I bought it for myself, but this was my Christmas present, arriving in the mail from England on Christmas Eve: a fifteen-CD set containing five epic Springsteen concerts from the legendary Darkness on the Edge of Town tour. When the Cleveland deejay who emceed the show for WMMS-FM introduced the band by saying, "Round for round, pound for pound, there ain’t no finer band around," he wasn't just rhyming, he was telling the truth.
Why, you ask, did this set come from England? Well, it's an unauthorized collection of bootlegs, but in Europe, radio recordings are public domain, so this is actually a legal release.
The word went out through the fan network I ordered it on Amazon U.K. before the release date. Perhaps Bruce doesn't get a penny out of this, but I've seen it suggested that writers' royalties would still have to be paid. Either way, for £15.99 (slightly under $24) plus Amazon's usual $3.99 shipping, I couldn't resist. In the years soon after these shows, when all of them were individually bootlegged on massive vinyl box sets, any one of them cost more than that.
Roxy, Los Angeles, July 7
Back in my college days, which I have to admit are now over thirty years gone, my friend Tony Garcia used to have a bootleg Roxy LP -- just one disc. I'd been disappointed by Darkness at the Edge of Town (I didn't like "Prove It All Night" -- yeah, I got over that, eventually), so I was more into the '75 band, and my boots were The Great White Boss (Bottom Line, NYC 8/15/75), Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75, and You Can Trust Your Car to the Man Who Wears the Star (February 5, 1975, though identified as from 1976 as issued on the infamous Kornyfone bootleg label). But of course I borrowed Tony's Roxy LP and listened to it a few times. Hearing this concert, I immediately recognized the second CD (Bruce plays two sets, with an intermission) as the same material I'd heard on Tony's LP, starting with Bruce saying, "All you bootleggers out there in Radioland, roll your tapes," just before launching into "Paradise by the 'C'." Including that track, eight of these Roxy performances -- including his cover of Eddie Floyd's Stax classic "Raise Your Hand" -- were released on Bruce's first official "live" album, Live/1975–85, but often with bits edited out, especially spoken bits such as that admonition to home tapers, but also a musical section near the end of "Backstreets" that eventually became "Drive All Night." (And yet, he took the intro to "Fire" from this show and spliced it into the Winterland performance (below) for release on Live/1975–85. By the way, that Winterland "Fire" is the only non-Roxy '78 track on Live/1975–85.) (There is also a four-song Japanese CBS Sony CD from 1987 titled Live Collection that includes not only the Roxy "Rosalita" and Winterland "Fire" but also the Roxy "For You.") Items of interest to the Bruce obsessed: A solo piano version of "Independence Day" two years before a full-band version was released on The River, and "Because the Night" with Bruce's original words before Patti Smith rewrote it (he later adopted her lyrics), with the chorus repeated a lot because he'd never finished writing this song (which is why Smith got to tackle it). This is also the only concert in this box set that includes "Adam Raised a Cain."
Agora Ballroom, Cleveland, August 9
This show is known for opening with a cover of "Summertime Blues." For some reason, the first track of the second disc/set of this show is labeled "Kittys Back" though it's just 29 seconds of tuning up and chatter. Once again the band kicks off its second set with the Clarence Clemons-featuring instrumental "Paradise by the 'C'," here labeled "Paradise in the C." We hear "Sherry Darling" two years before its release, complete with Bruce's spoken intro saying it had been written for Darkness and connecting it to "fraternity rock," cited examples being "Louie, Louie," "Farmer John," and "Double Shot of My Baby's Love." Before playing the Bo Diddley beat-driven "She's the One," Springsteen at all five of these shows prefaces it with older songs by other artists using the same beat. At the Roxy, it was "Mona," an actual Diddley song; here it's Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" followed by Them's "Gloria," a sequence he follows in Atlanta as well (more on this later). There's an epic vamp on "Rosalita" that blends into the amusing band intros/solos.
The third disc of this show is disappointing at first. Again the opening track is titled when, rather than actually being "Born to Run," it's more between-songs stuff. "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," not exactly a favorite to begin with, sounds stiff and loses its humor. When "Born to Run" actually does appear, the sound becomes partly distant, oddly unbalanced. However, the long instrumental intro to "Because the Night" is excellent, and "Raise Your Hand" and "Twist & Shout" bring the energy level back up to a rousing conclusion.
This show is available legitimately through live.brucespringsteen.net
Capitol Theatre, Passaic, September 19
No introduction, no old-time rock 'n' roll cover to ease the audience into the show -- the E Street Band starts at the energy level most bands would work up to as the climax of a concert, kicking off with a fierce "Badlands." "Streets of Fire" starts off similarly but almost immediately, as Bruce starts singing, it suddenly shifts gears to just sustained organ chords and tambourine on 2 and 4 for the whole first verse until the band comes back in for the refrain -- one of many magical moments. The guitar solo in the middle is positively feral. They really stretch out on "Prove It All Night," which starts with a Roy Bittan piano solo of almost a minute and a half until Springsteen adds a snarling guitar solo over the top that's almost avant-garde in its dense tone at first until it morphs into the melody. Bruce doesn't sing until 4:09. Bittan comes up with a neat riff in the wordless section leading into the long, long coda. Six of the first eight tracks are from Darkness, with a full-band version of "Independence Day" a seventh; the only pre-'78 song to that point is "Spirit in the Night," which loses some of its old exuberance in such grim company. It's not until the segue from "Racing in the Street" to "Thunder Road" that he does a monolog, explaining that the title comes from a Robert Mitchum film. The 79-minute first set (think about that -- that's most bands' entire evening) ends with a trio of songs from Born to Run, climaxing with an epic "Jungleland." Unfortunately there's a problem with the tape at the beginning, which messes with the pitch of the piano intro, and even after that it's all tinnier.
The sound is good again when the second set starts with an expansive "Kitty's Back" full of long solos. A little while later we get a concise "Candy's Room," and that's it for Darkness songs -- seven out of its ten. Yet there are also four of the outtakes: the aforementioned "Independence Day," "Fire, "Because the Night," and "Point Blank," the latter three sandwiching "Candy's Room." This lends credence to the idea that he rejected those songs for Darkness not because he didn't like them, but because they didn't fit its mood. The end of "Backstreets" again includes "Drive All Night" and, as in Cleveland, leads into "Rosalita," but rather than being the climactic set-closer, "Sandy" oddly comes next -- except it's not odd in a way, because its subtitle of course is "4th of July Asbury Park," and this concert is in his home state of New Jersey. So, far from this accordion ditty killing the mood, it hits the crowd where it lives, literally.
"Born to Run" starts the encores, a hard-driven, tense rendition that sustains the buildup in the middle just before Bruce counts off the last verse. The "Detroit Medley" ("Devil with a Blue Dress On," "Good Golly Miss Molly," "See See Rider," "Jenny Take a Ride"), so-called because the first and last songs in it were by Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, makes its first appearance in this box here; it became a concert staple. "Raise Your Hand" keeps the old-time feeling going to wrap up the show.
Fox Theater, Atlanta, September 30
The oldie opener this night is "Good Rockin' Tonight," which does two things: tells the audience what to expect, and positions Bruce as the next Elvis. On the following "Badlands," Bruce sounds hoarse already. "Spirit in the Night," again surrounded by Darkness material and outtakes, is starting to sound more like a 1978 song than the '73 song it is: rhythms squared off, slowed down, grimmer and darker. "Independence Day" is decorated by prominent glockenspiel. The second set starts with, incongruously, "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town," pretty similar to the 1975 C.W. Post show that was released to radio stations and eventually tacked onto various single releases. More notable is James Brown's "Night Train," supposedly the only time the band played it; Clarence Clemons is in fine form on it. Obviously it was a tribute to a native son of Georgia. The intro to "Because the Night" is again spellbinding, heavily reverbed guitar against Bittan's piano pattern. It's funny in a way: "Candy's Room," one of his greatest songs, gets a three-minute treatment every time, whereas "Because the Night," which he never even finished, regularly becomes a showpiece. "Point Blank" is mesmerizing as well. Then we're into the Bo Diddley Beat medley, this time "Not Fade Away"/"Gloria"/"She's the One," with a two-minute stretch of just guitar over the tom-toms beat. Bruce may have started the show a bit hoarse, but his voice has opened up by this point and he goes through a dazzling succession of timbres and vocal styles on "Not Fade Away." "Gloria" is sung over the "She's the One" organ riff and Bruce then goes into the first verse of "She's the One" without a pause. What's identified as "Sad Eyes" in the middle "Backstreets" is as usual "Drive All Night," getting longer -- I believe I once again have to resort to "epic" as a description. Once into the encores, we get a faux-mariachi two-minute intro to "Rosalita" before the usual energy is unleashed. Then we get the same "Born to Run"/"Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out"/Detroit Medley/"Raise Your Hand" progression as ended the Capitol show.
Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, December 15
This gig, widely bootlegged as Prodigal Son and Live in the Promised Land, includes every Darkness track but "Adam Raised a Cain." "Spirit in the Night" is more joyful and playful than that heard in Atlanta. "Factory," dedicated to Bruce's father listening on the radio to this broadcast, is done with an atypically hauntingly quiet first verse. "The Promised Land" is so harmonica-heavy at first, with a longer intro, that one can't help but think of Bob Dylan (Bruce having been one of several '70s figures dubbed "The New Dylan"). "Prove It All Night" gets an extended piano intro that really changes the song's character; if the LP version had sounded like this, I'd have loved it immediately instead of taking a while to warm to it. "Racing in the Streets" is incredibly melancholy, with some small lyric changes and different vocal inflections. "Jungleland" is fascinatingly pensive and tender, with Bittan more lyrical than usual and Bruce savoring every word of the final verse. (Alas, briefly there are slight touches of vocal distortion or fuzzy radio signal.) I swear, this one disc is so revelatory that it's worth the cost of the entire box set. I am now mad at myself for not having acquired this bootleg decades sooner, because it would have changed my entire mindset about 1978-vintage E Street Band.
At the start of this concert's second set, we hear "The Ties That Bind" (another Darkness outtake) for the first time in this box, before the piano opening was replaced by guitar. (The tracks on the sleeve are in the correct order, but on iTunes it shows "Backstreets" first instead of last, with everything else off by one as a result.) We get "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" again, more seasonally appropriate this time and with a much longer spoken introduction (so long that it gets its own track) with nice instrumental backing. Next up is a slow, lounge-like take on "The Fever" (another Darkness outtake, given to Miami Steve Van Zandt's pal Southside Johnny) -- this was long before Springsteen's more straightforward studio version was officially released. Once again there's a riveting instrumental introduction to "Because the Night"; later it builds to the greatest intensity of any of its versions in this box. "Point Blank" is also especially hypnotic this time out. "Mona" is surprisingly sweet and gentle, "Preacher's Daughter" turns up the heat, and "She's the One" is a slow burn. "Backstreets" played by the 1978 band is so often clenched and harsh (that characteristic in general is why I so preferred the band's warmer '75-76 personality); here it's more expansive and less mechanical without losing any intensity -- the intensity is of cathartic ritual rather than primal scream, and when he moves into the addition that eventually became "Drive All Night," I'm reminded of Van Morrison at his most ruminative -- and when the long buildup suddenly stops and he switches back to the final, extended chorus of "Backstreets," it's an orgasmic release. Seriously, if you want to know why people worship Bruce like a god, just listen to this concert. It's amazing.
According to a contemporary review of this show, though "Rosalita" opens the show's third disc, it was actually the last song of the second set. Then we get the usual encores and a little more. The Detroit Medley is never a throw-away, but compared to this rendition, it could seem that way; for a long time, it threatens to break into "I'm a Man," though it never does. "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" is more fun than usual for '78, back to the looseness of earlier years. This time out, "Raise Your Hand" is not the last encore; after they play it, Bruce and the band reach back to an earlier era for what used to be their set closer, their rousing take on Gary "U.S." Bonds's party anthem "Quarter to Three." BTW the radio announcer says that Jimmy Iovine did the mix. Not that it's perfect, but it's pretty good for a concert. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. Earlier this year, his soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days was heard at the film's debut screening at Anthology Film Archives, and more recently at the Lausanne Underground Film & Music Festival. The CD of the soundtrack was released last year by MechaBenzaiten Records (distributed by Forced Exposure).