Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Bruce Springsteen's masterpiece is worth revisiting

Houston Chronicle
Nov. 15, 2010, 5:24P

Reviewing the new reissue of Bruce Springsteen's masterpiece Darkness on the Edge of Town is a lot like reviewing a thunderstorm. Do you go for the sights? The sounds? The feeling of it? Its contents span more than 30 years, and the set includes three CDs and three DVDs. It also comes with a hefty price tag; there will likely be early sale prices, but the retail tag sits 2 cents shy of $120. Only you know the degree of your devotion in the middle of a recession. But the contents are undoubtedly admirable.

The key carrot for many locals will be the inclusion of Thrill Hill Vault Houston ' 78 Bootleg: House Cut, a concert recording from The Summit on Dec. 8, 1978.

Let's get one very faint quibble out of the way first. Today's standards for filming a concert differ greatly from those in 1978, so the multicamera film lacks some of the visual pop we've come to expect. There are moments when the lights go down that the screen goes completely black. Quibble concluded, as it really doesn't matter because this concert was volcanic.

Obviously nothing could compare to being there, but those in attendance are likely to be goosed seeing Springsteen and the E Street Band slashing through these 26 songs again (it seems some between-song footage has been excised as the DVD's three hours runs much shorter than the four-plus-hour estimates fans have recalled). There's little point in singling out songs because the performance was relentlessly frenzied (though "Streets of Fire" is fittingly incendiary). Was the show better than others from the tour? Who knows, but it's an awesome marriage of brawn and brain in a single rock concert.

Dale Adamson's Chronicle review is reprinted inside the spiral notebook that houses the set. Proof that faster isn't necessarily better in this line of work, the poor guy had to split nine songs early to file his story. So he caught a great "Because the Night" and missed "Backstreets", "Rosalita", "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" and "Born to Run", among others. (Imagine trying to summarize a baseball game after six innings.)

So, the rest of the set…

The Darkness album is given a punchy remastering here, fitting because it was a leaner album than its predecessor. And these songs are always worth revisiting — dark documentary-like tunes about desperate people in desperate times. They race, they love well, they love poorly, and they end up on a hill when they probably shouldn't be on that hill.

The Promise, a documentary about how this magnificent album got made, is also included. Die-hards likely already saw it on HBO a few weeks back.

For those who didn't, it lacks the flimsy quality of most "about an album" music docs, featuring Springsteen's cooperation and commentary, along with copious vintage footage from the era. It also offers an interesting look at Springsteen's create-and-destroy-and-re-create-and-edit working process, which involves different iterations for some songs. Others get left by the wayside. Two CDs worth from the Darkness era end up bundled here as The Promise, the title track being one of the best of them. The pretty and plaintive fiddle-driven "Come On (Let's Go Tonight)" and soulful countrified rocker "It's a Shame" are great tunes that simply wouldn't have worked on Darkness - these songs, which celebrate the old-school rock from Springsteen's youth, represent what could've been a very different follow-up to Born to Run.

Another DVD - Thrill Hill Vault 1976-1978 - is odds-and-endsy but still contains some fine footage, studio and live, from that span. How Springsteen's eyes don't fly from his skull during a Phoenix performance of "Badlands" will just have to remain a mystery. That DVD is filled with a live performance from Asbury Park's Paramount Theatre in 2009. From a production standpoint, it looks and sounds perfect. But something is also missing, and it's not just keyboardist Danny Federici, who died the year before.

Springsteen and the E Street Band remain a powerful thing live. But the tight shots and the seasoned players lack some go-for-broke quality that the older footage - with Springsteen moving and snarling like a wolf - does. There's not that sense of courtship or seduction. It's hardly rote, his passion still leads with its chin. But the whole thing exudes wisdom before swagger.

All in all, though, this package takes an essential album - one that speaks to the times as well now as it did then - and places it in a treasure chest.


Image: Bruce Springsteen in concert circa 1978. (Mark Wyville photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media).

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