Monday, February 11, 2013

Springsteen, Live Again, Surprisingly Average With Live In New York City.

The Good: Some nice reinterpretations of classic Springsteen songs, Some good lyrics, vocals and instrumentals
The Bad: Some very long, dull performances, Tragic "live" experience conceits, Replays poorly
The Basics: Live In New York City presents Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's live recording of a fairly uninspired musical outing.

According to an article on Wikipedia about Bruce Springsteen, some years ago fans and the media were shocked to learn that Springsteen apparently uses a teleprompter at his concerts. That does not bother me, considering that Springsteen has over thirty years worth of music in his repertoire and that's an impressive arsenal by any standard. Having enjoyed Bruce Springsteen's Greatest Hits and more recently, his classic album Born In The U.S.A., I decided it was time to give the two-disc Live In New York City a couple of spins. Well, I suppose I'm about to raise the ire of the die-hard fans of Springsteen yet again. After eight listens to each of the two discs, I remain unimpressed.

Live In New York City is twenty tracks ("Born To Run" closes out the first disc and is not listed on the track listing) and over an hour and a half of music, consisting entirely of previously released (in studio versions) material. In fact, six of the twenty tracks appear on Greatest Hits. Live In New York City is not "Greatest Hits - Live," which makes this listener wonder a bit as to why. After all, when presenting live interpretations of your music, one might think the audience would be most enthralled by the best works an artist had to put forth. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band seem to think otherwise and the resulting album is shakier than most of Springsteen's endeavors.

First off, of the live songs I recognized - eight of the twenty tracks - only one of them was a distinct reinterpretation of the original. Springsteen's version of Born In The U.S.A. on disc 2 is accompanied by a zither, is slow and wrenching without the upbeat drumming and utterly lacking in the ambiguity that allowed Ronald Reagan to co-opt the work as a patriotic anthem. No, here Born In The U.S.A. is stripped down to its lyrics (virtually) alone, with minimal accompaniment and it is a powerful ballad, with little pretense of anything other than chronicling the decay of the United States of America. This truly is a reinterpretation, a reinvention of the song and it works wonderfully.

However, it is more or less unique on the albums. While "The River" starts with a slower tempo than the studio version, it soon picks up and sounds mostly like the original. Similarly, "Youngstown," "Murder Incorporated," and "Born To Run" are following so closely in line with the original versions that they do not add anything to the previous recordings. I enjoyed the live rendition of "Atlantic City," even though it basically sounded like an acoustic version of the original.

Here's my thing about live albums in general: live albums often seem like a way to milk die hard fans for a few extra bucks to me. Most of them do not offer anything genuinely new and instead they take established songs and present them with pretentious "live" audience noises and a lack of production that somehow justifies them to the fans. This is a critique that has dominated other live albums like Green Day's Bullet In A Bible (reviewed here!) and Sarah McLachlan's Mirrorball. In fact, one of the few live albums in my collection that gets decent attention from me is Heather Nova's Wonderlust (reviewed here!), in part because Nova does an amazing and inspired cover of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire" which is unique to that album.

I mention this because my rating is essentially a gimmie for Live In New York City based mainly on the fact that I've been relistening to disc one repeatedly for the last few hours. Disc two, while it contains the worthwhile Born In The U.S.A. is also the home to a long, terrible extended track called "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out." This track has Springsteen going on a weird rant that culminates in him introducing the E-Street Band and it perfectly exposes the limitations of a live album.

Live albums often try to capture the energy and enthusiasm of a crowd, a set or an experience that most people were simply not a part of by virtue of not being in a certain place and time. So, while Springsteen may have been so moved by the crowd to declare the event a "Rock and roll exorcism / . . . a rock and roll baptism . . . / a rock and roll bar mitzvah . . ." ("Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out") this recording just seems weak when Springsteen calls these things out and it certainly does not hold up over multiple listens. As Springsteen introduces the members of the E Street Band, I thought - the first time - that was nice and very cool of the superstar. By the third listen, it just became a waste of space and time. A live recording is not the same as a live event and the pretenses and perceptions between being in an auditorium or amphitheater or club versus the experience of listening to music at home or in a car are vastly different. The second disc of Live In New York City may well capture the reality of the moment, but it does nothing to create an interesting or compelling auditory experience for those who are exclusively listeners to the album.

This ranges from the annoying (as on "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out") to the absurd, as Springsteen curtly declares "We need some quiet" on the beginning of "American Skin (41 Shots)". The funny thing is with a decent system, the listener can hear that the crowd does not quiet down fully and the song goes ahead anyway. Disc one is devoid of most of the conceits of a live album, save the dutiful noises of the crowd responding to the songs, a conceit that seems sillier with each listen. There is a fresh enough sound to the songs to distinguish them as live, without the noise of the audience.

That said, Live From New York City does manage to present some of the strengths of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. While the album may not be terribly original, some of the songs are some of Springsteen's best written works. So, for example, "Atlantic City" contains some wonderful poetry as Springsteen sings "Everything dies baby that's a fact / But maybe everything that dies someday comes back . . ."

Moreover, Springsteen sings very well. Unlike those who argue about Bob Dylan as a great songwriter vs. singer/performer, Bruce Springsteen seems indisputably a decent performer who can sing and who generally rocks. Springsteen may stay within his range on Live From New York City, but he is a master of it.

The E Street Band is a very competent combination of instrumentalists and vocalists who do a wonderful job of presenting Springsteen's music. Unlike so many bands that focus on either guitar/bass/drums or piano, the E Street Band combines several guitars, organs, pianos, bass, and drums to create a very rich and complete sound. Almost all of the songs on Live In New York City contain the full band and a very well orchestrated sound. In fact, the fact that most of the band sits out "American Skin (41 Shots)" adds to its poignancy and punch.

All in all, though, the weaknesses of the second disc, combined with the lack of originality on the first disc are not enough to sell this album to anyone but the die hard fans. Bruce Springsteen's presentation is not so extraordinary that this live recording holds up over multiple listens for the average listener. Moreover, it's not enough to get a newbie into Springsteen's other albums (whereas listening to his Greatest Hits might).

The best tracks are "Atlantic City" (disc 1) and "American Skin (41 Shots)" and “Born In The U.S.A.” (disc 2) and the weak tracks are "Mansion On The Hill" (disc 1) and everything else on disc 2.

For other works by Bruce Springsteen, please check out my reviews of:
Born In The U.S.A.
Greatest Hits
The Ghost Of Tom Joad
The Rising
Devils & Dust


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of my music reviews!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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