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Bruce Springsteen – Somerville Story (no label)

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Somerville Story (no label)

Somerville Theater, Somerville, MA, USA – 19 February, 2003

Disc 1: Introduction, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, Adam Raised A Cain, My Father’s House, Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?, Growin’ Up, [Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?], Freehold, Thunder Road, Nebraska, The River, Sherry Darling, Born In The U.S.A., Souls Of The Departed

Disc 2: The Wall, Bobby Jean, My Hometown, Brilliant Disguise, Stolen Car, Save The Last Dance For Me, It’s The Little Things That Count, If I Should Fall Behind, The Ghost Of Tom Joad, Sinaloa Cowboys, The Rising, Waitin’ On A Sunny Day, The Promised Land

This show was the first to be played by Springsteen in 2003 and came shortly before the resumption of the Rising Tour.  It was the first of two benefit shows (the second being on the following evening) for the beleaguered DoubleTake magazine.  The Backstreets website reported that, “Bruce Springsteen held a pair of ‘Master-Class’-style shows in Somerville, MA, offering glimpses into his songwriting craft, explicating songs line-by-line, and even taking questions from the audience. [It was] a stunning change of pace from the recent E Street Band shows.”  Dave Marsh, in Bruce Springsteen:  On Tour 1968-2005, writes at some length on what he clearly regards as two important shows:

“On February 19 and 20, 2003, Bruce played shows at the Somerville Theater, a tiny movie theater just outside Cambridge, Massachusetts…At this ‘Intimate Evening of Conversation and Music,’ he played solo, although the sertup was a little more musically elaborate than the Joad tour, adding piano to guitar.

He organized the show into a peculiar ‘And then I wrote…’ format.  He would describe his state of mind, living conditions, hopes, and problems at the time he made an album and then play a song that demonstrated the sometimes improbable results….Juxtaposing the hope and promise of ‘Thunder Road’ with the nihilism of ‘Nebraska,’ ‘The River,’ and ‘Sherry Darling,’ he proved an adept critic of his own music and the music from which he had borrowed and stolen over the years.”

The performance as presented here is incomplete; following The Promised Land there was a question-and-answer session which included performances of Back In Your Arms, Across The Border and Into The Fire followed by a renditon of This Hard Land, though Back In Your Arms and Into The Fire are partial performances.  There have been two other CD releases.  Godfather’s 2-CD release Intimate Night additionally includes Across The Border; Crystal Cat’s 3-CD set DoubleTake Night presents the entire show (plus Blinded By The Night from the second show as a bonus track).  However, both of these older releases are audience sourced, whereas this new no label release has the advantage of being derived from an IEM source.

The show begins with a short introduction from DoubleTake magazine’s founder Dr. Robert Coles.  The start of Springsteen’s performance is descibed by Caryn Rose, in an article entitled “Somerville Nights” in issue 76 of Backstreets magazine: “Kevin Buell hands him the12-string Takamine…and it’s ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town,’ followed by ‘Adam Raised A Cain.’  Yeah, we heard both of these plenty during the Joad tour, but tonight it sounds and feels different, clearer, better, stronger, louder.  My notes said ‘rolling, expansive, massive, soaring.’  The vocal style is less melodic and more of a chant.”  SoulBoogieAlex, writing on the Boss Tracks website states that by this time, “Darkness had firmly established itself as an angry, indignant song, whose narrator’s triumph amounts to more of a ‘so there’ than any true success…The narrator’s triumph stems from desperation, and his only overcoming is within himself.”  The performance of Darkness On The Edge Of Town is a very effective show opener; Adam Raised A Cain is even better, a powerful performance with an atmospheric harmonica-led opening. It emphatically demonstrates how Springsteen’s songs so often work effectively in radically different arrangements.  Springsteen tells the audience that the songs from Darkness On The Edge Of Town are ones he feels compelled to return to and that he really enjoys playing them.

Switching to a six-stringed instrument Springsteen then delivers a very fine account of My Father’s House.  Being from the Nebraska album, it unsurprisingly resembles the official version more closely that the opening two numbers.  Next up are a wonderfully vivacious Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street? and a breezy, hugely enjoyable Growin’ Up, both, of course, from debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ.  Although Springsteen prefaces these songs with some explanatory discourse, the first number to really get the “master-class” treatment is Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?  After Growin’ Up, Springsteen returns to the song, this time pausing after every couple of lines to explain the meaning behind the lyrics, often to the amusement of the audience.  After the line, “She says, ‘Man, the dope’s that there’s still hope, ‘” Springsteen says, “that’s the song.”  He continues: “Without that, the song doesn’t get on the album, I don’t have it.  Somebody once said that a good rock song is only one good line.  You only need one good line that gets you where you want to go, and the other stuff is kind of like getting there.” Unsurprisingly, he reveals that the “one good line” from Growin’ Up is, “And I swear I found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car.”  The second performance of Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street is not banded separately and is not included in the track listing.

Freehold (titled In Freehold in the track listing) is a curious song, which Springsteen says, “covers the same turf as Growin’ Up.”  It was first performed at, and probably written for, the concert at Springsteen’s old elementary school, St. Rose Of Lima School on 8 November 1996.  Despite stating that he was, “only gonna sing this song once in my life,” there were quite a few further performances, though it is not thought that the song has been recorded.  There were ten further performances during the Australian and European legs of The Ghost Of Tom Joad Solo Acoustic Tour in 1997 and another eight during The Rising Tour in 1999, seven in East Rutherford and one in Boston.  The two performances at the Doubletake benefit shows are, to my knowledge, the last in Springsteen’s career to date.  The song is musically very simple and the lyrics constitute an affectionate look back at Springsteen’s life growing up in his home town, mentioning some obviously important milestones in any young life (first beer, first kiss, etc.)  There is a warmth and affection in the song which takes it beyond the Lebanese Tribute To Bruce Springsteen website’s description of it as a “comedy song” and the Brucebase website’s virtual dismissal of it as a “little comedy piece,” though some lines are likely to bring smiles to listeners’ faces, such as, “I got a good Catholic education in Freehold/Led to an awful lot of masturbation in Freehold.” 

Springsteen then switches to the piano for a slow, and most affecting version of Thunder Road. After this “legendary” song, in Rose’s words, “it’s ‘Nebraska’ on the 12-string and harmonica, the guitar sounding like a harpsichord, the audience stunned into silence.”  The quiet unfolding of this tale of senseless killing and subsequent judicial execution, based on the horrific Starkweather murders of the 1950s, is chilling.  Springsteen explains that, “most of the first six verses” contain “external information” (i.e. information which can be gathered from sources such as books and newspapers,” whereas the last verse is “internal information.”  He then runs through the last verse again, as he did with the whole of Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street? In the final verse, the song’s protagonist is asked why he killed innocent people. His questioners seem to expect some profound insight from him just prior to, as the song puts it, his soul being hurled into the great void, but all he can manage to say is, “Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”   Then comes The River, a song concerning, as Springsteen puts it, people who feel “locked in place,” a situation epitomized by the line, “They bring you up to do just like your daddy done.”  “The guitar is less melodic, more modal,” writes Rose, “it just feels ancient and timeless,  underscoring the words, letting them take the center.  It’s a song that’s more than 20 years old, but it feels older at this moment, not at all like a contemporary rock song.  It was breathtaking, even if you’ve heard dozens of times.”  Referring to the need to sometimes lighten up, Springsteen then plays an airy, mid-paced version of Sherry Darling, which he calls “a summer song.”

Next, Springsteen performs Born In The U.S.A.  “It’s as deep and bluesy and soulful as the best renditions of this song can be, “writes Rose, “and he’s just feeling it: eyes closed. moving the glass slide up and down the neck of the guitar…’Born In The U.S.A. transitions almost seamlessly into a dark, intense and totally unexpected ‘Souls Of The Departed.’”  The latter song, far superior here to the version from Lucky Town, concludes the first disc.

Disc two begins with a new song, The Wall, c0-written with Joe Grushecky and performed here for the first time.  Springsteen introduced the song as follows: “I was down in Washington and I was at an event at the White House that was honoring Bob Dylan…I had an unusual experience…I took my wife to the Vietnam War Memorial…she’d never seen it.  We went there…and I had a few friends when I was a kid, the drummer of my first band [Bart Haynes, drummer of the Castiles] and another close friend in town [Walter Cichon, lead singer of The Motifs], and we’re looking for their names and we found their names and…that night we had this event, we end up at this dinner and, and there was Robert McNamara [US Secretary Of Defence, 1961-68], you know. And uh, Joe Grushecky send me for some reason a few, a week or so later send me an article out of a newspaper. And…so we kinda wrote this song together in some, in some fashion. This is called…’The Wall.’”  Unfortunately, only the final three sentences are heard on this CD.  The song itself is musically very straightforward, but the sentiment conveyed is extremely moving, the song’s opening verse, for example, being: “Cigarettes and a bottle of beer, this poem that I wrote for you/This black stone and these hard tears are all I’ve got left now of you/I remember you in your marine uniform laughing, laughing at your shipping out party/ I read Robert McNamara says he’s sorry.”  The applause at the song’s conclusion is appropriately warm.  The song was performed again the next night and also twice, on piano, towards the end of the Devils & Dust Solo Acoustic Tour in Norfolk, VA and East Rutherford, NJ on 11 and 16 November 2005.

After the gravity ofThe Wall comes a sprightly Bobby Jean, another number about friendship and loss, albeit loss of a less serious nature.  Springsteen then switches to piano for a fine rendition of My Hometown, nostalgic without being cloyingly sentimental.  He then switches tack, stating that, “this next bunch of material was, was my first shot at writing about men and women.”  First up is Brilliant Disguise, with Springsteen back on guitar.  The song’s passion and bitterness come across powerfully in this stripped down acoustic version.  This is followed by a haunting rendition of Stolen Car, which, despite its title, is described by Springsteen as a song indicative of the time when, “I made a switch from the guy on the road to the guy in the house.”

Springsteen then tells the audience that, “the sex in those songs is in the rhythm,”  in the manner of, “Save The Last Dance For Me…Spanish Harlem, all those beautiful, romantic ’6o’s records used that rhythm.”  To illustrate his point he then sings a brief excerpt from Save The Last Dance For Me.  The next song is It’s The Little Things That Count, which had made its first live appearance in Los Angeles on 27 November 1995 during the The Ghost Of Tom Joad Solo Acoustic Tour, and features whistling in addition to acoustic guitar.  The song begins with the lines, “She said we could just sleep together/There’d be nothing wrong/We could just hold each other with our clothes on,” but things develop in a rather obvious direction  from there, to the amusement of the audience.

Springsteen reverts again to the piano for the final time here for a moving version of If I Should Fall Behind, which Rose refers to as “utterly tear-jerking.” The piano part reflects the music played behind Springsteen during the story telling section of live performances of Growin’ Up.  The guitar returns for fine performances of The Ghost Of Tom Joad and Sinaloa Cowboys, essentially similar to those from the acoustic The Ghost Of Tom Joad album.  Next up is a splendid version of The Rising, receiving  what I believe to be its first acoustic performance.  Springsteen tells the audience that the question-and answer-session will be coming up soon before a gently-paced performance of Waitin’ On A Sunny Day.  Disc two concludes with The Promised Land, in what Rose calls, “that majestic arrangement he closed some Joad tour shows with the song just filling the theater, which was utterly still and silent.  It’s transfixing, Bruce chanting the words almost ritualistically.  Even if you’d heard this version, it was like you’d never heard the song before – and he’s as caught up in it as we are.”

Remarkably, some posters on the Stone Pony London and Jungleland websites have contended that this is an audience recording.  Reacting to this, wtfbsbm posting on Junglelend, states, “anybody that does not think this is an actual soundboard feed, or at the very least an IEM/audience mix, is in serious need of a hearing exam.”  Similarly, fmcleanboots, also posting on Jungleland, states that, “this sounds freakin’ amazing.  The first two tracks are audience, but the rest is amazingly perfect soundboard.  Can’t even hear the people singing on Sunny Day.”  Despite this, there are occasions on which the audience can be heard at a volume and with a sound which, to my ears, suggests an IEM/audience matrix.

The packaging of this release is rather simple.  Two discs are housed in a slimline jewel case; the single sheet front insert and the rear insert both show photographs of Springsteen on stage and the track listing appears on the back of the rear insert.  There are no notes.  Two of the songs have already appeared as bonus tracks on other Lighthouse-related releases from on the Social Graces label: Nebraska on Born Again (already reviewed) and Born In The U.S.A. on Innocent And Glory Days (to be reviewed shortly). 

This is a terrific show, one which Rocco From Boston, posting on the Greasy Lake website, states is, “by far the most intimate I have ever seen Bruce perform and the Backstreets website calls, “a knockout night.”  Moreover the sound is superb. However, the decision has been made to release (aside from the intro and the first song) only the portion of the show which is available in upgraded sound quality.  Not only does this make it incomplete, but, by omitting the entire question-and-answer session alters the nature of the listening experience.  This omission is particularly unwelcome due to this being the first of the two shows.  As Marsh writes. “on the first night, [the question-and-answer session] elicited some revealing material, which Bruce basked in; on the second night, the crowd went after nonsense and trivia, and Bruce grew exasperated.”  Make no mistake, due to the excellent sound quality in which this highly impressive performance is presented here, this release is an essential acquisition – but in the sense of it being an essential supplement to the complete Crystal Cat release.

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Bruce Springsteen - Somerville Story (no label), 2.5 out of 5 based on 1 rating

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