By Erik Flannigan
There’s one clear common thread connecting the rock artists whose live recordings are most highly collected. From the Grateful Dead to Phish to Pearl Jam to Bruce Springsteen, when these artists play live, every show is distinct. The setlists they perform change night after night to collectively encompass not only the widest possible swath of their own catalogs, but through covers, the music of other songwriters, too.
That’s admirable in its own right, and it makes seeing multiple nights on a tour all the more rewarding as a fan. But even if one were to see but a single concert by the aforementioned musicians, playing something fresh and different creates palpable presence. Each singular performance benefits from an artist consciously choosing to be in the moment.
I have often said, and nearly as frequently experienced, that part of the seductive appeal of seeing Bruce Springsteen in concert is never knowing what song you might get to hear. This has been true for most of his career, but since the Reunion tour, it is more like an official tenent of his platform. For stretches of the Magic, Working on a Dream and Wrecking Ball tours, audience sign requests and other attempts to “stump the band” evolved to become overt centerpieces of the show.
For me, Springsteen’s ultimate high-wire act in this regard was the 2005 Devils & Dust tour. A solo show, without the collective safety net of the E Street Band, found Springsteen at his most spontaneous and fearless, not merely adding unusual songs to set lists, but often performing them in a one-of-a-kind manner. In fact, over the course of the tour’s 72 shows, Bruce assayed a whopping 139 different songs, 42 of which were played but once or twice. One could say the tour’s unspoken motto was: I do not play these songs often. I have not played them on this instrument. I may not play them this way again.
Case in point, the sublime version of “Tunnel of Love” that opens Grand Rapids. “I’m gonna start with something I haven’t played before,” says Bruce, just before his hands come down on the electric piano and the marvelously muted, swirling chords that only that instrument can make pour forth. Past a tentative first few notes, the confidence in his own playing swells, and the clarion vocal and wistful keyboard begin to interplay, as one lingers and punctuates the other right up to the last 12 resonant chords that end the song so beautifully. We didn’t hear “Tunnel of Love” live, we witnessed a new “Tunnel of Love” being born.
It doesn’t get any more magical than that, and yet, he has never played the song solo again.
What Grand Rapids captures so effectively is Springsteen’s version of this magical alchemy, that on any given Wednesday–not in New Jersey or Los Angeles, not in Milan or Gothenburg, but in his one and only concert ever in Grand Rapids–an unrepeatable performance could be created. And through the magic of the live download series, those of us who weren’t sitting at Van Andel Arena get to hear what what those lucky folks experienced.
While only three days separate Grand Rapids from Columbus, the other archive release from the Devils & Dust tour, to the points above the two shows are as distinct as they are kindred. Around a spine of songs from the album (including a rare outing for one of its least performed tracks, “Black Cowboys”) Springsteen puts his keyboard playing to the fore and the song selections are inspired. The choice of electric piano reinterprets “Sherry Darling,” now as much a melancholy remembrance as a summer party song, and the instrument applies a dreamlike filter to “Nothing Man,” bringing even deeper intimacy to its narrative.
Sequencing “I Wish I Were Blind” on piano to follow suggests an earlier chapter from the life of the same narrator; recontextualized, songs that never felt connected suddenly feel part of a whole. Staying with piano, Bruce delivers a fine rendition of “Racing in the Street,” his playing as majestic as the song warrants, especially the long outro. Later in the night, his final performance on piano, “Jesus Was an Only Son,” is another highlight, set up with a wonderful story of his family and sung with conviction and tenderness.
There are surprises on guitar as well, as Springsteen resurrects “Part Man, Part Monkey,” the amusing evolution tale from the Tunnel of Love tour. That album’s “Ain’t Got You” is delivered in fine form in the encore, as is the tour premiere of “(It’s Hard to Be A) Saint in the City,” sounding as fresh as the John Hammond audition.
Across the night Bruce is chatty, personable, occasionally profane and quite funny, revealing himself as much through his looseness as he does on Broadway with his marvelously crafted storytelling. That in-the-moment candor, a set filled with outstanding performances and an audio mix even more up-close than Columbus makes Grand Rapids a thrillingly unexpected gem.