Working On A Show (Godfatherecords G.R. 370/371)
Convention Hall, Asbury Park, NJ, USA – 23 March 2009
Disc 1: Outlaw Pete, My Lucky Day, Night, Out In The Street, Working On A Dream, Johnny 99, I Ain’t Got No Home, Good Eye, Radio Nowhere, Candy’s Room, Because The Night, Mary’s Place, The Wrestler
Disc 2: This Life, Long Walk Home, Surprise, Surprise, Badlands, No Surrender, Hard Times [Come Again No More], Mustang Sally, Thunder Road, Born To Run, American Land, Seven Nights To Rock
The Convention Hall in Asbury Park has been, in Christoper Phillips’ phrase, Springsteen’s “rehearsal site of choice” for a decade, since its first use as such on 18 May 1999 when warming up for the E Street Band’s reunion tour. Phillips, writing on Springsteen’s official website, goes on to say that he “continued the ten-year-old tradition of opening those Convention Hall doors to fans as their tour prep reaches its peak.” Springsteen himself can be heard telling the audience during the performance of Working On A Dream that “this is always our good luck charm, starting our tour here.”
This concert was the first of of two public rehearsals at the venue on consecutive nights in the presence of 3,000 fans who each paid around $100 for the privilege of witnessing a show in the making, with the proceeds going to local charities. The nature of the performance is referred to in the title of this set, an obvious though apt paraphrase of the title of Springsteen’s latest album. As he tells the audience: “Don’t know if we’ve got a show yet, but we’re just going to run through a bunch of songs and see how we’re doing.” Godfather’s sleeve notes concur, stating that “it was more a work in progress than a full dress rehearsal show, with Bruce shouting out instructions to band members and apologized (sic) when performances fell short of perfection.”
The show opens with Outlaw Pete, which, in Phillips’ words, “has a chugging momentum that gets the crowd bouncing.” Indeed, cheers of recognition greet the opening bars of the song and the audience claps along vigorously, clearly delighted to receive a first live hearing of material from Working On A Dream. This is followed by another number from the new album, My Lucky Day, described by an anonymous writer on the Backstreets website as a song which “had a good classsic E Street feel; stripped of some of the busy-ness of the album version, it was a straightahead, high-energy rocker.” The band continues in similar vein with Night, the opening track from Born To Run, and then the audience is treated to a song that was a highlight of many Magic Tour shows, Out In The Street. This obvious crowd-pleaser again has the audience “bouncing” and, after a lengthy coda featuring vocal participation from several band members, the mood is euphoric. The high spirits continue during another highlight, a bubbly performance of the melodic Working On A Dream, during which Springsteen thanks the audience for attending the show.
The next number, in the words of the Backstreets writer, is “a muscular, guitar-heavy ‘Johnny 99’…melding the late-’03 and Sessions band arrangements,” with an opening which bears a remarkable resemblance to another Springsteen song, Seeds. Piano and violin solos from Roy Bittan and Soozie Tyrell respectively contribute to an enjoyable performance, but it is also one which emphasises the embryonic nature of the show. Springsteen calls out numerous instructions to the band and at one point towards the end the performance collapses entirely. “Almost! We almost had it,” says Springsteen, adding at the song’s conclusion, “We’ll get it next time.”
The Woody Guthrie song I Ain’t Got No Home follows. This song, in a version from a 1988 soundcheck, was Springsteen’s contribution to the video and laserdisc (later DVD) release, A Vision Shared: A Tribute To Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, which featured artists such as Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson and U2. (A CD version has since appeared under the title Folkways: A Vision Shared – A Tribute To Woody Guthrie And Leadbelly.) Backing singers Curtis King and Cindy Mizelle, who had performed in the (Seeger) Sessions Band, contribute richly effective harmonies to the song and Springsteen adds some pertinent new lyrics : “The banking man is rich and the working man is poor.” The Backstreets writer is clearly impressed with the band’s new members, stating: “And if you thought the E Street Band had a full sound before, wait ’til you hear this. It’s an expansion of the sonic palette on the level of Soozie’s addition to the band on the Rising tour.” Phillips is of the same mind, asking, “remember how three lead guitarists changed the sound in ’99? And Soozie’s fiddle brought another sonic shift in 2002?…Curtis and Cindy could do much the same.”
Jay Weinberg, who will be performing at some complete shows during the tour, then replaced his father on drums for the next five songs. The first of these, Good Eye, bucks the trend of light and melodious songs on Working On A Dream. This performance contains vocals that are even more deliberately distorted and gruff than the album version, providing an even more effective counterpoint to the extensive use of the harmonica, and there are some superb backing vocals. After this, the melodic Radio Nowhere is a welcome survivor from the Magic Tour and then Candy’s Room provides the usual pacy, furious guitar work. Because The Night features a very atmospheric opening and a superb long guitar solo from Nils Lofgren and is perhaps even better than on the last tour.
Mary’s Place retains its Magic Tour role as an extended, crowd pleasing “house party.” The audience clearly aprroves but some may agree with the Backstreets writer that the song has become “tired.” The first disc then ends with a poignant rendition of The Wrestler, written, as Springsteen has said, at the behest of Mickey Rourke, “a buddy of mine…since the early ’80s,” for the acclaimed film. He has described this song as “about being damaged and living on…[and] the inability to stand the things which nurture you.” Phillips calls the version here, “moving and perfectly performed.”
Disc two opens with another number from the new album, a gorgeous rendition of This Life, where the new backing singers really come into their own. Phillips regards it as, “the real prize of the debuted material…basking in complex Pet Sounds harmonies,” and the Backstreets writer concurs, referring to the “majestic, sunny harmonies.” At one point Springsteen instructs the audience members in singing a two-part harmony, which they manage admirably. Then Clarence Clemons’ deep bass comes in, initially seeming to be singing something akin to the “bom, bom, bom” sounds of the audience, but when Springsteen points it out, it suddenly becomes audible that Clemons is singing, “Obama, Obama!” Then further band members join in and the overall effect is simply marvellous.
Next up is another personal favourite from Magic, which I am glad has survived into the new tour, Long Walk Home. The fact that we are still at the rehearsal stage is revealed again as Springsteen seems to miss his entry. “I’ve forgotten my own fucking song, ” he says, “wait a minute.” Clemons’ sax is off-key at one point (not the only instance of this in the show), but aside from this the number proceeds without further mishap, and a stirring rendition ends with a vocal contribution from Steve Van Zandt. Then comes another song from the new album, the sunny Surprise, Surprise which, perhaps, most clearly demonstrates Springsteen’s contention that Working On A Dream is “a happy record…its tone is bright.” There is one odd moment, lasting a couple seconds, where the song speeds up in an unnatural-sounding way, though I think this is down to the band rather than a tape fault. The main set is then wound up by a taut Badlands, with its now-customary lengthy coda, and the anthemic No Surrender.
The band then goes into the encore without actually leaving the stage. After showing his appreciation once more for the audience’s role in “help[ing] us to construct a show,” Springsteen goes through a list of the organizations which will be beneficiaries of their ticket money. Springsteen then introduces the first song of the encore by referring to the E Street Band as a band “built for hard times.” This is Hard Times Come Again No More (listed on the sleeve, and on Springsteen’s website, simply as Hard Times), composed in 1854 by Stephen Foster, “the father of American music” and a favourite of soldiers on both sides in the American Civil War. It is another song that features glorious vocals from King and Mizelle.
Perhaps oddly for a rehearsal show, Springsteen then asks for audience requests, promising that, “I’ll take the weirdest request we got out there.” This turns out to be an energetic rendition of Mustang Sally, the Mack Rice song from 1965 that is better known from the Wilson Pickett cover version from the following year. For this song Springsteen is joined by New Jersey-based folk rocker John Eddie on vocals and guitar.The encore then continues with perhaps the two quintessential Springsteen songs, Thunder Road and Born to Run, the latter of which sees Jay Weinberg return to the drummer’s stool. Winding up the show are American Land, with, as usual the band introductions and the rocking Moon Mullican number, with Max Weinberg back on drums, Seven Nights To Rock.
Godfather’s latest issue is the first release of a concert (albeit an atypical one) from the 2009 tour on silver disc, although CD-R versions of several shows have already appeared. This show has been released on CD-R as Asbury Park March 23, 2009 (Chooh La La) and Working On A Dream Tour Rehearsals – First Night 2009 (Midnight Dreamer), the latter with a DVD-R featuring the Lincoln Memorial and Super Bowl performances. Godfather’s version comes in the usual tri-fold sleeve with some splendid onstage photographs (some of which are from the second rehearsal show). There are sleeve notes but no booklet. The notes have one error, failing to credit Jay Weinberg for his appearance on Born To Run and American Land. The sound is never less than extremely good and is often excellent and this makes for a really enjoyable listening experience. This is another very fine release from Godfather, which I presume will be the first of many from the current tour, and it is highly recommended to collectors wishing to experience the Working On A Dream Tour in its nascent state.