Count Basie Theatre Magic Night (Crystal Cat Records CC 882-83)
Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank, NJ, USA – 7 May, 2008
Disc 1: Badlands, Adam Raised A Cain, Something In The Night, Candy’s Room, Racing In The Street, The Promised Land, Factory, Streets Of Fire, Prove It All Night, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, Thunder Road
Disc 2: Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, Night, Backstreets, Born To Run, She’s The One, Meeting Across The River, Jungleland, So Young And In Love, Kitty’s Back, Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), Raise Your Hand
This concert was performed as a benefit for the Count Basie Theatre and it raised $3,000,000 to provide for the restoration of the 80-year-old venue. It was not originally going to be a band show and, by all accounts, the stage was pretty cramped, with Scialfa’s return to live performance and the addition of “The Mighty Max Horns” swelling the ranks to fourteen people, so that the band members were, in the words of the Backstreets website, “packed together tighter than ever.” As the Point Blank website reminds us, a theatre show with the E Street Band is “something that hadn’t happened since 1980, early on The River tour.” However, it was not the scale of the venue that was the selling point for the show, rather the fact that it was to consist of complete performances of Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town. Springsteen referred to this as “something we’ve never done before and you’re not gonna see it anywhere else,” so that he creates, as the Brucebase website says, “a unique presentation.”
After the initial speeches, included in full here, Springsteeen begins with the later of the two albums, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, justifying the decision by stating that, “we’re gonna start with Darkness, so we don’t send you home suicidal!” Brucebase is wide of the mark when referring to the songs being performed “as close to the original recordings as possible,” as the Backstreets writer demonstrates when describing the performance of Darkness On The Edge Of Town:
“full of intensity from the howls on ‘Something In The Night’ to the seemingly never-ending coda of ‘Racing In The Street,’ a straight-ahead ‘Factory’…with Steve [Van Zandt] on mandolin, the modern twist on ‘Prove It All Night’ as Nils [Lofgren] rocked the new solo, and…a hugely powerful vocal on the title track. Loads of guitar from Springsteen, too – every solo except that Nils spectacular.”
Although not an exhaustive list of differences, this account clearly demonstrates that the Darkness songs are not mere note-for-note recreations of the LP versions. It also pays testament to the power of the performance.
The start was inauspicious, however, with the first attempt at Badlands quickly breaking down, prompting Springsteen to say, “we fucked it up already! I knew there was a reason why we didn’t do this. Maybe we shouldn’t do it!” However, the second attempt produces a stirring rendition with, as is now customary, an instrumental coda following the false ending. This is followed by a heavy, emotionally-charged Adam Raised A Cain which “ripped,” according to Jeremy Neuer on Springsteen’s official website, “with Bruce’s guitar work in fine form.” A beautifully atmospheric opening sets the tone for a splendid performance of Something In the Night and then Candy’s Room is, as Neuer states, “played with such intensity.” The final song from the original album’s first side one, Racing In the Street is given a most affecting reading and it allows pianist Roy Bittan, particularly during the long instrumental coda, a chance to shine with playing that is, as Neuer puts it, “a perfect combination of beauty and power.”
A anthemic version of The Promised Land features a fine saxophone solo from Clarence Clemons and a suitably sombre Factory gives way to a powerful Streets Of Fire. As with Because The Night, Prove It All Night has developed into a number which allows guitarist Nils Lofgren to demonstrate his considerable skills and he contributes a long and hugely effective solo to the end of the song. As the Neuer puts it, “what hit me next was jaw-dropping: Nils’ solo was simply astounding.” The album performance then concludes a fine rendition of the title track, containing, as Backstreets says, “a hugely powerful vocal” from Springsteen, which prompts rapturous applause and cheers from the audience.
Members of the audience are equally responsive as we hear the first strains of the opening song from Born To Run, the classic Thunder Road, and, as long-customary, they get to sing a couple of lines. A wonderfully ebullient performance of Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, with the audience singing along during the long introduction, owes much to the horn section of Mark Pender (trumpet), Ritchie “La Bamba” Rosenberg (trombone), Jerry Vivino and Ed Manion (saxophones). “Their presence,” argues Andy Greene of Rolling Stone, “made [it] one of the night’s highlights.” After this, Night is, as Neuer states, “a straight-ahead freight train.” A tremendously moving Backstreets is, of course, a highlight of the performance and, in Neuer’s words, “a show stopper.”
Born To Run takes flight wonderfully and contains the now usual mid-song climax and Pender then returns, adding the trumpet part to Meeting Across The River to great acclaim. Neuer states that it was, “one of the truly special moments of the night…Mark Pender came out and just killed it,” and Greene states that he, “did an excellent job recreating Randy Brecker’s trumpet intro.” Backstreets comments that Pender contributed “a few minutes of absolute magic,” which also owed much to, “the beautiful accompaniment from [Bittan] and Garry [Tallent[.” “The band smoke,” says Neuer, on an energetic She’s The One and then, of course, comes Jungleland, with Soozie Tyrell playing the opening violin part. It is a terrific version, with, as Backstreets states, a “soaring [guitar] solo” from Van Zandt and a tremendous sax solo from Clemons.
Springsteen and the band played what the Point Blank website calls “four more jewels,” effectively encores, despite the fact that they did not leave the stage, and as Backstreets states,”they used the horn section to maximum effect for the entire encore.” First up is an effervescent version of Darkness outtake So Young And In Love, which Backstreets calls “just straightforward fun.” Then comes a stunningly brilliant Kitty’s Back, lasting for fourteen minutes and enhanced by some extended soloing, beginning with organ and encompassing the horn section, piano (including a snippet of James Bond film music), guitar and saxophone. After a barnstorming Rosalita the show concludes with a riotous Raise Your Hand, rightly praised by Backstreets as “a tremendous version”
Commentaters are unstinting in their praise for this excellent concert. Brucebase refers to it as, “a show that will be long remembered.” Frodon, posting on the Jungleland site, calls it “a legendary performance.” Chris Phillips, on Springsteen’s official website, writes of “live recreations of classic records that made for a fascinating, thrilling night.” Neuer says simply that it was, “possibly the best show I have ever seen.” Greene, regards it as, “the most powerful Springsteen show I’ve ever seen.” Wendy Bond, on the Boss Tracks website, states that, “not only was it the best Springsteen show I’ve ever been to, but, it was the best live show I’ve ever been to, period.” In comparison, Steenponny’s post on the Stone Pony London website, contending that “the show is amazing” sounds positively restrained. Backstreets comments:
“The stuff that dreams are made of…It was a particular bygone era brought back to lofe, a celebration of the band’s history and just one of its heydays…yet as ever with Springsteen, it was most notably moving forward and trying something new at the same time…it was the perfect crucible for revisiting the passion and the power of these classic records. An experiment…and an electrifying success.”
The sound quality, however, does not match the performance. According to Steenponny, Crystal Cat have utilized an entirely unmodified torrented tape source: “It’s exactly the same as the torrent with no remastering…the source tape is mediocre at best.” This is perhaps a little harsh. The recording of the music itself is good, and at times (for example during Streets Of fire) approaching very good, with a nice presence and pronounced bottom end which makes it quite punchy; it does, however, lack some clarity and definition. I suspect that Steenponny’s opinion is affected, and rightly so, by the high level of audience noise (other posters on SPL mention this). Obviously there is much cheering, applause and singing aong, but the tape also prominently features a great deal of talking, both general widespread chatter and some clearly audible conversations close to the taper, including one woman who informs her companion that Springsteen’s ouevre contains “lots of songs about cars.” There are also some extremely loud whistles during So Young And In Love and Kitty’s Back. Incredibly, just after Springsteen introduces the Born To Run album, someone loudly shouts “Rosalita!” According to Greene he did this frequently during the show.
There is one further caveat. In order to fit the show on to two CDs, Crystal Cat places the disc break between Thunder Road and Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, resulting in the opening song of Born To Run being on disc 1 and the remainder of the album on disc 2. This obviously detracts from the complete album performances concept in a fundamental way. I assume that most collectors, like myself, would have preferred each album to have a disc to itself, with the encores and some bonus tracks on a third disc, though some may appreciate the reduced cost of a two-disc set.
Crystal Cat’s packaging is impressive. The discs come in a slimline case with a double-sided rear insert and a twelve-page booklet. There are some, though relatively few, onstage photos, together with shots of the exterior of the venue, Springsteen signing autographs and a ticket for the show. The track listing is shown on both insert and booklet, in both cases with miniature reproductions of the front covers of The Wild, The Innocent And the E Street Shuffle and Born To Run. The booklet reproduces the accounts of the show by Phillips, Neuer, Greene and the anonymous Backstreets writer. Insert and booklet are printed on the label’s usual glossy paper. The label side of the discs are printed in colour, in the quirky, stylized fashion favoured by Crystal Cat for its Magic Tour releases.
As is made abundently clear above, this is a great show; with complete performances of two albums, it is also a unique show. Consequently, if you are able to disregard the high level of audience noise, it is a show which will bring a great deal of pleasure.