy-making. At least during “Crush On You” they weren’t talking, or I couldn’t hear them talking. These tickets were so hard to get, and cost so much money, and the performances were so magnificent, but yet it was like being in the loudest bar you could think of on a weekend.

Jim Rotolo did a live remote for E Street Radio before the show, and I was hanging out in that vicinity because Chris Phillips got shanghaied into going on the air. During his appearance Rotolo mentioned that people are calling and writing the station and saying that gosh, they really weren’t familiar with the River album before the tour, but now they’re “getting into it.” And you would think that can’t possibly be true, but yet, compare the audience’s reaction to the record to the audience’s reaction to “She’s The One” and “Candy’s Room” and it is like night and day. But if you were old enough to be around for ‘78 or ’75 then you were old enough to be around when The River came out, so none of this makes any sense to me.

Also in the “does not make sense to me” is the reaction to “Wrecking Ball.” I realize I have never really been in the camp of liking or understanding why Bruce let this song have a life beyond that last night at Giants Stadium, and I know people are just reacting to melody, but seriously, people who were filing their nails during “Crush On You” or reading email during “Stolen Car” (and making fun of me for being excited during the album performance) were executing choreographed dance moves to “Wrecking Ball.”

The band fucked up a couple of times tonight, minor mishaps I record here but cut out of the review as being less important than the rest of it: two missed cues during the intro to “I Wanna Marry You,” one they missed–”Even the tightest band in the world fucks it up,” Bruce observed, before then missing the cue himself. But he made up for it in spades, that lovely Roy Orbison moment, that “Oh darling,” was heart-stopping. Then, Steve hit a repeated series of wrong chords during the intro to “The River.” There was also something else going on during “She’s The One,” where poor Nils spent a great deal of time running around and looking meaningfully at people, especially Steve. I think the rhythm was just wrong, and he was trying to sync himself with Max before bringing it around the rest of the stage.

I hesitate to ever mention Jake Clemons because the pro-Jake faction gets so defensive if anyone ever criticizes him in the slightest, but I really appreciated Jake’s performance in Pittsburgh and tonight he really brought it home. That “Drive All Night” solo was phenomenal. I think he has really found a good place for himself in the band and in the show and his energy is not as obtrusive to me personally (please note emphasis) as it was on previous tours. I realize he has a thankless job.

On the note of thankless jobs, we come to Charlie Giordano. (I really like Charlie and am happy he got this gig; he played keyboards for one of my favorite local bands in the 80s.) But I mention this because the sound is much improved in my opinion, apparently there is some new sound system, and the separation is fantastic; I can actually hear the organ. I realize he was not hired to offer his interpretations of the material, but rather to play the material as written. I think I just notice the gaping hole left by Danny Federici more when it comes to playing a set of River material. That lightness, that delicate touch, the way he could make a melody just swing. I am missing it, hard.

And while we’re in this neighborhood, there was a moment last night during “Thunder Road” that felt like it was right out of “No Nukes”. I had to cut the line from the review because it was too inside-baseball-ish and would have taken too many words (I had 800, with an option to go to 1,000) but while “Thunder Road” is one of the greatest gifts in the history of rock and roll, it is different now than it was back then; last night it felt like it did back then, and I missed Clarence SO HARD.

I am surprised there was no Bowie tribute offered tonight, to be honest. On the other hand, I do not feel that this needed to be a thing for the entire tour, and maybe Bruce felt that if he did one he had to do the other and then it becomes a thing for the entire tour.

Tonight, all the dead are here, indeed.

I was thinking about going out to Newark if I could find a ticket, but now I have a ticket available to me at the rescheduled MSG show and still have a ticket for Philly, and now of course there is the second leg. I am still curious what this show is going to be like after, say, 12 performances, and then 20 performances, and whether the back half changes.

I am focusing on the back half because after tonight I feel safe in saying, if we didn’t get outtakes at the hometown gig beyond “Meet Me In The City,” we are not ever going to get outtakes, so say goodbye to your hopes of “Stray Bullet” or “Chain Lightning.”

We are also stuck with “Shout” as the last number and that is the one thing in the set that is going to drive me literally insane.  Why not bring out the “Detroit Medley”? Why not any number of other actual Springsteen compositions that people will love just as much. It just feels like a cheap way to end the show because people love “Animal House” and are going to act like idiots. This set deserves so much better than that.

It is honestly a great show, and as a fan it is great to hear the songs that dropped out of the set, and it is great to watch the band execute the River material. But that only has legs for so long. For me, the thing about a Springsteen show is the unknown, the unexpected, and of course, the new material, and the way all of it gets juxtaposed together. When this tour was first announced, all I could think of was all of the possibilities of being able to sequence the material from The River with everything that came after it. And if Bruce wants to take it easy by not having to craft an intense setlist, he gets to do that.  But that means that this is not the kind of tour that is going to breathe or grow much beyond what we have right now. We will have to get used to that.

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Bowie Tributes

  

Rounding up my work following the man’s passing:

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Thoughts On Bruce Springsteen’s The River Tour 2016 Tour Opener In Pittsburgh

thank you so much danny clinch for blocking my view all night

DOWN IN FRONT

Also see my tour previews in Salon and the Village Voice (link coming)

I went on record on Twitter during the show stating that Saturday night in Pittsburgh was one of the strongest tour openers in years, and an overall fantastic performance, especially of The River. I stand by that now, even later. I literally do not have enough superlatives to apply to what was a first-night-of-the-tour performance, or in fact any performance. When great bands rehearse, it only helps them, and this was so clearly visible on Saturday. It also takes pressure off of Bruce, because he’s less worried about leading the band, and that lets him apply his energies towards the performance.

I remain utterly blown away at “Point Blank.” If Bruce had said in any pre-tour interviews that they had created some enhancements to the arrangements of some songs, I would have likely blown a gasket. Instead, they just showed up and played it and it was phenomenal. I am conscious of spoilers for those waiting to see shows but these small touches, which are not any different to how things transformed as they were performed over the course of time back in 1980, are valid and will not damage anyone’s memories or expectations. “Stolen Car” was masterful. “Crush On You” was an absolute delight. I even enjoyed “You Can Look” which is honestly not one of my favorite songs on the record. I was thrilled to see something like ‘Here She Comes Now’ added to “I Wanna Marry You” (which was another standout performance)–this is the kind of thing the people who have followed Bruce for a long time will especially appreciate, along the lines of the revival of “Prove It ’78”. NOW GIVE ME ‘ONCE UPON THE TIME IN THE WEST’ BEFORE ‘THE RIVER,’ PLEASE. Or even “No Money Down” before “Cadillac Ranch.” I don’t need all of them in the show (but WHY NOT?), but I hope they are rotated in and out.

I am utterly defeated at the lack of outtakes after we were promised outtakes. And I am not looking for a full band “Mr. Outside” (although it would be HILARIOUS), but “Roulette”? “Where The Bands Are”? “Restless Nights?” “Be True?” I realize the Bowie tribute took one slot but we couldn’t have traded DITD for one of those? One outtake to open the show (and it is a barnburner of a moment) does not “the best of our outtakes” make.

I was personally glad to see the album performed again without morons talking nonstop through the performance as they did at MSG in 2009. There were still some egregious offenses, even down on the floor a couple of rows from the second barricade. Let me please shame them publicly:

INDEPENDENCE DAY. Dude #1, loudly: “I NEVER THOUGHT MUCH OF THIS SONG.” Dude #2: “YEAH, ME EITHER.”  Thank you, oh great men, for sharing your weighty opinion with everyone standing near you, some of whom may never have seen the song played live. We are so privileged to hear your thoughts. (I didn’t say it, but I thought it later.)

STOLEN CAR. Props to the guy behind me who yelled, “Play the Tracks version.” Of course, as my associate Mr. Radecki pointed out, the very introduction to the song on Saturday explained why he’ll never play the Tracks version. This song was a definite chat trigger, but at least standing amongst people who cared enough to queue in the cold for hours ensured that a pointed look regained silence.

THE RIVER. Woman behind me screams the lyrics, which usually I give a free pass to–it’s a concert–except that she did not know the words, and kept getting them wrong. It’s “I got a union card and a wedding coat,” not “wedding ring.” This would be forgivable except that she then announced that “Point Blank” was her favorite song of all time. She also did not know the words to that, and had begun a Garth & Kat-like yelled mumble, but was thankfully defeated after the first line.

I don’t know what this will be like in the stands. Pittsburgh, to their credit, really hung in there with Bruce, and there were not endless exoduses up the aisle for beer and similar until “Wreck On The Highway,” by which point it was hard to take much issue. But those of us who were at the Garden in ’09 had a much different experience (and I wasn’t all that far from the stage). It will be interesting to see how Bruce manages crowds that are less interested in paying attention, because he can’t just call an audible and switch to something else.

On that note, I was most struck by how strongly Bruce was able to be emotionally present at the most difficult transitions. There was an emotional modulation in his voice during “Stolen Car” that was utterly breathtaking. But this is, again, where the idea of playing a record back to back is a much different experience than sequencing a show with a majority of the songs alongside existing material. While I felt that he was struggling with finding an emotional center during the first half of “Drive All Night” (it’s why I stopped the Periscope–I wasn’t sure if what I felt missing was me or the performance), he did find it later.

There was a proposal next to me in the pit during “I Wanna Marry You.” I congratulated the happy couple (who stayed for the whole show, more props to them) instead of asking them why they didn’t just pick “The One I Love.” To be fair, the gentleman’s sign asked for Bruce’s help with the proposal, and when they lost the lottery, he obviously  had to scramble for a Plan B. (The lottery was a debacle and a half, which was already covered by my associate.)

As for the rest of the set, it’s so hard to take issue with the back half of the show when everyone around you is losing their minds and acting like this is the best concert ever in the history of the world. I generally get a lot of enjoyment watching the audience during the encores, finding those people who are hearing these songs for the first time in their lives and going bonkers. But the lack of a theme or narrative arc was more disorienting than I had anticipated (because I didn’t really anticipate there not being one, to be fair).

“Sunny Day” has finally left the set, and no children were brought onstage for any reason. The endless reprises and other unnecessary extensions of songs are nowhere to be found. And to the people complaining that no specific mention was made of Danny and Clarence, it’s in every god-dammed note, and when he started those moments, people complained that they went on “too long.” I remain flabbergasted.

I was personally selfishly happy to see the Bowie dedication (although the crowd seemed a little meh on it) but keenly felt the absence of any type of commentary on current events, either specific remarks or the thing Springsteen does best, which is communicate a message through the way he sequences the setlist. I’ve been studying the 1980 tour for another project, and those setlists were stunning–not just for their length, which is not what I’m looking for, but in the way he put points across. “Racing In The Street” into “The River” into “Badlands,” or “The Promised Land” into “This Land Is Your Land” into “The River” into “Badlands.” Don’t try to say, “It was a different time” –have you been watching the news at all? It’s an election year, and Bruce Springsteen is on tour with nothing to say about it. Even in 2009, he made the very specific point at the Garden when he introduced the record:

“It was a record made during a recession, hard times in the States, title song is a song I wrote for my brother and sister, my brother was in the construction industry, lost his job and had to struggle very hard back in the late 70s, like so many people are doing today.”

Of course, he could have absolutely zero desire to address any of the current political landscape publicly, and that is his right. But if he thinks he’s unable to do it because of the constraints of the tour, it will make me profoundly sad. The longer he’s focused on older material, the longer we have to wait for new material. I think he knows this–he specifically made a comment on Saturday that I believe was obliquely referencing Bowie’s passing:

A friend of mine was sitting around last night; he said, ‘Time catches up to us all.’ You’ve got a limited amount of time to do your work, to take care of your family, and try to do something good.

My essential objection to the tour remains thus: The longer this goes on, the further out we push a new record, and selfishly I want as much new Bruce Springsteen as I can before we no longer have that option available to us. This past week, which for me personally has felt like sitting shiva, has made that point paramountly clear.

It’s a fun show, and it’s absolutely fine for me to sit this one out. But I fervently hope this wraps up in Los Angeles.

Postscript: I apologize for the delay in publishing a piece, but knew the opener would be amply covered, I had other paid assignments that had to be written and filed and didn’t want to jeopardize them before writing a personal piece. I was also in town with friends and so didn’t want to have to pull my usual stunt of running back to the hotel as quickly as possible in order to write something as quickly as possible.

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Just A Blackstar Review

A photo posted by Caryn Rose (@caryn_rose) on

I had been assigned to review this for a website, but since I didn’t get the record until 12:01am Friday morning, didn’t get to file it over the weekend as I had planned. I told my editor that I would get it to her on Monday during the day. But once I woke up on Monday, I had to write a whole new set of pieces, and this got set aside.

I actually did look at it on Tuesday, after I had posted an excerpt on Facebook, noting that it was going to be killed, given the circumstances. A couple of writers urged me to post it anyway. Plans to publish it at its original home fell through, and at this point it makes no sense — but I did want to commemorate it here.

David Bowie has mastered the modern music business landscape as well as (or even better than) anyone. The Next Day dropped without any clue whatsoever; his PR firm’s warning that a record was going to drop in the overnight and that the newsroom might want to be prepared had the editors guessing every other artist except Bowie. One song added to a greatest hits anthology rated detailed reviews of the one song in media outlets around the world. And the lead up to Blackstar was marked, measured and controlled to the nth degree, all of this for a 40-minute seven-track jazz-flavored collaboration that leans on a saxophone as the core instrument.

“Blackstar” as the opening track might seem like a misguided idea; it’s almost 10 minutes long, and when you listen to it in the context of the record, it will initially feel like it’s two separate songs, and you might think it would work better as the last track of the record. That will shift with repeated listenings, and the track will find its place and you’ll get more comfortable with it. It’s uncanny how catchy the song is, how its myriad sections will get stuck in your brain on a loop, as though it was the lightest, simplest pop song.

“‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” is sad and angry and gruff; listen to it on headphones to catch the heavy breathing at the song’s start, rough and louche in the best way.

“Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” was the bonus track on 2014’s anthology Nothing Has Changed, but it’s welcome here in this collection. It’s also the most successful jazz execution that also still sounds 100% like a David Bowie song. “Girl Loves Me” has a gigantic “EXPLICIT” attached to the title, and you wonder what could possibly rate that, and then the “Where the fuck did Monday go?” refrain kicks in along with the backbeat. “Who the fuck’s gonna mess with me?” It will repeat in your head for days.

“Lazarus” is one of a handful of songs written for the Bowie musical of the same name currently playing Off Broadway that survived the cut. Lazarus the musical has its issues but the song is not one of them. It’s a great song in the production and it’s still a great song here on the record; it’s also the only straight-ahead rock song in the batch. But it’s haunting and huge and you could dismiss it as classic Bowie, the kind of thing he could write in his sleep–but why on earth is that a bad thing? It’s unmistakable but it’s also not just flatly derivative. (And Michael S. Hall does an admirable job with the performance.)

Saxophone dominates the record in a surprising fashion, given that it’s not a straight ahead rock and roll record and isn’t a straight ahead jazz record, either. But it’s no wonder that Bowie would come back to the instrument here and now; it was his first instrument, and he never stopped loving it and never managed to master it. But he employed it, early and often, to memorable effect, and he’s not stopping now. This can be good, and it can also be unfortunate; the sax on “Dollar Days” sounds like it’s off a bad Billy Joel outtake that got lost somewhere on Baker Street.

Where Blackstar falls down is as a cohesive statement. It feels like a random collection of songs because that’s what it is, and that’s unfortunate coming on the heels of The Next Day, which absolutely felt like an album. (Hindsight is now 20-20; this review was largely complete before Bowie’s untimely demise late Sunday night. Now some things make more sense.)

When does a trend-setter get to stop setting trends, and just be allowed to create? The expectations of anything that has the name “Bowie” attached to it are always sky high, and that hasn’t tapered in almost 50 years of the man producing art. We’ve decided–he’s trained us to expect– that whatever he does has to break the mold, it has to be haute, it has to be the nth of whatever the particular art is. If we can let Sting put out a record about the shipbuilding culture in Newcastle and take it seriously, we can let fucking David Bowie put out a free range jazz collaboration, especially when the latter is strong and challenging and in several cases, actually fucking great.

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