By Erik Flannigan
For Bruce Springsteen, 2009 began with the Super Bowl and wrapped with a series of memorable full-album performances.
First, a brief history.
Complete, in-sequence album performances date back to the ‘70s, when Pink Floyd played Dark Side of the Moon in order on the band’s 1973-75 tours. In 1989, R.E.M. played all of their first album, Murmur, and their then-new album Green at a special benefit concert. In 1994, Phish began their tradition of “wearing a musical costume” for Halloween shows, covering The Beatles’ White Album end to end and doing the same for albums by Talking Heads, Velvet Underground, and Little Feat in subsequent years.
The full-album trend really took off in the 2000s. One of the catalysts was The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, who began performing the band’s seminal Pet Sounds in 2000 and released a live recording of his recreation in 2002. From there, the practice became common for bands of all stripes through the rest of the decade and beyond.
Two months after the Super Bowl XLIII Halftime performance, Springsteen kicked off the 2009 Working on a Dream tour. After a European jaunt that wrapped mid-summer, Bruce and the band returned to the States for another round of shows, where it was announced that at select dates they would join the club and play one of three classic albums: Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town or Born in the U.S.A.
Those full album sets were warmly received, but leave it to Springsteen to raise the stakes. With nearly two years of touring coming to an end and an extended break sure to follow, he wanted to do something special for the fans AND the band. And so it came to be that two shows in New York and a third in Buffalo would showcase the other three albums from the band’s first 12 years. Buffalo got Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, and the second night in New York hosted The River, both since released in the Live Archive series. We now hit the trifecta with Madison Square Garden 1 and the first complete reading of The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle as performed on November 7, 2009.
While you can’t beat the thrill of a surprise inclusion in the setlist, there’s a different and equally thrilling anticipation to a show where you know what you’re going to hear but still can’t believe you will. Such was the case with this concert. There is a palpable buzz in the building, amped up as Bruce emerges, turns the time machine dial to 1973, and sets the stage for the evening with “Thundercrack,” the delightful second-album outtake.
“Seeds” is unexpected but works as the follow-up, with Springsteen fully engaged in the narrative. The pace is brisk as we jump to “Prove It All Night,” and the era-hopping extends to “Hungry Heart” — included, I suspect, to ensure the crowd understands their participatory role in the evening. “We need you to bring the noise,” he implores during “Working on a Dream.” And how heartwarming is it to hear Clarence Clemons’ encouraging verbal responses in the background as Springsteen speaks?
With the crowd warmed up, it is time for the main event. “Something that’s never been done before!” Bruce announces before explaining that Wild & Innocent is divided between songs about his New Jersey home and his fantasies about the big city across the river.
The conductor taps, we hear horns warming up, and a perfect “E Street Shuffle” ensues, true to the original album arrangement with Springsteen’s voice hearkening the spirit of the Shore circa the Nixon administration. We’re going in order, so “Sandy” comes next, its poignancy striking an immediate contrast to “Shuffle.” It’s a lovely reading with the right amount of distance, Bruce singing it fully in the moment but with memories in the lyrics still vivid.
“Kitty’s Back” rips like it should, with fantastic accents from the horn section and every player taking their solo spotlight like a boss. Perhaps the rarest song from the album in recent times, “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” is spun as a folk tale, and like “Sandy,” its details are sharply drawn.
Every “Incident on 57th Street” is a cause for celebration and tonight’s is no exception. Close listening reveals especially fluid bass runs from Garry Talent, while the guitar solo riffs on the original but the tone is distinct, accenting a weariness perhaps, and as result feels fresh and moving.
The magical transition out of “Incident” leads us to a joyfully traditional “Rosalita,” played like the album without band introductions. While we associate “Rosie” with set closing, tonight it introduces the final scene and a tour de force performance of “New York City Serenade.”
“New York City Serenade” is arguably the most musically ambitious song to perform in the Springsteen catalog. Much of that weight is carried by the emotive piano playing of Roy Bittan, who leads the way through this rendition, followed by Springsteen’s own guitar work. The song builds at just… the… right… pace, and we hear the congas come in, courtesy of special guest Richard Blackwell — the very percussionist who played on the original sessions — along with Tallent’s lush bass. Then at 3:40, when the Sam Bardfeld-led violin section bows their first note, we’re enraptured. “New York City Serenade” is fully reborn in what has to be one of the finest musical moments of the post-Reunion era.
How do you follow-up 12 minutes of sublime, musical majesty? With “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day,” of course, which acts as a sort of plunge pool as the show shifts tone for a largely upbeat final 90 minutes marked by several notable highlights.
We dip into Bruce’s first album for another Big Apple special, “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?,” followed by an undeniable request (“It must be done!”), “Glory Days.” It hadn’t crossed my mind that playing one’s old albums is on some level a “Glory Days” move, but taken at face value, it’s just a great version of the song, tagged with several New York Yankees namechecks.
“Human Touch” is another standout, now fully owned by the E Street Band and highlighted by strong vocals from Patti Scialfa. Stevie Van Zandt hits some lovely note sequences around the 5:00 mark that underscore the build to Bruce’s crescendo “Hey Now!” vocal. The extended ending further marks this version as excellent.
The end of the set and the primary encore stay true to the 2009 tour for the most part, moving through “Lonesome Day,” “The Rising,” “Born to Run,” a welcome “Wrecking Ball” with Curt Ramm on trumpet, “Bobby Jean,” “American Land” (again featuring Ramm plus Bardfeld on violin) and “Dancing in the Dark.”
But a show this special deserves a fabulous finale, and we get one with a cover of Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” The aforementioned guests join in, including Richard Blackwell, while Bruce shares lead vocals with Elvis Costello. The song famously wrapped another set of shows before an extended break (Boston Music Hall 1977) and was resurrected for the last run of 2009. What a message to share with your audience on a night when Bruce and the E Street Band reached back to their past and soared.