My friend Rob Turbovsky, one of the funniest men I know and owner of this moderately neato Twitter account, gave me a truly magical gift last week. No, it wasn't a reach-around! It was a bootleg of Bruce Springsteen's November 8th show at Madison Square Garden.
Now, I saw Bruce six times on this same tour, so in theory, this doesn't seem like that great a present. But by all accounts, including my own, this was one of the best shows he and the E Street Band have ever performed.
For you see, this was The River show. For the first time, Springsteen played this epic double album in its entirety. And that ended up being as awesome as it sounds. Join me, if you will, as I review this show I never saw, five months after it happened...
First off, the bad. As expected, there wasn't much to criticize, but it wasn't 100% perfect. Bruce mangled his first solo verse on "Hungry Heart," "Wrecking Ball" might have carried some significance at the now-exploded Meadowlands but it's subpar as a general show-opener, "Waitin' On A Sunny Day" has quietly sucked since...well, since it was first played, and "I'm A Rocker," one of my favorite Springsteen guilty pleasures, sounded pretty awful.
But that's being very, very nitpicky. In general, the show was unspeakably tremendous. Bruce brought so much passion to "Fade Away" and "Drive All Night," two of the best "serious songs" on the album. Songs like "Independence Day" and "Stolen Car," not usually something you'd request to hear live, carried the same gravitas that you heard on the album 30 years ago. And while "Ramrod" wasn't as good as this classic version...
...it didn't matter. Like all passionate Bruce fans, I do my fair share of complaining about Springsteen, but bashing this version feels like dismissing Cinderella Man because it inadequately compares to Rocky and Raging Bull. It might be a worse "movie that prominently features boxing" but it's still a minor masterpiece in its own right, and you're only hurting yourself if you demean it with an off-base assumption.
You also got "The Ties That Bind" (also heard by yours truly at the far-shittier Philly II show in April), which is an underrated song that I can't believe never picked up traction as a single. "Crush On You" was another gem from the evening; it gets a lot of shit, but I think Bruce was right when he called it a "a hidden masterpiece." Not every song needs to have a deeper meaning or eloquent lyrics piled on top of each other. Sometimes its fun just to rock out. And let's not forget the always-appreciated "Atlantic City" that followed up the River part of the show. The full band version is always a treat, less despair-y than the one on Nebraska but still sounding so fucking good:
What I love more than anything, though, are his latest cover choices. I heard "Seven Nights to Rock" at Boston II several months ago, but they rocked it twice as hard at MSG. "Sweet Soul Music" is three minutes and thirty seconds of pure joy, even though Springsteen couldn't come up with interesting ad-libs for the "Spotlight on the Big Man/Little Steven" parts. "Can't Help Falling in Love" is a nice quick little curveball, nothing I need but certainly not anything to disregard.
And "Higher and Higher," while possibly perfected the night before with a guest appearance from Elvis Costello, is such a terrific show-closer. Bruce is a genius at finding the perfect song to stretch to the max, turning two-minute-and-forty-nine-seconds of soul single into an almost ten-minute orgasm of musical pleasure, with the song being pushed to the limit and Springsteen demanding that the band pile on until they almost collapse.
All in all, it was three hours of excellence. Plus, the bootleg sounded amazing, maybe even better than the stuff from Live/1975-85. I don't know how that's possible, unless the recorder was up Garry Tallent's butt, but I'm not complaining.
I felt like an idiot in November for not taking a bus to New York and blowing $200 bucks on this show, especially after I heard the glowing reviews, but having this unexpected masterpiece dropped in my lap makes me feel a lot better about it. I've heard the band is taking at least a year off, which is understandable when you think how how hard they've been pushing themselves. But knowing that they were basically at their peak when the tour ended, specifically in this unbelievable show, I hope they decide to come back in full force afterwards. And if they decide to play full albums a few more times, I certainly won't complain.