Bruce Springsteen Still Is the Boss on New Album, Backed by Mighty E Street Band

While not breaking new ground, Letter to You sounds reassuringly fresh and full of energy

Yesterday, Bruce Springsteen released his 20th studio album Letter to You and his first with The E Street Band since High Hopes from January 2014 – wow, until I read that in some reviews, it had not occurred to me it’s been more than six years! While musically speaking Letter to You doesn’t include anything we haven’t heard from Springsteen before, I just love this album!

At 71 years, The Boss demonstrates he still knows how to write great rock songs. The E Street Band sound as mighty sweet as ever and once again prove why they are the ideal backing band for Springsteen. And, yes, admittedly, when you lose a loved one and live through a seemingly never-ending pandemic, listening to great music that in many ways sounds familiar provides reassurance that some things don’t change. I take some stability during these unsettling times!

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock (9216850a) Bruce Springsteen, center, performs with Nils Lofgren, left, and Steven Van Zandt of the E Street Band during their concert at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in Los Angeles. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band just don’t want to leave the stage. The concert, at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia lasted nearly four hours, four minutes, breaking the previous record for the group’s longest U.S. show set last week Bruce Springsteen Longest Show, Los Angeles, USA – 7 Sep 2016

“The impetus for a lot of the material was the loss of my good friend George Theiss,” Springsteen told Apple Music. Theiss was the guitarist of The Castiles, the first “serious” band Springsteen joined in 1965. According to Castiles.net, the other members were Paul Popkin (guitar, vocals), Frank Marziotti (bass) and Bart Haynes (drums). In May 1966, Springsteen had his first-ever studio session with The Castiles, during which they recorded two original songs. With the death of Theiss in July 2018, Springsteen remains the band’s only surviving member.

“There’s aging and loss of people as time goes by, and that’s a part of what the record is,” Springsteen further pointed out. “And then at the same time, you’re sort of celebrating the fact that the band goes on and we carry their spirits with us.”

But while much of Letter to You sounds familiar, there is one thing that’s new. “It was a great project for us because I don’t think we ever played live together in the studio and then kept everything that we did on the full take – all the singing, all the playing, it’s really, it’s the E Street Band really completely live. And I overdubbed a few solos and things, but it’s really, it’s really the band in one shot,” Springsteen told Apple Music’s Zane Lowe during a 1-hour interview. I’ve yet to listen to all of it. You can watch it here.

The current line-up of The E Street Band features Steven Van Zandt (guitar, vocals), Nils Lofgren (guitar, vocals), Roy Bittan (piano, vocals), Charles Giodarno (organ, vocals), Patti Scialfa (vocals), Jake Clemons (saxophone), Garry Tallent (bass, vocals) and Max Weinberg (drums, vocals). Except for Clemons and Giodarno, this line-up has been in place since 1995. Van Zandt’s, Bittan’s, Tallent’s and Weinberg’s tenures go back much further to the mid-’70s. Obviously, this is a tight band, and it shows! Let’s get to some music.

Here’s the opener One Minute You’re Here. “It’s unusual to start a record with its quietest song,” Springsteen commented to Apple Music. “The record really starts with ‘Letter to You,’ but there’s this little preface that lets you know what the record is going to encompass. The record starts with ‘One Minute You’re Here’ and then ends with ‘I’ll See You in My Dreams,’ which are both songs about mortality and death. It was just sort of a little tip of the hat to where the record was going to go and a little slightly connected to [2019’s] Western Stars. It was a little transitional piece of music.”

Since I already covered the album’s great title track in a previous Best of What New installment, I’m skipping it here and go to Janey Needs a Shooter, one of three tracks on Letter to You, which Springsteen wrote prior to his 1973 debut Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. All other songs were written more recently. “We were working on a lot of stuff that I have in the vault to put out again at some time, and I went through almost a whole record of pre-Greetings From Asbury Park music that was all acoustic, and these songs were inside them,” Springsteen said. “The guys came in and I said, ‘Okay. Today we’re going to record songs that are 50 years old, and we’re going to see what happens.’ The modern band playing those ideas that I had as a 22-year-old—and for some reason it just fit on the record, because the record skips through time.” Well, I wholeheartedly agree and love the rich sound of that tune!

Last Man Standing is a tribute to George Theiss. “That particular song was directly due to George’s passing and me finding out that out of that group of people, I’m kind of here on my own, honoring the guys that I learned my craft with between the ages of 14 and 17 or 18,” Springsteen said. “Those were some of the deepest learning years of my life—learning how to be onstage, learning how to write, learning how to front the band, learning how to put together a show, learning how to play for all different kinds of audiences at fireman’s fairs, at union halls, at CYO [Catholic Youth Organization] dances, and just really honing your craft.” This is the perfect tune for some sax work, and Jake Clemons makes his uncle proud.

Next up: House of a Thousand Guitars. “Every piece of music has its demands—what tone in my voice is going to feel right for this particular piece of music—and you try to meet it in the middle,” Springsteen explained. “That’s one of my favorite songs on the record; I’m not exactly sure why yet. It’s at the center of the record and it speaks to this world that the band and I have attempted to create with its values, its ideas, its codes, since we started. And it collects all of that into one piece of music, into this imaginary house of a thousand guitars.”

The last track I’d like to call out is the above noted I’ll See You in My Dreams, which together with One Minute You’re Here bookends the album. “I remember a lot of my dreams and I always have,” Springsteen said. “But that song was basically about those that pass away don’t ever really leave us. They visit me in my dreams several times a year. Clarence will come up a couple times in a year. Or I’ll see Danny. They just show up in very absurd, sometimes in abstract ways in the middle of strange stories. But they’re there, and it’s actually a lovely thing to revisit with them in that way. The pain slips away, the love remains, and they live in that love and walk alongside you and your ancestors and your life companions as a part of your spirit. So the song is basically about that: ‘Hey. I’m not going to see you at the next session, but I’ll see you in my dreams.'”

Letter to You was recorded over just four days in November 2019 at Springsteen’s home studio. The album was co-produced by Springsteen and Ron Aniello, who also produced Western Stars, and co-produced High Hopes and predecessor Wrecking Ball from March 2012. Coinciding with Letter to You is the release of Bruce Springsteen’s Letter To You, a 90-minute documentary about the making of the album. It’s available on Apple TV+. If you’re a subscriber, you can watch it here. There are also two free trailers.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; Castiles.net; YouTube

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My Playlist: Pink Floyd

A long overdue tribute to one of my longtime favorite bands

Pink Floyd is one of my earliest music experiences dating back to the mid ’70s when I was nine or 10 years old and still living in Germany. It all started with Wish You Here, another record my sister had on vinyl – and yet another example where she introduced me, probably largely unconsciously, to music I still dig to this day. I’ve said it before and like to say it again: Thanks, sis, love you!

While I’ve mentioned Pink Floyd numerous times since I’ve started this blog more than two years ago, and I’ve written about Govt’ Mule’s great Dark Side of the Mule show and a fantastic Floyd tribute band called Echoes, I haven’t dedicated a post to the actual band – well, I suppose better late than never! Before getting to the music, I’d be amiss not to provide some background on the British rock band. Obviously, Pink Floyd’s history has been told many times, so if you know it already, just skip it and go right to the clips, and maybe grab some headphones – there’s plenty of great music here!

Pink Floyd emerged from a band called The Tea Set in London in 1965. After noticing there was another music outfit with the same name, guitarist and lead vocalist Syd Barrett came up with the idea to combine the first names of two blues musicians who were part of his record collection: Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Sounds pretty arbitrary to me, but the result sure as keck was a cool-sounding band name! Initially, they performed as The Pink Floyd Sound and also included Richard (Rick) Wright (keyboards), Roger Waters (bass, vocals) and Nick Mason (drums).

Pink Floyd Jan 1968
Pink Floyd in January 1968 (clockwise from the bottom): David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Syd Barrett, Roger Waters & Rick Wright

By 1966, the band was starting to get paid gigs, mainly playing R&B standards. They dropped “Sound” from their name at the recommendation of Peter Jenner who together with his friend Andrew King had taken over the band’s management earlier that year. Gradually, The Pink Floyd’s set featured more original compositions by Syd Barrett, the band’s first artistic leader. In early 1967, The Pink Floyd signed with EMI and recorded their debut single Arnold Layne.

By the time Floyd released their first studio album The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn in August 1967, they had dropped “The” from their name to become Pink Floyd. Barrett had developed a serious LSD habit and, according to Mason, “became completely distanced from everything going on.” Barrett’s behavior on stage became increasingly erratic, forcing a premature end of Pink Floyd’s U.S. tour in November 1967. The following month, guitarist David Gilmour became the band’s fifth member. Essentially, the idea was that he would play the guitar parts of Barrett who would continue to write music for the band.

Pink Floyd_Pipers At The Gates Of Dawn
Pink Floyd’s debut album The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, August 1967

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out and Barrett left in March 1968. The line-up that eventually would transform Pink Floyd to international super-stardom was in place! Waters effectively took over the band’s artistic direction for the next 15-plus years. During that period, they recorded ten additional albums, including two of the best-selling records of all time: The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973) and The Wall (1979). By the time of the latter, Pink Floyd essentially had become a Roger Waters project. This created tension among the members and led to departures.

The first to leave was Rick Wright in the wake of the 1980-1981 tour that supported The Wall. Eventually, Waters called it quits himself in 1985 and declared Pink Floyd was “a spent force creatively.” He then engaged in a legal battle with Gilmour and Mason over the next few years, trying to prevent them from continuing to use the Pink Floyd name. While things were settled long before then, it took Waters until 2013 to publicly admit he had been wrong about the lawsuit and to regret his ill-guided actions.

Pink Floyd At Live 8
Pink Floyd reunion at Live 8 (from left): David Gilmor, Roger Waters, Nick Mason & Richard Wright

Wright returned as a session musician for A Momentary Lapse Of Reason (1987), Pink Floyd’s first album in the post-Waters era. The band continued to tour and recorded one additional album during Wright’s lifetime, The Division Bell (1994). On July 2, 2005, Gilmour, Mason and Wright reunited one last time with Waters and performed as Pink Floyd at the Live 8 benefit concert in London.

On July 6, 2007, Syd Barrett died at the age of 60 after he had largely lived in seclusion for more than 35 years. Rick Wright passed away from cancer on September 15, 2008. He was 65 years old. In 2012, Gilmour and Mason decided to create one final Pink Floyd album, based on music that had been recorded with Wright during studio sessions for The Division Bell. Called The Endless River, the mostly instrumental record was released in November 2014. Now let’s get to some music!

I’d like to kick things off with the above mentioned Arnold Layne, one of my favorite early songs The Pink Floyd released as their debut single in March 1967. Like pretty much all of the band’s original music during the Syd Barrett phase, the tune was written by the guitarist and lead vocalist.

Bike from The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, released in August 1967, is another Barrett composition. It’s both a bit weird and catchy at the same time. Two of the cool features I like are the sound collage toward the end, which resembles the turning gears of a bike, as well as the duck or geese-like sounding screams thereafter. According to Wikipedia, they were created with a tape loop of the band members laughing, played backwards and at double speed. Obviously, The Beatles weren’t the only band that effectively had started leveraging studio technology to their advantage during the second half of the ’60s.

In June 1968, Pink Floyd released their sophomore album A Saucerful Of Secrets. The early recording sessions still included Syd Barrett whose behavior and ability to perform had increasingly become less predictable. One of the tracks, for which he provided slide and acoustics guitars and background vocals is Remember A Day, a great composition by Rick Wright who also sang lead vocals, a rarity.

Next up is what over the years has become my favorite Pink Floyd track: The mighty  Echoes from the band’s sixth studio album Meddle that appeared in October 1971. Credited to all four members of the band and clocking in at more than 23 minutes, the epic tune comprises the entire second side of the vinyl LP. I realize only a hard core fan may listen to the entire clip, but that’s fine with me. I simply couldn’t leave out this one!

In March 1973, Pink Floyd released The Dark Side Of The Moon. With estimated worldwide sales of more than 45 million units, Floyd’s eighth studio album became their most commercially successful record. Here is The Great Gig In The Sky featuring the amazing vocals of Clare Torry, who is co-credited for the tune together with Rick Wright. This track still gives me goosebumps every time I listen to it. BTW, as I wrote this, it happened to be on the radio as part of Q104.3’s countdown of the 1,043 Greatest Rock Songs Of All Time. While one can argue endlessly why certain songs make the list and their ranking positions, it’s a fun listening experience. I’ve written about the radio station’s annual tradition for the Thanksgiving holiday before, most recently here. BTW, The Great Gig In The Sky came in at no. 829 – way, way, way too low!😀

Have A Cigar was Roger Waters’ biting critique of hypocrisy and greed in the music industry. It appeared on Pink Floyd’s ninth studio album, the above mentioned Wish You Were Here from September 1975. Here’s an excerpt from the lyrics: I’ve always had a deep respect and I mean that most sincere/The band is just fantastic, that is really what I think/Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink? The lead vocals were provided by English folk rock singer Roy Harper, making it the only Floyd tune besides The Great Gig In The Sky that wasn’t sung by one of their members.

In January 1977, Pink Floyd’s tenth studio album Animals appeared. Loosely based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the concept album criticizes the social and political conditions in the U.K. at the time – two years before the leader of the Conservative Party Margaret Thatcher would become Prime Minister and a favorite target of Roger Waters. Here’s one of my favorite tracks from that album, Sheep, which like most tunes was solely written by Waters.

Perhaps the Pink Floyd song with the most epic guitar solo is Comfortably Numb, which was co-written by David Gilmour and Roger Waters. It appeared on the band’s 11th studio album The Wall, which came out in November 1979.

In September 1987, Pink Floyd released A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, their first record of the post-Waters area. Initially, David Gilmour set out to make it his third solo album, but things changed along the way. The record featured Nick Mason and Rick Wright, who was among the many guest musicians. Wright would later return to the band as a full member. Here’s the album’s closer Sorrow, which was written by Gilmour.

The last song I’d like to highlight is called High Hopes from Pink Floyd’s 14th studio album The Division Bell. Released in March 1994, it was the band’s final record issued during the lifetime of Rick Wright. He had an active role in writing much of the music with David Gilmour, while Gilmor’s  fiancée and novellist Polly Samson co-wrote many of the lyrics. High Hopes was credited to Gilmour and Samson.

Pink Floyd were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. They also made the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005. As of 2013, they had sold more than 250 million records worldwide, not only making them one of the most influential but also one of the most commercially successful bands of all time. While I don’t believe we will see another reincarnation of Pink Floyd, I’ve not doubt I’ll continue to enjoy their music, hopefully for many more years to come.

To those who celebrate, Happy Thanksgiving!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube