Bruce Springsteen – Paris Night (Crystal Cat CC429-490)

Paris Night (Crystal Cat CC429-490)

Palais des Congrès, Paris, France – May 26th, 1997

Tracklisting: CD 1: Intro, The Ghost of Tom Joad, Adam Raised A Cain, Straight Time, Highway 29, Darkness in the Edge of Town, Johnny 99, Nebraska, For You, Red-Headed Woman, Two Hearts, The River, Born in the U.S.A, Dry Lightning, Youngstown

CD 2:  Intro, Sinaloa Cowboys, The Line, Balboa Park, Across the Border, Bobby Jean, Working on the Highway, Diamonds by the Yard (with Elliott Murphy), This Hard Land, No Surrender, Galveston Bay, Promised Land, Blowin´ Down the Road (with Elliott Murphy)

When Bruce Springsteen´s official “The Ghost of  Tom Joad” was published in 1995, it was certainly seen as an example of an artist going on a different road than the one his fans wanted him to follow. Springsteen was not willing to return to the E-Street Band yet; on the contrary, he wanted to shake off his image as a stadium rock performer for a while, and to reinvent himself as an acoustic singer-songwriter, concentrating on the essence of the songs rather than on their bombast. In order to do so, he referenced two interrelated masterpieces of American culture: the original version of The Grapes of Wrath (1938) by John Steinbeck and its film adaptation by John Ford (as Bruce himself explained, it was the latter that he had discovered first, as a boy); Tom Joad, the main character from both novel and film, was invoked by Springsteen as an ideal spokersperson for those humble americans who, over the decades of the 20th century, had been humiliated or empoverished in the name of progress and macro-economic demands. The silver CD production we are presenting here documents the very last show of Springsteen´s european “Ghost of Tom Joad” Tour, played in Paris on the night of the 26th May 1997. It´s a very beautiful document that could easily pass for an official live CD, such is its sonic quality: simply crystal clear, as often corresponds to Crystal Cat.       

This show was played, like most of those in that particular tour, in a  comparatively small venue (the Palais des Congrès, in Paris). At the very beginning it seems that the audience is going to be quite noisy as they welcome Bruce to the stage, where he appears alone with his guitar and harmonica, but in fact they sit silently  through the initial song, “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, perfromed with restraint and elegance. The first thing that Springsteen  does after this is to address his audience in French: “I am going to make an announcement…Ce soir, je vais avoir besoin de votre attention pour vous donner le meilleur de moi-même…Merci”. When he asks the audience for “votre attention”, he is obviously asking them to remain as silent as they can during the performance; quieter, at any rate, than they would be at an average concert with the E-Street Band; he wants them to adapt as much as possible to the new version of himself that he is offering.

A beautifully re-arranged acoustic version of “Adam Raised a Cain” follows, managing to maintain the epic drive of the original; it also fits in quite nicely with the subject matter of the “Tom Joad” songs. Then it´s back to the new songs that were presented in this tour with “Straight Time” and the crime ballad “Highway 29”, a narrative piece so delicately sad and chilling as any from “Nebraska”. A couple  of songs from that first, landmark acoustic album from 1982 are offered next, their power completely undiminished by the years that have passed between their release and that of “Tom Joad”: they are “Johnny 99” and the sinister “Nebraska” itself. The interpretation of this latter piece is particularly moving, as Springsteen sings it alone, surrounded by a deeply respectful silence; one would be able to hear the drop of a needle at this point.   

After such a succession of solemn numbers, Bruce clearly feels the need to lighten up the atmosphere a bit, so he starts going on a very different, far more humorous direction: first he asks in French whether there is any red-headed woman in the house, and then follows on, in English, explaining that he is going to sing a song about “a sexual practice called cunnilingus… it´s the oposite of the Frech kiss, which must have been invented here!” He shouts out “Brunettes are fine! And  blondes…?” The audience immediately responds “are FUN!!!!”;  and Bruce takes it from there to perform a saucy, lively version of Red- Headed Woman. This is one of the moments when the interplay with the public is at its highest and warmest. A few Springsteen classics follow, to the enormous and audible satisfaction of the audience, all of them receiving a new acoustic arrangement: “Two Hearts”, “The River” and very especially a majestic, stately version of “Born in the USA” played in bottleneck guitar style, which here seems to acquire again all the rage and all the critical bite it had lost over the years as a stadium-rock hymn.  

“Dry Lightning” signals the return to the new songs for this tour; this particular one is presented in a very funny speech where Springsteen shows that he´s not afraid to poke fun at himself and some aspects of his past career: “I did not write about men and women very much for a long time… I wrote about men and their cars, you see…Then I wrote about the men, in the cars, looking at the women. That worked out real well. Then I wrote about men with women in the cars; not much that much communication going on there…” (the audience laughs) “…but I made a nice living out of that kind of writing. Then I took the men and the women out of the cars and…that may have been where I fucked up, I can tell you!” (sonorous laughter from the  audience)…”But you ´ve got to get out of the car someday!”      

The first Cd comes to its conclusion with “Youngstown”, the  powerfully haunting lament for the steel mining industry of Ohio. But in fact that song is part of a long set of “Tom Joad” pieces that Springsteen perfoms in a row; the others appear at the beginning of the second CD, and they are “Sinaloa Cowboys”, “The Line” and “Balboa Park”.  Here Bruce is joined by Kevin Buell, who adds a very subtle accompaiment on synthesizer (at the very beginning of the second CD, Bruce has introduced Buell to the audience, humorously, as “the only member of the Tom Joad orchestra!”). All these songs from the mid-nineties are full of meaning and political intention, and they would be seen as excellent by anyone´s standards; the only problem is that, listening to them one after the other, one notices that (apart from the  stronger ones like “Youngstown” or “Galveston Bay”) they do not quite live up to the extraordinarily high standards set in the past by those recorded in “Nebraska”. Still, it´s clear that they are very important for Springsteen himself, and he pours his very soul into each of them as he leads the show towards its conclusion. This comes with “Across the Border”, one of the songs most directly inspired (in feeling if not in subject matter) by Steinbeck´s Grapes of Wrath. This is made clear in Bruce´s introduction to the song, as he explains that  a friend of his showed him John Ford´s film when he was that 26, and that both the film and later Steinbeck´s novel gave him a sense of himself, and of the world he wanted to live in. And, after commenting in some detail one of the final scenes in the novel (the farewell between Tom Joad and his mother) he explains that the final song is about hope, but especially “the hope that people continue to carry when sometimes the rationale for it is no longer there, after the world has dealt its darkest blows. That ´s the hope that I think defines people as human and that keeps us alive…I want to do this for you tonight, I have been welcomed so warmly in France and in Paris on this tour; once again thank you. Je vous dédicace chette chanson ce soir”. The sense of battered hope that is voiced in “Across the Border” comes across movingly in the performance of the song, closing the set.  

Several versions of songs from the “Born in the USA” album are included in the encores, as if Springsteen had been particularly keen to reclaim that very successful period if his career and integrate it in the canon sung by his folksier, singer-songwriter persona. “Bobby Jean” and “Working on the Highway” are the first encores played, and the former seems epecially adequate to this acoustic format, given its narrative content and its emphasis on a lost but hear-felt friendship; Bruce sings it mid-tempo and is supported all along by the claps and gentle chants of the audience; as the ending of the song comes, Bruce whispers the words away form the mic, as if to let the audience take over. A magical moment; but another one comes very soon:  Springsteen gently plays a version of  “This Hard Land” and, as he reaches the final chorus, he lowers his voice and lets the audience sing the words that the speaker in the song addresses to his brother: “Stay  hard, stay hungry, stay alive if you can…!”; the audience practically shouts these words over Bruce´s own voice.  Even he seems surprised by the enthusiasm as he whispers “Very nice, very nice!” into his mic. The singalong goes on with the passionate “No Surrender”, very warmly received, with the final chorus being entirely sung by those attending  the concert.

“Galveston Bay”, the gripping ballad about post-war conflicts between americans and Vietcong immigrants in the USA, is reserved for the second encore. It is followed by a version of “The Promised Land” that perhaps tries a bit too hard to be diferent from the electric original, with Bruce slowing down the tempo very much and singing in a very low key over an austere, almost percussive strumming on his guitar; the effect is inevitably anti-climatic, especially considering what has come before. The very last piece of the show is sung as a duo by Springsteen and the Paris-based singer Elliot Murphy (Murphy has also guested briefly in the first encore with a song of his own, Diamonds by the Yard); it´s the traditional “Blowin´down the Road”, sung with obvious glee by Murphy and Bruce as a farewell to Paris, and to the tour itself, which thus came to an end. 

CDs as professionally produced as this one really go a long way towards justifying the existence of the bootleg industry itself. Fans of the Springsteen as rock hero will be doubtless be interested in this one, as they will be thrilled by the the acoustic versions of “Born in the USA”, “Bobbie Jean” or “Adam Raised a Cain.” But “Paris Night” will surely be more appreciated by those interested in the whole development of Springsteen over the years. Here we have a wonderful document of the exact place where he was, as an artist, in 1997: a place that he was particularly eager to explore, and one that he would revisit (and perhaps with even better results) just a few years afterwards.  

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