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

Neil Young Releases New Album With Crazy Horse

Young’s first new studio album with Crazy Horse since 2012 marks continuation of 50-year collaboration

I almost would have missed the new album by Neil Young & Crazy Horse, even though I previously wrote about Milky Way, the lead single that came out in late August. Colorado was released on October 25 while I was in Germany for a short trip. Young’s first new album with Crazy Horse since Psychedelic Pill from October 2012 in many ways sounds like a typical Neil album with the band: rugged and spontaneous. While it appeals to me and I suspect others digging Neil Young, I’m not sure it will gain him new fans. There is no obvious hit. But with Young being strong-willed and fiercely independent, I also suspect he doesn’t care.

One significant difference compared to previous Crazy Horse albums is the absence of Frank “Poncho” Sampedro. The band’s guitarist since 1975, who gave Crazy Horse a rawer, more edgy sound and became a frequent collaborator of Young, confirmed his retirement to Uncut earlier this year, as reported by Rolling Stone. Sampedro has been replaced by Nils Lofgren. Lofgren isn’t exactly a stranger. He played together with Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina, Crazy Horse’ bassist and drummer, respectively, on Young’s 1975 studio album Tonight’s The Night. He was also part of Crazy Horse’s eponymous debut album from February 1971, which the band recorded without Young.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse
From left: Billy Talbot, Neil Young, Nils Lofgren & Ralph Molina

Lofgren doesn’t appear to take things for granted. “It’s been a beautiful opportunity to play with dear friends that are still alive and well,” he told Rolling Stone. “Look, I hope there’s more, but I’ll take it a gig at a time right now.” Of course, Lofgren is also a member of the E Street Band, and Bruce Springsteen has confirmed plans for a new album with the band and a 2020 tour, as reported by NME. Let’s get to some music from Colorado, which by the way was recorded over an 11-day span this April at a studio in the Rocky Mountains at close to 9,000 feet – I suspect another difference to previous Crazy Horse albums!

Here’s the opener Think Of Me, which to me sounds more like a Neil Young solo tune. Like all tracks on the record, the song was written by him. The tune also sets up the album’s overall theme: Climate change and man-made environmental degradation. In addition to Young on guitar, harmonica and lead vocals, Talbot on bass and Molina on drums, the track features Lofgren on piano. Perhaps you thought Lofgren “only” is a guitarist. Nope, he’s a multi-instrumentalist who apart from guitar and piano/keyboards also plays accordion, pedal steel guitar and banjo. Not to imply anything negative here, but he certainly is no Sampedro!

So where’s some of that rugged sound I mentioned above? Ask and you shall receive. Here’s Olden Days. During an interview with Rolling Stone, Lofgren noted the initial plan had been for him to play acoustic guitar and accordion on the tune, but right before the band was supposed to record the track, Young suggested a heavier electric sound. “Right away, the song took on a more muscular, Crazy Horse vibe and it wasn’t forced,” Lofgren said. “That set the tempo for the rest of what we did.”

Green Is Blue is another gentle sounding tune, though Young’s message is everything but gentle: …We heard the warning calls, ignored them/We saw the weather change, we saw the fires and floods/We saw the people rise, divided/We fought each other while we lost our coveted prize…The song also features Lofgren on yet another instrument: vibraphone.

On Shut It Down, the band resumes a more muscular electric sound and Young is back with more dire warnings about environmental deterioration driven by human ignorance: …Have to shut the whole system down/All around the planet/There’s a blindness that just can’t see/Have to shut the whole system down/They’re all wearing climate change/As cool as they can be

The last tune I’d like to call out, I Do, is on the quieter side again. And there are more lyrics about environmental change. But two aspects regarding the instrumentation are new and intriguing: Lofgren on pump organ and Young on glass harmonica.

Asked by NPR about his philosophy that recording music isn’t about reaching perfection, Young pointed out, “We’re thinking about making it sound real, like you can feel that this means something to the people playing it. We’re not trying to impress anybody.” He also distinguished between rawness and imperfection and what he called a sound quality that’s as pure as possible. “They’re two totally different things. The raw thing that we create is the soul of music and the stories and the feelings of being human. The technical thing that happens is trying to capture that. If you try to capture that and you use tools that are less precise, then you get less of it. You know the feeling that you have when you hear something that’s really great and it touches your soul? The chances of it really touching your soul are much better if you hear all of it.”

Young has been pretty busy in recent years. Colorado is his fourth album since Peace Trail from December 2017. Apart from archiving all of his recordings on his website neilyoungarchives.com, he recently released Mountaintop, a film about the making of Colorado. It played in select theatres across the country on October 22. Here’s the trailer. Young is also working on 13 other films – gee! Moreover, on September 10, he published To Feel The Music, a book about his quest to bring high quality audio back to music lovers via his Pono music player.

Had it not been for the unexpected death of Elliot Roberts, who had been Young’s manager since 1967(!) and passed away on June 21 this year, Young probably would have announced a tour to support the new album. But as Lofgren told Rolling Stone, Young needs to adjust to a world without Elliot, so he has no present plans to hit the road with Crazy Horse. Colorado, which was produced by John Hanlon and Young, is dedicated to Roberts.

Sources: Wikipedia; Genius; Rolling Stone; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Neil Young with Crazy Horse/Milky Way

Today, Neil Young released Milky Way, the lead single from his upcoming album Colorado, the first with his long-time backing band Crazy Horse in seven years. The shaky voice, the ragged guitar sound and the overall style very much sound like classic Neil to me!

Based on Apple Music/iTunes, the album is slated for October 25 via Reprise Records and includes 10 tracks. In late April, a post on the Neil Young Archives website noted, “We believe we have a great Crazy Horse album, one to stand alongside ‘Everybody Know’s this is nowhere’, ‘Rust Never Sleeps’, Sleeps With Angels’, ‘Psychedelic Pill’ and all the others” (quote includes typos! 🙂 )

The current line-up of Crazy Horse features Neil Young (guitars, vocals, piano, vibes, harmonica), Nils Lofgren (guitars, vocals, pump organ), Ralph Molina (drums, vocals) and Billy Talbot (bass, vocals). Talbot and Molina are original members of the band. Lofgren replaced Frank “Poncho” Sampedro who joined Crazy Horse in 1975 and retired last year.

Sources: Neil Young Archives, Apple Music, Pitchfork, YouTube

The Boss Rocks MetLife

Bruce Springsteen delivered four hours of non-stop rock & roll to an ecstatic New Jersey audience.

Yesterday (Aug 30) finally was the night I had been waiting for all summer long: Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band were playing MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ – the third performance of their three-show run at the venue as part of 2016 River Tour.

From the first song, New York City Serenade, to the final tune, Jersey Girl, The Boss gave it his all, delivering four hours and one minute of non-stop rock & roll – I did not stop the time but actually read that on Springsteen’s official web site. The duration of the concert meant Bruce broke his own record from the previous week in the same venue yet another time!

In many regards, it was as if time would have stopped since 1988/1989 when I saw Bruce for the first time in Frankfurt, Germany in a comparable size stadium. He had not lost any of his intensity in almost 30 years, and you could be forgiven for not noticing he is now well into his 60s! The Boss also clearly seemed to be energized to play in front of a home crowd that knew all of his songs by heart.

The setlist included 34 songs and drew heavily from Bruce’s first two albums from 1973 and Born in the U.S.A., the 1984 album that became his most commercially successful record and one of the best-selling albums ever with more than 30 million copies sold.

Songs from Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. included Blinded By The Light, Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street, It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City and what I thought was one of the highlights of the show – a particularly spirited version of Spirit in the Night. From The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle Bruce played the strong show opener, New York City Serenade, as well as 4th of July Asbury Park (Sandy), Kitty’s Back, Incident of 57th Street and Rosalita, which remains a big crowd-pleaser.

I’m Going Down, Darlington County, Working on the Highway, Downbound Train, I’m on Fire and Glory Days were songs from the Born in the U.S.A. album, as was Dancing in the Dark – another highlight of the show. During the performance of the song, Bruce invited various people from the audience on stage to, well, dance with him! I thought it was telling that Bruce did not play the title song of the album. I once read he had gotten tired of the song and how many people completely misunderstood or ignored the lyrics.

There were only two songs from The River album, Hungry Heart and Out in the Street, which I felt was remarkable for a tour billed The River Tour. That being said, I had read that Bruce had started to deviate from the original tour concept to play all or most of the album’s songs. Still, I wish he at least would have performed the title song, which remains one of my favorite Springsteen tunes.

Other songs that stood out to me were Born to Run and Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out. During the latter, historic footage was shown on the large stage video screens of the amazing Clarence Clemons, The E Street Band’s former saxophonist who sadly passed in June 2011.

Just as he did back in 1988/89, Springsteen also played terrific cover versions of various great songs, which most notably included Twist & Shout, Shout and Summertime Blues.

This blog post wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the amazing E Street Band. Steven Van Zandt (guitar, background vocals), Nils Lofgren (guitar, background vocals), Patti Scialfa (acoustic guitar, background vocals), Max Weinberg (drums), Garry Tallent (bass, background vocals) and Roy Bittan (keyboards) all did an outstanding job to back up the Boss.

Among the additional musicians, Jake Clemons, the nephew of Clarence Clemons, must be mentioned. He literally had big shoes to fill playing Clarence’s saxophone parts and did so beautifully. I’m sure his uncle would have been proud of him!

The Springsteen concert was my last (commercial) summer concert. It was a great way to end my series of summer shows this year. Just like the previous Springsteen concert in Germany in the late 80s, I have no doubt this show will stay in my memory.

Note: The video clips were added to the post on April 11, 2020. All of the footage is from Springsteen’s three-show run at MetLife in August 2016, mostly from the August 30 gig I attended.

Sources: Wikipedia; Setlist.fm; YouTube