Bruce Springsteen was, and remains, an artist whose sympathy and compassion for his subjects are compounded by an unerring instinct for the dramatic and, often, an irresistible sense of fun. This gargantuan box set is an epic and exhaustive trawl through the best of his awe-inspiring live shows, which in the 70s and 80s regularly hit the four-hour mark, simultaneously taking on the qualities of the party, the confessional and the gospel revivalist meeting.
Never content with giving an indifferent live performance, Springsteen approached each individual concert with a simple yet shattering aim: to give every audience the night of their lives. For Springsteen, it was unacceptable to have good and bad nights onstage, since each night would, for most of the audience, be their only chance to see him. The resulting fire, exuberance and muscle-shredding energy are in ample evidence throughout these recordings, in Springsteen’s scorched-earth vocals and in the swelling, magical orchestrations of the E Street Band.
Appropriately, the collection begins with “Thunder Road” – a song that, even more than the canonical “Born To Run”, represents the essence of Springsteen. Rarely absent from his live sets over the years, it’s a long, wordy and utterly heartfelt meditation on the ineluctable pull of the car, the girl and the open road. Far from being a cliché, this trope is so vivid, and so resonant in American popular culture, that it approaches the status of myth. And it is as myth that Springsteen treats it in this and many other of his songs.
The take of ‘Thunder Road’ here is from 1975, but most of the songs on the album are from the early 80s, after The River had cemented Springsteen’s position as a peerless chronicler of blue-collar American hopes and dreams, and Born In The USA had propelled him to superstar status. For my money, the songs from The River resonate as powerfully as any here, from barnstorming rockers like “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” to the slow burn of “Hungry Heart” and, especially, the heightened recollection that weighs down “Independence Day” and “The River” itself. In the lyric of the former, and the extended monologue that precedes the latter, Springsteen explores the pain and regret of his relationship with his father in terms that evoke the sacred. The E Street Band play a beatific, languorous accompaniment to the monologue, and the way that Springsteen slices through its final, lingering notes with the first, keening note of his harmonica is one of the great, jaw-dropping moments in all of popular music.
Elsewhere, Springsteen dismisses all anticipated charges of sentimentality with a blazing rendition of Edwin Starr’s “War” and with the snarling aggression of “Born In The USA”. Famously, this defiant anti-war anthem was misappropriated by the Reagan election campaign in 1984. Not one of Springsteen’s subtlest songs, its tub-thumping chorus makes the misappropriation perfectly understandable.
The final track of this life-affirming collection sees Springsteen connecting with his audience at an emotional level few performers ever come close to emulating. “Jersey Girl” is an album track by Tom Waits, but it so perfectly encapsulates Springsteen’s emotional concerns that it’s hard to believe he didn’t write it himself. It’s a safe bet that most of the audience at the 1981 concert at which this recording was made were unfamiliar with the song. And so it proves as the song unfolds; they listen in reverent silence as Springsteen sings the first lines, and when he follows up with “tonight I’m gonna take that ride, cross the river to the Jersey side”, they erupt in a moment of ecstatic sympathy. The audience responds with equal fervour to lines like “I’m in love with a Jersey girl”, as though in recognition that Springsteen, for all his superstar status, is a man who speaks, directly and profoundly, to their own lived experience. Inscribed in the sounds and signs of “Jersey Girl” is a notion of music and performance as the most precious and generous of gifts.
(Originally published in The Sound Projector: Vinyl Viands, 2006)