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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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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

Philly

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

River MSG

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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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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The Ties That Bind – Coverage

Salon: Springsteen worked slow for a reason: New “Ties That Bind” box set chronicles the fascinating and frustrating road to “The River” and also “Trouble in the heartland,” indeed: See Bruce Springsteen get political on the day after Reagan’s election in this amazing concert film

Vulture: Tracklisting the Single-Album Version of Bruce Springsteen’s The River/The Ties That Bind That Could’ve, Should’ve Been – in which I try my hand at sequencing a single-album version of TTTB.

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Springsteen’s Most Memorable NYC Shows

I’m a freakin media syndicate these days.

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Review of “The Ties That Bind” Documentary

I wrote about the new Springsteen documentary for Salon: Springsteen’s “Ties That Bind”: The new documentary goes deep into the “adult concerns” that fueled “The River”

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Review: Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes: Two Nights at the Stone Pony, 2/27-28/2015

Tenth avenue Freeze South heheheh

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes performed two special shows at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park this past weekend. Friday night was billed as “Rare Jukes: All the Non-Hits, All The Time” and night two was the Music of Bruce Springsteen. Both nights were two and a half hours of well-rehearsed, impeccably curated material.

The effort that went into putting these two nights together was obvious from the first note. The musicians had to learn, and rehearse, a lengthy set of material, the majority of which they’ll likely never play again. You can tell when a band has bothered to practice, and when they’ve run through a set of material once or twice.

I enjoyed the musical performances immensely, even if I thought a particular arrangement or rendition or execution was less than successful. I like watching musicians take chances and attempt things they are less than successful at. If that sounds like a diss, it’s not at all. Both nights were utterly fascinating. It’s one thing to watch Southside lead the band on the core material, but watching him pull it together on songs they hadn’t played before was amazing. It was also interesting to watch the songs that he felt more comfortable in, the ones he could wear as well as “Trapped Again” or “This Time I Know It’s For Real”. (Not surprisingly, on night two that was the River material.)

And then on top of all of this was the between songs patter, the stories he chose to tell. I am not anywhere close to a Jukes diehard, but I found myself very moved by Johnny’s narration night one, his stories about why certain songs meant something to him, listening to him talk about Elmore James or how “Fannie Mae” was the first song he learned to play harmonica to, naming the label and the year of release. If I was an enormous, ride-or-die Jukes fan, this would be my idea of heaven on earth.

Night one I was surprised that it was less Jukes deep cuts than a handful of those matched with carefully chosen and curated covers. It’s hard to beat the Jukes on a set going from “Cry To Me,” “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” into the Mad Dogs & Englishmen arrangement of “The Letter”. There was Elmore and Clarence Carter and Marvin Gaye and all I could think was, my god, this is the Southside Johnny Lyon master class on influences. I was floored. It was amazing to watch and listen and be there for this.

Night two was the Springsteen night, and like with night one, the effort and the enthusiasm was highly evident. But it was definitely not as consistent as the previous night, and overall didn’t work as well as I would have thought it would. That said, there were arrangements that I thought were superior than the E Street Band ones (c.f. “Johnny 99,” which wasn’t that different, but just felt better), and I loved every second of “Sherry Darling”. Just when I was thinking, “I’m surprised there isn’t more keyboard virtuosity,” South and Jeff Kazee duetted on a stripped-down “Fade Away” which was just superb. “Nebraska” and “Jack of All Trades” were the most surprising choices, and executed with aplomb. “Kitty’s Back” was less surprising, but pretty ballsy. That was absolutely a natural for Southside, inhabiting the jazz hipster narrator vibe intuitively.

Bobby Bandiera joined the band in time for “Murder, Inc.” and acquitted himself more than admirably. (And of course the thought pattern in my mind went to, what would our world look like now if Bobby had been the one to join E Street all those years ago). “Sherry Darling” was phenomenal, and I was ready to explode over the fact that the sound system ate the vocals at the start of “Where The Bands Are”. To be honest, as much as I loved that particular choice and rendition, it was a little rough around the edges, but it was also the perfect end to the main set.

Southside and Bobby! Murder Inc!!

Like the night before, I appreciated the song choices. I appreciated the careful curation. I appreciated the three additional horn players and percussionist brought on for the evening. And when Southside started telling stories, I never wanted him to stop: about Bruce and Steve helping him with “Trapped Again” (“If they want to help you with a song, you just say THANK YOU”), imitating Bruce’s Muttley voice intonation in the story about giving him “Fever,” and “Why you want to give that to me, Bruce? That’s a hit!” and most notably, Southside telling his story about the band in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”.

The encore was, delightfully, “When You Dance,” “This Time It’s For Real,” and “Hearts of Stone,” the perfect cap to the evening, ending with Jukes classics written by Bruce (and Steve), but still, Jukes classics, Southside coming out and saying that they didn’t know any more Bruce songs, cautioning us that if he sang “Hearts of Stone” it would have to be the last song. There was room to dance at this point, and despite aching back and feet (that uneven concrete floor has not gotten better with the years), I was so happy to do it one more time, thinking, not unreasonably, that I don’t know how many more times I’m going to hear Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes play those songs at the Stone Pony, how much I love those songs, how happy I am that I am here, that these songs are part of my musical history. Southside would allude to this, that he had been playing in this club since 1971, that when he died, he wanted to be buried right in the middle of the dance floor, where people could dance right on top of him.

So all of this is what was great and good and wonderful about the weekend. That’s because the music and the musicians and the performances were absolutely above reproach. The audience and the venue, however, were the complete opposite.

Admittedly I haven’t been to a busting-at-the-rafters capacity show at the Pony in decades, but I go to A LOT of concerts in a lot of clubs, and cannot remember the last time I was this miserable. I don’t know what the legal capacity of the Pony is, and I am not saying that the venue was above capacity, but ‘capacity’ probably accounts for the cafe around the corner where you can’t actually see the show and maybe the smoking area in the tent out back, and not the entire capacity crammed into the show room in front of the stage. I arrived at 7:45 both nights. Night one it was reasonable; night two it was unbearable. People who arrived later had to go in through the cafe because there was literally no room at the entrance. I tried to head towards the door during the karaoke version of “Tenth Avenue” night one and I literally could not get there. Night two, I was on stage right (again, because literally there was no more room) and just before show time was grateful that I was close to an exit.

And now I come to the crowd. I would like to think that the people who show up to see a show billed as RARITIES actually want to listen to rarities, but this was in New Jersey, which is the worst goddamned audience for the music that comes from this state, whether it’s Bruce or Southside or even Gaslight Anthem. People would not shut the fuck up for one goddamned minute. The level of chatter was unreasonably loud, constant and incessant. I go to club shows multiple times a month. This was not a normal, expected level of club chatter. This was a “I am drunk and I don’t give a fuck and when is Bruce going to show up” level of chatter. Then, there was the asshole factor. I could write an entire post about this and it’s just going to bum me out, so I won’t. Too much alcohol, too few brain cells, zero regard for the fact that the club was packed, the people obviously there with their eyes glued to the stage door who were obviously bored by what was actually happening onstage.

I think that the Jukes underestimated the demand for this weekend. I think they could have easily charged more and played at a theater, which would have been more comfortable for everybody. There would have been more room for the band. No one would have had to line up in the cold to get a decent spot (and it’s not just cold, it was ridiculously cold). The sound would have been better; I was enormously frustrated by the lack of horns in the mix the first night and the second night the mix was just god-awful for most of the evening. From the way Southside continually gestured at the monitor engineer both nights, it wasn’t much better onstage either.

There were cameras in various places and I hope that all of this comes out officially or unofficially, because they were ultimately very special performances that everyone who couldn’t make it would enjoy. These were undeniably interesting, challenging evenings and hats off to the musicians for their work in putting these shows onstage.

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On the 30th Anniversary of “Born in the USA”

Billboard asked me to write a classic track-by-track of the album on its 30th anniversary!

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