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

Bruce Springsteen Releases Latest Installment from Bootleg Live Series

The Live Series: Stripped Down features acoustic versions of songs captured between 1986 and 2005

Without much fanfare, Bruce Springsteen released another collection from his officially sanctioned bootleg live series on July 17. The Live Series: Stripped Down features 15 acoustic renditions of Springsteen tunes captured at seven shows in the U.S. and Europe between 1986 and 2005.

Other than short posts on Springsteen’s Facebook page and Twitter handle, there was no big announcement, and there does not appear to be a significant marketing push behind the album. That’s no longer necessary in the age of social media, especially when your target audience is your longtime fans, which I suspect is the case here. This is not about making a big buck. It’s also save to assume Springsteen is not a poor man.

Examples of previous releases of The Live Series (from left): Songs of Summer, Songs Under Cover, Songs of the Road and Songs of Friendship

In fact, had it not been for my music streaming service, I wouldn’t have known about this album! After searching the Internet, I found some additional background information on Alice Cooper radio show/station Nights with Alice Cooper and ABC News Radio, which are my main sources for this post.

The album combines Springsteen classics, such as Dancing in the Dark, Born to Run and The River, with deeper cuts/rarities like When You’re Alone, Cynthia and Seeds. Previous installments in the Live Series include Songs Of SummerSongs Under CoverSongs Of The RoadSongs Of FriendshipSongs Of HopeSongs Of Love, and Songs From Around The World. Let’s get to some music.

Here’s the opener Dancing in the Dark, recorded at a gig in Mountain View, Calif. in October 1986. Originally, the song appeared on the Born in the U.S.A. album from June 1984. I think I prefer this stripped down rendition over the studio version, particular the accordion work by Danny Federici and the female backing vocalist – not sure it’s Patti Scialfa.

Here’s Soul Driver, captured at a show in Los Angeles in November 1990. At the time of the performance, the tune was still unreleased and Springsteen announces it as a new song. It would appear on the Human Touch album from March 1992. Frankly, while I own that record, I haven’t listened to it in a long time, so didn’t recall that particular track. Spontaneously, again I would say I like this acoustic version better than the studio recording.

Bobby Jean is one of my favorite tunes from Born in the U.S.A., so I simply couldn’t skip it – another great acoustic rendition that sounds very Dylanesque to me. It was captured at a show in Belfast, Northern Ireland in March 1996. I feel Springsteen’s emotions come out better in this rendition than the original.

Adam Raised a Cain is the second tune on Darkness on the Edge of Town, the fourth studio album The Boss released in June 1978. This stripped back version was recorded during a gig at Springsteen’s elementary school in his home town of Freehold, N.J. in November 1996 – how cool is that! It’s an interesting contrast to the much more rock-oriented original.

Let’s do one more: This Hard Land, a Springsteen tune that first appeared on his first compilation Greatest Hits from February 1995 as one of four then-previously unreleased tracks. The version on this album is from a show that took place in Stockholm, Sweden in June 2005. The Boss is a great storyteller, and I feel this stripped down acoustic setting really serves him well.

Nights with Alice Cooper included the following quote from Springsteen: “It’s like you come out and you fall in love every night in some way. When you’re doing it right, it’s like a rebirth, y’know? It’s not a repetition — it’s a renewal — so that involves something happening every night for the first time. And, amazingly enough, it’s like your first kiss in that there’s something in playing. There were thousands of other times, but still when you come out there’s some element of the first time that’s very, very present. And it keeps you very open and present and it’s what people feel.”

Here’s the setlist:

Dancing in the Dark (Mountain View, CA, Shoreline Amphitheatre, 10/13/1986)
Seeds (Mountain View, CA, Shoreline Amphitheatre, 10/13/1986)
Born to Run (New York City, NY, Madison Square Garden, 5/23/1988)
Soul Driver (Los Angeles, CA, The Shrine, 11/16/1990)
Bobby Jean (Belfast, UK, King’s Hall, 3/19/1996)
Adam Raised a Cain (Freehold, NJ, St. Rose of Lima School, 11/8/1996)
Youngstown (Belfast, UK, King’s Hall, 3/19/1996)
Independence Day (Asbury Park, NJ, Paramount Theatre, 11/24/1996)
Two Hearts (Freehold, NJ, St. Rose of Lima School, 11/8/1996)
When You’re Alone (Asbury Park, NJ, Paramount Theatre, 11/24/1996)
The River (Grand Rapids, MI, Van Andel Arena, 8/3/2005)
Cynthia (Columbus, OH, Schottenstein Center, 7/31/2005)
This Hard Land (Stockholm, Sweden, Hovet, 6/25/2005)
All That Heaven Will Allow (Trenton, NJ, Sovereign Bank Arena, 11/22/2005)
Empty Sky (Trenton, NJ, Sovereign Bank Arena, 11/22/2005)

Sources: Wikipedia; Bruce Springsteen Facebook page; Bruce Springsteen Twitter handle; Nights with Alice Cooper; ABC News Radio; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band/Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out

Last night, I saw a tribute to Bruce Springsteen, so perhaps it’s not surprising The Boss is on my mind. One of my all-time favorite tunes from him and The E Street Band is Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out. The above extended version not only illustrates it’s a great song but also shows the compelling power Springsteen and his band deliver live. I think he truly plays in a league of his own!

The Springsteen song is from his breakthrough album Born To Run. The soulful tune is one of the reasons this is my favorite Springsteen record.  The footage, by the way, is from a film that captures the two final dates in New York City from the band’s 1999-2000 reunion tour, which had been their first in eleven years. What a triumphant performance!

The mighty E Street Band that night featured Roy Bittan (piano, backing vocals), Steven Van Zandt (guitar, backing vocals), Garry Tallent (bass, backing vocals), Max Weinberg (drums), Nils Lofgren (guitar, backing vocals), Danny Federici (organ, accordion), Patti Scialfa (acoustic guitar, backing vocals) and, of course, the big man Clarence Clemons (saxophones). Except for Federici and Clemons, who passed away in 2008 and 2011, respectively, all of these amazing musicians remain members of the band to this day. Boy, this footage wants to see them again so badly!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Springsteen On Broadway Becomes Accessible To Broader Audience

Broadway solo performance now released as an album and on Netflix

Unfortunately, I’m among the folks who didn’t have a chance to see Bruce Springsteen’s solo performance on Broadway, which closed yesterday. While I’ve no  doubt anything can replace the actual experience at New York City’s Walter Kerr Theatre, the good news is Springsteen’s show has now become available to a broader audience. It was released as an album on Friday, and as of today it’s also on Netflix for streaming.

I had known for many years Springsteen is a terrific live music act. In fact, I feel fortunate to have witnessed this myself twice – once in Germany in the ’80s and in 2016 in New Jersey. Both are unforgettable concerts. But what truly blew me away is the power of Springsteen’s verbal story-telling he uses throughout the show to introduce his songs. The album does a beautiful job at capturing both the performances, including two songs for which he is joined by his wife and longtime E Street Band member Patti Scialfa, and the story-telling. But it’s really the visual of the film that brings both aspects to life, particularly the latter. If you dig Springsteen and have access to Netflix, it’s a must-watch!

Springsteen on Broadway 2

Directed by Thom Zimny and shot by Joe DeSalvo, the film was captured before a private audience on July 17 and 18 this year. I assume the two performances also served as the basis for the album, since its audio sounds identical to the film. Springsteen’s Broadway show closely mirrors his 2016 autobiography Born To Run. It covers different stages of his life in chronological order, for example his upbringing in Freehold, N.J.; watching Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show as a 7-year-old and how that planted the seeds of his music career; or listening to the bleak stories of forgotten Vietnam veterans as a 30-year-old, which two years later would inspire the writing of one of his biggest hits and perhaps his most misunderstood song: Born In The U.S.A.

Apart from sharing fascinating anecdotes, Springsteen displays a great sense of humor throughout the show. Take this example during the performance of the show’s first song Growin’ Up, where he launches into the following monologue: “I’ve never held an honest job in my life. I’ve never done any hard labor. I’ve never worked 9 to 5. I’ve never worked 5 days a week until right now. I don’t like it. I’ve never seen the inside of a factory and yet that’s all I’ve ever written about. Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful, writing about something, which he has had (pause) absolutely no personal experience. I, I made it all up. That’s how good I am.”

To give you a bit of a flavor, following are a few audio clips as well as the trailer for the Netflix film. First up: Part 1 of Springsteen’s intro to My Hometown:

Here’s Springsteen’s blistering acoustic slide guitar version of Born In The U.S.A.

To me one of the show’s highlights is Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out. Not only do I love this tune, but Springsteen’s comments during the song about former E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons are truly moving.

Of course, no Springsteen gig would be complete without the epic Born To Run. So here it is!

The last clip I’d like to highlight is the trailer for the Netflix film.

While I have no doubt that Springsteen didn’t leave his monologues to chance, they come across as genuine, not memorized. If he embellished his stories here and there for bigger impact, it’s certainly not recognizable, at least not to me. I suspect this film will go down in music history as one of the best concert movies.

Sources: Wikipedia, New York Times, Rolling Stone, 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