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Bruce Springsteen – A Family Affair (Godfatherecords G.R. 512/513/514)

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A Family Affair (Godfatherecords G.R. 512/513/514)

Stadio Luigi Ferraris, Genoa, Italy -11 July, 1999

Disc 1: My Love Will Not Let You Down, The Promised Land, Two Hearts, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, Darlington County, Mansion On The Hill, The River, Youngstown

Disc 2: Murder Incorporated, Badlands, Out In The Street, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, Loose Ends, You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch), Working On The Highway, The Ghost Of Tom Joad, Jungleland, Light Of Day

Disc 3: Bobby Jean, Hungry Heart, Born To Run, Thunder Road, If I Should Fall Behind, Land Of Hope And Dreams

Bonus Tracks: Palau Saint Jordi, Barcelona, Spain – 9 April, 1999: Tougher Than The Rest, Lucky Town, Spirit In The Night, She’s The One, Backstreets, Streets Of Philadelphia

Like many Springsteen fans, I was unimpressed by the two 1992 albums Human Touch and Lucky Town.  Not fond of Springsteen in his solo acoustic incarnation, I did not find too much too  much to inspire me on The Ghost Of Tom Joad; The Seeger Sessions, while certainly more lively, essentially constituted a pleasing but insubstantial diversion.  Furthermore, in the mid-1990s, measures taken against the selling of unauthorized recordings at record fairs in the UK made bootleg CDs harder to obtain.  Although such CDs could be bought from individual market stall, this greatly reduced the releases one could find, and it was some time before I discovered the treasures one could find by judicious searching of the internet.  The relative difficulty of obtaining new Springsteen bootlegs acted in concert with my indifference to his recent material to produce a distinct waning of interest in my favourite rock musician during the 1990s. It was not until 2008 that a combination of attending the superb second show at the Emirates Stadium and acquiring and reviewing Magic Tour releases strongly rekindled my interest in Springsteen.  Consequently, this is my first encounter with a bootleg CD of the Reunion Tour. 

I did, however, attend one of the Reunion Tour shows at Earl’s Court, London in May 1999, together with my wife, who was experiencing her first Springsteen concert.  As we left the venue, I remarked that it would be difficult to imagine a better performance than the one we had just witnessed.  Such sentiments are echoed by Robert Santelli in Greetings From E Street, who writes, “any rock fans who’d been to their share of concerts could see that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band was still the best in the business.”  Nonetheless, I distinctly recall that I came away with the feeling  that something was missing, a feeling I did not share with my wife, as, at the time, I could not quite put my finger on what it was that the performance lacked.

It was not until earlier this year that I found a viewpoint that articulated my slight feeling of disappointment.  Comparing the Reunion tour with the Rising Tour, Jimmy Guterman, writing in Runaway American Dream: Listening To Bruce Springsteen, contends that:

“The biggest difference betwee the reunion and Rising tours – and the crucial difference that made the latter superior to the former – is that the reunion tour was all about looking back at former triumphs while the Rising tour took a deep breath and then peered forward. ‘There used to be this thing called a rock’n’roll show,’ was the message of the reunion tour.  “We know there’s no such thing anymore, but we used to do it better than anyone else.  we’re still pretty great.  Anyway, this is what we used to do.’”

Although his argument goes further than mere choice of material, a measure of support for his view is  certainly provided by the lack of new songs.  As Kevin O’Hare states on the Infoplase website, “the shows sometimes seemed like an oldies review, due to the dearth of new material that they offered.  Springsteen was still electrifying on stage, yet it almost seemed that he’d lost his desire as a songwriter.”  Even Dave Marsh, in Bruce Springsteen On Tour 1968-2005, seemed to waver at the prospect of an “oldies review,” asking himself:

“But to carry a whole tour on the strength of even Bruce’s 150 or so oldies and one new song, no matter how great ‘Land Of Hope And Dreams’ was?  From these materials, could even Bruce Springsteen make an exciting and creative show?”

Marsh’s conclusion is essentially ambiguous: he goes out of his way to argue that the performances of Springsteen and the band were superior to those of previous tours, but his words do not suggest even a modicum of creativity:

“The band did exactly what it had always done – better…Everybody played better…They did the same things.  Pretty much exactly the same things.  They did them better.  That was the story of the reunion tour.”

Springsteen himself, while praising his band’s performances, seems to suggest that the E Streeters touring together again for the first time in eleven years was in itself satisfying enough, saying, “We knew the band was gonna play well and that everybody’s commitment wa stronger than ever…it was exciting enough just to be onstage with those people again…that thing alone was something that…had great meaning for our audience and…for me.”

The Reunion Tour began in Europe because, as Marsh states, “Bruce had been for the last several tours a bigger act overseas than at home.”  Consequently, with this release, Godfather presents us with a relatively early show, Genoa being the twenty-seventh of one hundred and thirty-three concerts.  The setlist above demonstrates the lack of new material, Land Of Hope And Dreams excepted.  Indeed, there is also a marked absence of recent, as opposed to entirely new songs: the main show contains only three songs from Springsteen’s regular studio albums of the 1990s - If I Should Fall Behind (Lucky Town, 1992), The Ghost Of Tom Joad and Youngstown (both The Ghost Of Tom Joad, 1995).

Having said that, the first number we hear, My Love Will Not Let You Down, must have seemed like a new song to many fans.  Following its appearance on Tracks the previous year, the song only made its live debut at the beginning of the Reunion Tour.  It was, however, another “oldie,” having been recorded during the Born In The U.S.A. sessions at The Hit Factory on 5 May, 1982.  (The Lebanese Tribute To Bruce Springsteen website cites the existence of an even earlier version contained on an acoustic demo tape dating from early 1981.)  This song is referred to by Guterman as “a tough drums-and-guitar rocker” and Christopher Sandford, in Springsteen: Point Blank, refers to the song’s “snarl.”  The version heard here certainly makes for an explosive concert opener, though it is not a classic Springsteen number, partly due to the ungainly drawing out of one word to make the lyrics fit the music (in the manner of The Ties That Bind).

Instant audience recognition, and loud clapping along, greet the next song, the weightier anthem The Promised Land, which features extensive harmonica input from Springsteen and a fine saxophone solo from Clarence Clemons.  Then there is a dynamic performance of a second fast-paced but essentially insubstantial number, Two Hearts, before matters turn serious once more with an intense and spirited Darkness On The Edge Of Town.  A lengthy instrumental opening stretches an energetic, crowd-pleasing Darlington County to seven-and-a-half minutes, and Clemons’ sax solo once more hits home.  Again, the audience claps along enthusiastically.

The next song is a band rendition of Mansion On The Hill, from Springsteen’s first solo acoustic album, Nebraska.  Nils Lofgren’s pedal steel and Steve Van Zandt’s mandolin give this slow version a distinct country feel and the song is also graced with an accordion solo from Danny Federici and a vocal contribution from Patti Scialfa.  Despite the lack of new songs, this demonstates a clear willingness on Springsteen’s part to re-work older material for this tour, and the next number, The River, provides a prime example of this.  The song begins with a splendidly atmospheric sax solo from Clemons, which gives way to Springsteen’s restrained harmonica part.  The mood remains subdued, and the pace slow, as Springsteen begins the vocals, and, although the song, which again featuring steel guitar and accordion, does speed up, it is still slower than the original version.  The effect of the wordless vocalise near the end is lessened by some intrusively loud clapping from the audience, and then the song concludes, as it began, with harmonica and saxophone.  It is a stunning re-imagining of one of the stand-out songs from The River.  Youngstown is given an extremely weighty performance with some echo-laden vocals at the start and resonant drumming from Max Weinberg, and an extremely effective, howling guitar solo from Nils Lofgren at the end.  It is one of the songs that Sandford contends “felt fresh” on the Reunion Tour, and it brings the first disc to a spectacular conclusion.

Like disc 1, the second CD kicks off with a Born In The U.S.A. outtake, in this case, as Sandford describes it, the “scorching” Murder Incorporated.  Recorded in April or May of 1982, the song had to wait until 1995 for a live performance, and therefore in a concert context is again relatively new here.  This hard-hitting performance, underpinned by Weinberg’s pounding drums, certainly justifies Sandford’s opinion of the song as “one of his best songs that winter [1981-82].”  A tremendously muscular, forward-thrusting Badlands, complete with false ending, is another highlight and this gives way to a rowdy and thoroughly enjoyable Out In The Street.  Before the song starts, Springsteen repeatedly shouts, “Are you ready!” which is the first time that he can be heard addressing the audience between songs.

This is followed by another vivacious number, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.  It begins wonderfully, the bouncy instrumental introduction extended to two minutes while Springsteen bestrode the stage in a hat borrowed from a member of the audience.  Unfortunately however, on this tour Springsteen opted to insert the band introductions into this song.  He precedes this with a lengthy call-and-response with the audience, during which he repeatedly sings, in a falsetto voice, the title lyrics of The Impressions’ It’s All Right  and Curtis Mayfield’s Move On Up (Al Green’s Take Me To the River also made an appearence at other shows and can be heard on Live In New York City).  Each band member gets to perform a brief solo, which for Steve van Zandt consists of a few bars from the theme to The Godfather.  Springsteen introduces Patti Scialfa by singing part of Red Headed Woman, and she then sings a snippet of As Long As I (Can Be With You), one of the highlights of her excellent debut album, Rumble Doll.  (On other occasions, as heard on Live In New York City, where she is the only band member to get a solo slot, she sang an excerpt from the title track.)   Moreover, in the middle of all this, after Springsteen speaks to the audience in Italian, stating, “For the first time in Italy, not the Three Tenors, but the Three Accordionists,” Danny Federici, Nils Lofgren and Roy Bittan play the tarantella familiar to collectors from the show in Udine in 2009, while Springsteen’s mother and aunt take to the stage and dance.  All  this extends the song to fifteen minutes, and serves to turn a lively, vibrant number into a bloated mess.  At least on this occasion we are spared a lengthy exposure to Springsteen’s mock-preacher persona, which we get on the official release.  (He does very briefly mention that the spirit moves him and that he has a dream, but it fortunately goes no further.)  Guterman contends that, “he’s often hilarious when he affects a preacher’s delivery,” a view which I entirely fail to grasp. 

In contrast, the next song is a highlight of this set, Loose Ends.  This is another new-old song.  Recorded during sessions for The River at The Power Station on 18 July 1979, it only made its live debut five days prior to this show in Paris and this taut, stirring performance presented here is the song’s third live outing.  An energetic performance of You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch) is then followed by Working On The Highway, which has a longer introduction featuring acoustic guitar which imparts a distinct rockabilly feel, and a jaunty sax part from Clemons.  

The Ghost Of Tom Joad begins quietly, with harmonica and acoustic guitar, which suggests that Springsteen will play an entirely acoustic version in the manner of the album version.  However, the instrumentation is soon augmented by a discreet accordion part and, as Springsteen begins the instrumental section with further harmonica, pedal steel and drums emerge.   This is followed by Jungleland, which receives a fairly standard performance, though it is always good to hear a live rendition of this majestic song, and Clemons contributes a powerful sax solo.  Disc 2 and the main set end with a fizzing, exuberant Light Of  Day, which Guterman calls  “a terrific performance piece.”  Despite his preference for the succeeding The Rising Tour, Guterman also states that, “the reunion tour had an infinitely superior peak set-ender – the hard-rocking, hilarious “Light of Day.” (The set-ender in 2002 was Into The Fire.)  In this terifically energetic performance the spoken section resembles the [Un]Plugged version, with Springsteen repeatedly crying “I need a train!” (inducing “whoo-whoo” noises from both band and audience) and then stating that he has travelled hundreds and thousands of miles, listing various locations for good measure.  Unlike on the Live In New York City DVD,  Springsteen again seems to eschew the preacher persona which made an appearance at this point in other shows from the tour, thereby omitting what Wikipedia refers to as “‘The Ministry of Rock and Roll’ litany.”  However, careful listening reveals a minor glitch in the tape at this point which might possibly indicate that a version of the “litany” was performed but excised from the tape.

Disc 3 and the encore begin with a lively Bobby Jean, which gives way to an exuberant Hungry Heart, with its customary audience participation.  Then follows an exhilarating Born To Run, played with tremendous panache, which in turn gives way to perennial favourite, Thunder Road.  The final two songs are exceptional performances.  First comes If I Should Fall Behind, an entirely undistinguished song from Lucky Town; here, however, it is transformed as Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren, Patti Scialfa and Clarence Clemons, in an expression of solidarity, take a vocal turn on this slowed-down rendition.  Entertainment Weekly writer Chris Willman writes that the song promotes “companionship as a heroic virtue.”  Marsh concurs, considering that the Reunion Tour performances of the song  exemplified “a commitment between friends – bandmates, an artist and his audience, a man and the world he struggled to understand and change at least a little bit for the better.”  The version played here is genuinely affecting – the sort of performance that makes your scalp tingle.  Finally, the concert ends on a high with the one new song, Land Of Hope And Dreams.  Guterman waxes lyrical: “Springsteen and the band couldn’t hope for a better song to go out on…The song ranks among the greatest of all Springsteen compositions…one of their best ever.”  Unlike more recent versions, the song is played without a snippet of People Get Ready at the end.

Disc 3 is filled out  with five songs extracted from the tour’s opening night show in Barcelona.  First comes a fine rendition of Tougher Than The Rest, appropriately downbeat and sombre.  This is followed by Lucky Town, one of two seemingly ordinary songs from the two simultaneously released albums of 1992 which, in my opinion, really came alive in the [Un]Plugged performance (the other is Better Days).  This is an enjoyable performance, though not as good as the [Un]Plugged one.  Spirit In The Night receives an effervescent performance and just before the section where the song slows down Springsteen begins to sing in a thin, high pitched voice which is curiously effective.  At one point the song effectively comes to a halt to allow the audience to repeatedly sing “all night.”  She’s The One begins as if it will be prefaced by Mona, and although the lyrics of that song do not emerge, the initial section of She’s The One, after a brief wordless vocalise, is sung over a sparse backling dominated by Weinberg’s drums.  After this the song explodes into life, and it seems entirely appropriate to hear a member of the audience shout “whoo-hoo!” immediately after the false ending.  Backstreets is enhanced by a brief but pleasing piano and guitar segnent just before Spingsteen repeatedly sings the line “Hiding on the backstreets.”  This set then concludes with an effectively subdued version of Streets Of Philadelphia.  This is a well chosen selection of bonus tracks which complement the main concert very well.

The sound on this release is very good, though not outstanding.  It has a good bottom end and is quite punchy, although the clarity and balance between instruments could be better.  Louder, faster songs such as My Love Will Not Let You Down can sound a little congested, though the quieter songs, such as The River, come across very well indeed.  Mojopin maintains that the sound quality is superior to the only previous release, The Mom, The Aunt & Me, on Lizard Records. Replying to another poster on the Jungleland website asking if the new release has better sound than the older set, he states of the Godfather version that, “it’s a different and better source.”  The enthusistic audience (as seems invariably the case when Springsteen plays in Italy) is often to the fore, though it very largely the case that we hear audience participation (rhythmic clapping and singing along), rather than audience noise (shouting out or talking).  This adds to the atmosphere of a live occasion; only on The River is the audience inappropriately intrusive.  The sound quality of the bonus tracks is not quite as good as that of the main concert and more audience chatter is audible. 

This release is attractively packaged in Godfather’s trademark tri-fold sleeve, with the front cover superimposing a photograph of Springsteen over a poster advertising the concert.  The sleeve also features several other onstage shots and a posed photograph of the entire band, together with a reproduction of a ticket for the show.  As well as the track listing and band personnel, there are the customary Joe Roberts notes on the sleeve, in which Marsh’s viewpoint is closely paraphrased, with the statement that the band, “do the same things.  Pretty much exactly the same things.  But they do them better.  And that’s the story of the Reunion Tour.”  Inside the sleeve is a miniature version of the poster with a reproduction of the stadium layout on the reverse. 

I enjoyed listening to this set, which grew on me with each repeated hearing, and it served as a reminder that, while not Springsteen’s greatest live achievement, the Reunion Tour contained some fine performances.  I am glad to have finally acquired a complete concert recording from the tour to complement the official Live In New York City CD and DVD releases.  It will also prompt me to seek out further Reunion Tour releases.  However, A Family Affair contains few surprises and even the radically reworked songs such as The River differ little from the New York versions.  Overall, while it is a worthwhile purchase, this set is undeniably a less desirable artefact than Godfather’s other two recent Springsteen releases (Grande Finale and Driving that Dusty Road), both of which are near-essential.  

   

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Bruce Springsteen - A Family Affair (Godfatherecords G.R. 512/513/514), 2.0 out of 5 based on 6 ratings

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