Into The River We Dive (Godfatherecords G.R. 464/465/46)
Madison Square Garden, New York, NY, USA – 8 November, 2009
Disc 1: Wrecking Ball, Introduction To the River, The Ties That Bind, Sherry Darling, Jackson Cage, Two Hearts[/It Takes Two], Independence Day, Hungry Heart, Out In The Street, Crush On You, You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch), I Wanna Marry You, The River, Point Blank, Cadillac Ranch, I’m A Rocker
Disc 2: Fade Away, Stolen Car, Ramrod, The Price You Pay, Drive All Night, Wreck On The Highway, Waitin’ On A Sunny Day, Atlantic City, Badlands, Born To Run, Seven Nights To Rock
Disc 3: Sweet Soul Music, No Surrender, American Land, Dancing In The Dark, Can’t Help Falling In Love, [(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me)] Higher And Higher
Bonus Tracks: The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA, USA – 13 October, 2009: The Fever, This Hard Land
Free Bonus CD: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY, USA – 7 November, 2009: Thundercrack, The E Street Shuffle, 4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy), Kitty’s Back, Wild Billy’s Circus Story, Incident On 57th Street, Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), New York City Serenade, Higher And Higher
“Context has always been important to Bruce Springsteen’s music,” contends Jonathan Pont on the Backstreets website, “and he reinforced that notion with a galvanizing performance of The River in its entirety for the first time on Sunday night at Madison Square Garden. In a precise, exhilarating, and high-energy show, Springsteen faithfully reproduced all 20 of its songs. Most have appeared in shows on various tours since the album’s 1980 release, and usually to great effect. But hearing the songs in their original order left many in the building gasping in astonishment.” It could be argued that playing The River complete at a live concert is particularly apt given Springsteen’s comment in a recent Billboard interview that, “I sequenced it to feel like a live show.”
Springsteen says before The River is played that it will be the only complete performance, because “it’s too long to do it again,” and this length reduces the introductory segment of the show to just one song, Wrecking Ball, which seems to grow in stature with every rendition. The lyrics here are amended to take the location into consideration, and Curt Ramm once again contributes an effective trumpet part.
The River itself commences with a sprightly The Ties That Bind and energy levels are kept high with what Jason Franks, writing on Springsteen’s official website, terms “a truly remarkable” Sherry Darling, with “the party noises…out in full force.” As always, this song works better live than on the album, where the jollity seems enforced. The momentum is further maintained by the energy put into the simultaneously melodic and menacing Jackson Cage, where Springsteen sings, according to Pont, “with the force and conviction of a young artist trying to win over the audience with a new song.” The initial clutch of up-tempo songs concludes with the jaunty Two Hearts, which, given the context of the performance, rather surprisingly ends with the now-customary snippet of It Takes Two.
Then comes what Caryn Rose, on Springsteen’s site, refers to as “the first moment of weight,” a poignant rendition of the classic Independence Day, played marginally faster than the album version and enhanced by Nils Lofgren’s pedal steel guitar. Hungry Heart gives the audience its usual chance to sing the first verse, and later on (though it is hard to hear) there seems to be a child singing along with Springsteen. (Springsteen’s own vocals virtually disappear during part of the first verse.) Then we get the three out-and-out rockers Out In The Street, Crush On You and You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch). Out In The Street, in common with other recent versions, receives a bouncy, fun performance and, as Rose says, “feels like an old friend.” Rose seems to be a fan of the rather vacuous rockers from The River, going on to say: “And call me shallow, call me lightweight, call me flighty, but the moment I had been waiting for almost more than anything else on the record was up next: ‘Crush On You.’ I have to say the band nailed this one as hard as any of the more significant moments on the record. It was sharp. it was tight.” It is, indeed, a good performance but, notwithstanding this, it is a performance of the song which Springsteen has referred to as the worst he has ever written. (His reference to it here as a “hidden masterpiece” is clearly ironic.) You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch) also comes across better in a live context than it does on the album, and features an extended closing section.
The next song, I Wanna Marry You, is a definite highlight. This lightweight but lovely song received a fine performance at the Spectrum show of 19 October and the same is true here, with an excellent vocal contribution from Springsteen. “His voice sounded sweet and soulful,” writes Pont, “his delivery balanced in sentiment and sincerity.” We then get two more of the album’s weightier moments with The River and Point Blank. The River, with the audience singing the first verse and Lofgren again contributing pedal steel, receives a restrained and affecting performance, culminating in a lengthy, wordless vocalise. “There is depth. There is meaning. There are dark corners,” maintains Rose of Point Blank, though in my opinion these qualities largely deserted the song when the lyrical emphasis changed between the end of the Darkness On The Edge Of Town Tour and the recording of The River. Nonetheless, it is (as with the recent appearance during the Frankfurt concert of 3 July) an atmospheric performance characterized by a heartfelt vocal performance from Springsteen. The serious mood is then dissipated by the up-tempo numbers Cadillac Ranch and I’m A Rocker. Cadillac Ranch, my joint favourite, along with Out In The Street, of the album’s rockers, also comes across well in a live context. I’m A Rocker is also played in a high-energy version, with Ramm returning on trumpet, though the song itself almost rivals Crush On you for lack of quality and substance. Pont rightly points to the contribution of Steve Van Zandt to the up-tempo numbers, arguing that, “he had a great night…He was all over the guitar for ‘Crush On You’ and ‘Cadillac Ranch,’ and his background vocals – as integral to the album as his role as its co-producer – sounded exactly as they should have.”
The second disc opens with two quiet, contemplative songs. An atmospheric Fade Away is followed by A brooding Stolen Car, restrained and intensely moving despite the occasional awkwardness of the lyrics, and this pairing constitutes another highlight of the show. A swaggering Ramrod gives way to the The Price You Pay, an acclaimed performance of which opened the Spectrum show of 20 October, its first outing since 1981. It is equally impressive here, with a fine organ contribution from Charlie Giordano. Like The Price You Pay, Drive All Night also recently had an unexpected and well-received performance, in Turin in July. The version played here is referred to by Jason Franks on Springsteen’s site as “absolutely stunning.” As in Turin, the rendition here, unlike the original, does not outstay its welcome, despite its length. (However, I still fail to understand why an extended nocturnal journey is a necessary prerequisite to the purchase of footwear.) The solemn Wreck On The Highway then leads us to what Rolling Stone reviewer Paul Nelson calls “the album’s hard-won, semi-happy ending.”
After this, Springsteen perhaps unsurprisingly returns to lighter fare with Waitin’ On A Sunny Day. The child invited to sing appears very timid and hesitant, but then unexpectedly shouts a very confident “take it, Big Man!” to introduce Clarence Clemons’ saxophone solo. Atlantic City, as has become the norm, features Steve Van Zandt’s mandolin and is underpinned by Max Weinberg’s authoritative drumming. This is folllowed by a stirring Badlands and a thunderous Born To Run. As with the Spectrum concert recently reviewed, Springsteen does not stop here, as the frantic climax of Born To Run leads straight into the good-natured romp that is Seven Nights To Rock, This ebullient performance, which even finds room for a brief drum solo from Max Weinberg, closes both the show’s main set and disc 2.
Disc 3 begins with the first song from the encore, Arthur Conley’s 1967 hit, co-written with Otis Redding, Sweet Soul Music. The song receives a terrific performance which creates an uplifting atmosphere, helped by the presence of Ramm, and it is followed by a furiously-paced No Surrender. American Land, of course, includes the band introductions, and, as with other recent performances, finds a further place for Ramm’s trumpet. After an exhilarating Dancing In The Dark, Springsteen goes straight into the Elvis Presley number, Can’t Help Falling In Love, an appropriate inclusion as it had featured on the River Tour. Unfortunately the performance goes badly awry at one point, making me wonder whether the band was prepared for this number, but it is nonetheless good to hear Springsteen sing this tender love song. The concert then ends with another marvellous performance of Jackie Wilson’s Higher And Higher. It is remarkable that, on what is ostensibly the Working On A Dream Tour, not one song from that album is included in this show.
The third disc concludes with two very desirable bonus tracks from the Spectrum show of 13 October. First there is an excellent version of The Fever, smoky and soulful, with more input from Ramm. Then, after a speech in support of the food relief organization Philabundance, Springsteen appropriately plays This Hard Land, another fine performance featuring short solos from Roy Bittan, Soozie Tyrell, Charlie Giordano and Steve Van Zandt (on mandolin).
Levels of enthusiasm for the main 3-CD set will, I suspect, depend heavily on individual reactions to The River. Many hold the album in high regard. For example, on the Stone Pony London website, during a recent discussion on the relative merits of Darkness On The Edge Of Town and The River, several people posted comments in support of the latter. Patrick Humphries, in Springsteen: Blinded By the Light (published in 1985, by which time Springsteen had released seven albums), contends that The River “still stands as the best available insight into the Springsten phenomenon.” Chistopher Sandford, writing much later in 1999’s Springsteen: Point Blank, concurs, calling the album “Springsteen’s high water mark to date.”
Regular readers of my reviews (assuming such people exist!) will be aware that I do not hold the album in such high regard, in particular considering the up-tempo, rather self-conciously “rocking” numbers to be little more than filler. Christopher Sandford, despite his generally positive view, refers to the “raunch-by-rote riffs” of these songs and in Bruce Springsteen Peter Basham contends that “there’s a thin line on The River between having fun and mindlessness.” I recall long ago remarking to a work colleague who was also a Springsteen fan that it would have made a decent single album (which, I later discovered, it was originally intended to be). It is, however, a testament to this performance that some who shared my reservations have changed their opinions. Uberlicious, posting on the Stone Pony London website following a viewing of a DVD of the show, and having previously held opinions virtually identical to mine, writes this: “I haven’t listened to the River since the early 80’s because I always thought it sounded like 1 solid album with a lot of filler. After watching the MSG#2 dvd, I saw it in a different light.” Rose, whose initial opinion was more positive, nonetheless also feels that the performance here goes far beyond the original album: “But I will tell you right now, I feel like I haven’t truly felt or understood the brilliance of the narrative and lyrical arc of this record until Sunday night at Madison Square Garden, seeing and hearing it unfold start to finish in front of me.” I confess that I experienced no such Damascene conversion, but I will admit that the performance here makes a far better case for this collection of twenty songs than the original record.
Those who hold the album in higher esteem than I do have been unequivocal in their praise. For example, Jay Lustig, writing on the nj.com website argues that the complete performance of The River, “helped make this one of the the most magical Springsteen concerts in recent memory – a wild ride, full of both boisterous rock songs…(‘Sherry Darling,’ ‘I’m A Rocker,’ ‘Crush On You’) and soulful ballads (‘Stolen Car,’ ‘Drive All Night,’ ‘Independence Day’). Virtually eveything sounded remarkably fresh. Strangely, by revisiting his past, Springsteen seemed to reinvent himself.” Consequently, it is safe to say that if you are a fan of The River, this release constitutes a mandatory purchase.
However, there is more, for this release contains a bonus disc, entitled Serenade To NYC, focusing on the previous evening’s show, also at Madison Square Garden, and containing the complete performance of The Wild, The innocent And The E Street Shuffle plus two further songs. The disc begins with the show opener, Thundercrack, and this is an appropriate choice for inclusion as it was recorded during the sessions for the album, though it had to wait until Tracks for an official release. The rendition here is a little stately compared to the early ’70s versions, though it is tight and exceedingly well played. With an expanded band, including Cindy Mizelle and Curtis King, the additional vocals, especially during the opening a capella section, are most impressive. The song is also enhanced not just by now-ubiquitous Ramm, but by a five-piece horn section.
After this excellent start, we are treated to the album itself. Springsteen’s introduction draws a rapturous reception from the audience and we then hear the sound of him tapping a baton on his microphone stand as he affects to conduct the horn section. The first few bars are more dissonant and cocophonous than the recorded version, leading to a splendid version, wonderfully energetic and funky, of The E Street Shuffle. The horns and backing vocals are again marvellously effective and the song ends with the joyous instrumental coda which was such a surprise when listening to the album for the very first time. A beautifully wistful 4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) follows and then Ramm and the horns feature prominently during Kitty’s Back. During this long, swinging version of the song, they contribute brilliantly to the extended soloing, the other highlight of which is Roy Bittan’s piano solo. The sparser Wild Billy’s Circus Story, which closed side one of the original record, again features Roy Bittan playing the late Danny Federici’s accordion part, as well as Garry Tallent’s tuba.
Paul Doughty, writing on Springsteen’s official website, calls the performance of side two’s opener, Incident On 57th Street “exquisite in its execution.” It resembles the version from the Nassau Coliseum show of 29 December, 1980 (its only appearance during the River Tour) which appeared on the War 12″ single and on the Live Collection CD (where the date is incorrectly given as the 28th). The highlight of this performance, according to Glenn Radecki on the Backstreets website, is “Bruce’s fantastic guitar solo at the end.” Then comes a rowdy and exciting Rosalita, following Incident On 57th Street, as on the album, without a break. Given its long history as a finale/encore piece, it is almost a surprise, as it is succeeded by New York City Serenade, to be reminded that it did not bring the album to a conclusion. Roy Bittan’s stunning piano playing is an early highlight of New York City Serenade, swiftly banishing any qualms one may have had about the absence of David Sancious, the hugely talented pianist who played on the album. Springsteen contributes acoustic guitar to the early part of the song, replicating the arrangement of the original. For this number, the band is augmented, as Radecki informs us, by “an eight-piece string section (led by the Session Bands Sam Bardfield and conducted by Charlie Giordano).” For added atmosphere and authenticity Springsteen also recruits Richard Blackwell, who played congas on the album. The performance is, as Doughty says, “truly sublime.” Radecki calls the performance of the complete album “an embarrassment of riches” and a “magnificent recreation of Bruce’s second record,” which I consider to be one of Springsteen’s finest. “The whole album was played absolutely perfectly,” maintains Doughty, “the band were as tight as a drum and playing at the top of their game.”
As if this were not enough, we also get the show’s final number, Higher and Higher, played in a version lasting nine minutes. In addition to another great contribution from the horns, this song also features a vocal performance from Elvis Costello. According to Radecki, “Elvis brought much of the same soul singer showmanship that Bruce does – and that the song requires – to great effect,” and it brings the bonus disc to a triumphant conclusion.
These are all audience recordings. The sound quality of the main show, while not absolutely top-drawer, is certainly very good and, in particular, the sound allows the quieter songs to shine. The encore songs also come across well. The two bonus tracks from the Spectrum come in excellent sound quality and the sound on the bonus disc is superb throughout. This release comes in Godfather’s customary tri-fold sleeve adorned with several in-concert photographs. There are sleeve notes but no booklet. The bonus disc comes in its own separate sleeve which is a little smaller, leaving no room for the usual inner sleeve. In addition to shots of Springsteen on the front and back, the rear of the sleeve features a small inset photo of Richard Blackwell. Two unique full-album performances, very good-to-excellent sound quality and a free bonus disc make this is an extremely desirable item indeed. I understand that Godfather had shipped out its entire stock of this release by the time the new year arrived, so if your dealer still has copies I would urge you to lose no time in acquiring this release.