A Place Where You Could Find Yourself

Bruce Springsteen

Paramount Theatre, Asbury Park, NJ, November 24, 1996

By Erik Flannigan

Three decades on, one can underestimate the significance of the Ghost of Tom Joad tour. Fans had been talking about the prospect of a solo acoustic tour since Nebraska, a dream reinforced by the Bridge School appearance in 1986 and the sublime sets Springsteen turned in at the Christic Institute concerts in 1990. (The Bridge and Christic shows are available for download as part of the live archive series.) But it would be another five years for Bruce to go it alone for real, starting his first solo tour in December 1995 and continuing well into 1997.

Not only was he playing on sans band, but he was performing in theaters the size of which he hadn’t seen since the Darkness tour. The period is also notable for the debuts of several original songs (e.g. “It’s the Little Things That Count” and “There Will Never Be Any Other for Me But You”) in a set that grew more exploratory in assaying Bruce’s back catalog as the tour carried on.

Then came a series of remarkable hometown bookings. In November 1996, Bruce played his old high school, St. Rose of Lima, in Freehold, NJ (also available in the live download series). Later that month, a three-show stand at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, which was not only the namesake of his debut album, but the city whose clubs had served as a finishing school for the young musician and his future bandmates. Based on available information, Springsteen had not played Freehold in the E Street Band era, and he hadn’t done a proper concert in Asbury Park since sometime in 1973.

Given the so-called trilogy of recent projects looking back at his life (the book Born to Run, Springsteen on Broadway and Western Stars), one could suggest the November 1996 Shore shows were the first steps in literally revisiting his history.

Armed with that awareness, the first thing Bruce says as he takes the Paramount Theatre stage is, “Greetings, from Asbury Park.” We’re treated to three tracks from the album: a shambolic “Blinded By the Light,” plus lively takes of “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” and “Growin’ Up.”

“What the hell was I thinking about when I wrote all that stuff?” he asks with a hearty laugh as he wraps the trio. One likeable hallmark of the Joad tour is an unmistakable streak of humor, darker in tone and language, that seemed to intentionally contrast with a more earnest persona that had become the de facto depiction of our hero.

When someone shouts for “Mary Queen of Arkansas,” Bruce’s candor is priceless. “No. I ain’t gonna be playing that tonight. I tried to play that at home a few nights ago, and I couldn’t figure out what it’s about.”

The top of the show is appealingly loose but turns more meaningful with a distinctive reading of “Independence Day.” The song’s only tour performance is lightly Joad-ified and resolute, as the protagonist tells the tale with wistful distance and perspective. The 12-string “Darkness on the Edge of Town” is captivating as always, and “Johnny 99” is excellent — it, too, carries a tinge of reflection.

All four Shore shows featured supplemental musicians, and this night showcased the critical contributors: Danny Federici, Patti Scialfa and Soozie Tyrell. Phantom Dan sneaks on stage appropriately in a rare outing for “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” while Soozie and Patti bring one of those aforementioned deep cuts to life in an exquisite version of the criminally underplayed “When You’re Alone” from Tunnel of Love. The deceptively simple rumination on the loss of love remains as poignant as ever.

Staying in the hidden gems lane, all three contribute to one of Springsteen’s songwriting masterpieces, the “Born in the U.S.A.” b-side “Shut Out the Light.” Introduced as a song he wrote shortly after Nebraska, “Shut Out the Light” pulls another narrative thread on returning Vietnam veterans and the war they brought home with them. Bruce recalls the draft board in Asbury Park in the late ’60s and acknowledges his luck in getting out (a story told in greater detail in his autobiography) as he introduces a song about someone who wasn’t as lucky.

The homestretch of the set sticks to the established and powerful Joad-tour core, including “Born in the U.S.A.,” “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” and “Sinaloa Cowboys.” But Bruce makes one fascinating and to some degree unlikely inclusion, placing “Racing in the Street” between “The Line” and “Across the Border.” Not unlike the earlier performance of “Independence Day,” “Racing” carries subtle notes of retrospection and world weariness as it rides Soozie Tyrell’s melancholy violin. It’s not a long rendition like it would be in the hands of the E Street Band, but composed, potent, and unique to this tour.

Every live version of “Across the Border” and the story which precedes it truly capture the heart of Tom Joad. Bruce movingly recounts seeing John Ford’s movie Grapes of Wrath and the moments in the film that so deeply affected him, calling out specific scenes and camera framing with a director’s eye and quoting key lines of dialogue that form a sort of outline for the questions Bruce explores on the album and tour.

For the encore, the mood turns upbeat, starting with “Working on the Highway” and continuing with a fine “This Hard Land,” again featuring Danny Federici on accordion. Of course Danny returns two songs later as well for Bruce’s ultimate boardwalk homage, “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” introduced with a sweet remembrance of the music scene and players that were there from the beginning. What comes in between is the tour debut of “Rosalita,” in a highly uncommon acoustic arrangement that makes up in liveliness what it lacks in musicality.

We end with the powerfully reimagined “The Promised Land.” While “Dream Baby Dream” was more of a pure mantra in the same set position on the Devils & Dust tour, “The Promised Land” a la Joad is a hymnal, too. Bruce’s acoustic guitar thump serves as the rhythm track propelling a reinterpretation that transports the song from exaltation to something more humanistic.

In the two nights that followed, Springsteen was joined by more guests and debuted a host of other rarities as the tone shifted ever more festive. But at his first show in Asbury Park in more than 30 years, recognition of a return to the place of origin is a compelling presence in nearly every song.

Now Streaming: The Last White Stripes Show

The White Stripes

Southaven, Mississippi7/31/2007

By Ben Blackwell of Third Man Records, Archivist for The White Stripes

I can’t even tell you how much it means for me to be here tonight…so I’m not even gonna bother” 

-Jack White, July 31st, 2007

Not long after I walked offstage as the hired-gun drummer for opening act Dan Sartain, an assortment of crew and musicians and friends gathered together and took part in a celebratory, raise-the-glass toast, all led by Jack White to mark the end of the run of nine shows in the previous ten days. 

As the crowd thinned, Meg White and I were the last ones left standing there. Apropos of nothing, cups in hand, not even in a conversation at that point, Meg said to me, “I think this is the last White Stripes show.” Confused, I responded “Well, yeah, last show of this leg of the tour.” She replied “No…I think this is the last White Stripes show ever” and slowly walked away.

I was dumbfounded. I had no idea what she was talking about. I had no idea what she meant.  I had no idea what to do. I looked around to see if anyone else heard what Meg had said, but I was all alone.

Within minutes, the band was onstage.

What would YOU do if half of your favorite band told you (and ONLY you) it would be their last show immediately prior to taking the stage?

Shocked and having no better ideas, I went and grabbed two pieces of paper. One of them a perfunctory, public-facing schedule posted backstage. The other, more-detailed, sharing much of the same info and privately posted inside the band’s tour bus.

Just typing that makes me self-consciously feel like an ass…more preoccupied with the artifact and ephemera than focusing on the actual feeling of (and living in) the moment. Also, I should’ve at least made the effort to grab a damn camera.

I decamped to my usual side-stage perch and dutifully hand-wrote the scattershot songs that spilled out of Jack and Meg that evening. The White Stripes had never played Mississippi prior to this performance and it’s clear the deep musical heritage of the state loomed large in Jack’s mind as he attacked the performance setlist-free. 

“Stop Breaking Down” was an unexpected opening song. Despite being released in 1999, it had only opened a set once before, just three weeks earlier. The inspiration behind that first opening performance was the band headlining the Ottawa Bluesfest, being met with newspaper headlines that asked “Are the White Stripes bluesy enough to headline Bluesfest?” Seems as Jack’s intention of starting both these shows with the Robert Johnson classic was to leave no doubt to a skeptical homegrown audience of armchair connoisseurs or a lazy Canadian newspaper editor that the band was well-within their powers conveying the blues to the masses.  All that was only further buoyed by Jack later throwing in an unexpected tease of another Robert Johnson song “Phonograph Blues” to assuredly placate the ghosts of the Mississippi Delta.

Inspired, one-of-a-kind takes on both “As Ugly As I Seem” and “Astro” now jump out to me as beautiful…each song’s last hurrah from the band that birthed them. Exploratory adventures the both of them, proving that no piece was ever finished or finalized or etched into stone. Rather, they were all living, creative works, changing and adapting over the years and begging to be recorded and shared and analyzed by all of you reading this right now.

Jack began the encore by himself, pouring every last drop of feeling and emotive vocal quiver into a solo offering of “300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues” that was achingly bare. The raw force behind it feels beyond naked…as if Jack had pulled back his own skin to reveal his truest, innermost thoughts, particularly when he changed the lyrics on the fly and sang…

See there’s three women in my mind that know they have the answer, but they’re not letting go…

What else is new? I’m the only one that seems to care where I should go”

After re-listening to this show for the first time in ages, I feel like only now have I fully absorbed the enormity of that line. Frankly, it just hit me like a freight train to the chest. I was caught entirely off-guard. I couldn’t help but be moved to tears. 

Moments like that make me feel this show is the audio manifestation of opposing, equally-powered forces clawing for control of my brain in an id-versus-ego battle of monumental proportions. On one end I’m mourning, absolutely fucking hurt that this huge presence in my life, my occasional reason for being, my family both by blood and by choice…just ceased to be. And yet at the other end, I am so goddamned lucky that the White Stripes ever existed at all…that people even paid attention, that the band was able to make a lucrative career out of their passion, out of art and that I had a side-stage seat to the entirety of their existence. 

These are feelings that have never reconciled themselves. I doubt they ever will.

After the completion of a bombastic, career-defining version of “Death Letter”, Jack poignantly says “Son House, thank you for finally letting me come home.” House was a passive participant in this matter, having died in the band’s hometown of Detroit in 1988. But Jack’s comment has seemingly little to do with any physical structure…what he is saying is that Son House (and to a larger extent, blues music in general) provided both he and Meg with an avenue to pursue their artistic vision. In this sense, home is not spoken in the predominant, noun usage of the word to describe where one lives, but rather in a more colloquial, adverbial sense meaning ‘deep, to the heart.’ 

In short, the blues is home. The blues provides comfort, the blues provides center, the blues provides foundation.  It provides a manner to express one’s feelings, both a connection to the past and a path through the future.

Ending the set with Leadbelly’s “Boll Weevil” and the singalong chorus repeating “he’s looking for a home” only further drives this point, well…home. The White Stripes were only able to become THE WHITE STRIPES because of the blues. Able to find their voices, to spread the word in a way that was seeming antithetical to two white kids born in Detroit in the 1970’s.  Blues was the language, not chosen, but seemingly divined, to best communicate themselves, to express, to converse, to paint this masterpiece. 

In that same way…we are all always looking for a home. For where we belong. Where we can be ourselves. Where we are free to do what we need to do. For a way to be.  For a conduit to something bigger.

Upon the completion of the set, with a backdrop of Who-like synth arpeggiations singing out into the night, Jack sincerely says the following…

“I can’t believe how long it has taken us to get here. Thanks for waiting. Thanks for coming. Thanks for buying our records. Thanks for buying a ticket. We love you very much. Thank you. God bless you Son House. God bless you Robert Johnson. Thank you so much.”

I can think of no better epilogue for Jack to punctuate the White Stripes last-ever live performance. Each thought a simple sentence that, upon closer inspection, opens up to a wider meaning…not just spoken to these folks in suburban Memphis on a Tuesday night. Rather, they speak to all their fans across the world. About the journey. About patience. About action. About appreciation. About presence. About gratitude. And ultimately, about the blues. Which is, arguably, all it was ever about.

In the intervening twelve years I’ve had countless conversations with Meg White. And I have never once, not for a moment, even considered asking her what was going through her head that night in Mississippi. To me, she has found her home and that is all that matters. 

nugs.net archive: Panic Halloween ’10

Widespread Panic –New Orleans, 10/30/10

We are kicking off our new blog by diving into the archives to surface some of our favorite high-quality downloads available on nug.net.  With 895 downloads in the archives, it’s hard to choose just one show that encapsulates what Widespread Panic does. Widespread Panic has been a heavy hitter in the Jam community for 30 years and are the heart of southern improvisational music. After narrowing down the many choices of killer shows, we found one that has all the right goods to bring to you. Holiday shows are always a special time with Widespread Panic but nothing comes close to their Halloween runs , which seem to be filled with a never ending supply of sit-ins, covers and rockin’ setlists.

New Orleans, 10/30/10 and the days surrounding it, exemplify what Widespread Panic does best. With great song selections from their own catalog and even a sit-in from Dr. John, the Night Tripper himself; only in New Orleans. This show has it all, with covers of Talking Heads “Papa Legba,” JJ Cale’s, “Ride Me High” and a blazing “Spanish Moon” originally by Little Feat, that is jammed out to extensive proportions.

The show also features Jimmy Herring on lead guitar. While Jimmy was still fairly new to the band after the passing of original guitarist, Michael Houser, Herring took to Panic like a fish in water and he shows his masterful guitar work throughout this entire performance and so does each member of the band, making this show a classic on nugs.net.

Stand out original songs include: a first set, “Dirty Side Down,” a newer song from that performance that has since become a classic. It’s very interesting to hear the development of these songs throughout the years and we can hear these changes within the hundreds of shows in the archives. “Henry Parsons Died” shows jazz flavored solos and incredible bass playing from Dave Schools. The second set opens with an always welcome, “Climb To Safety” as the band says, “climb aboard!” Into “Chilly Water.”

Dr. John enters the stage and plays a great rendition of “Right Place, Wrong Time” that has raw energy and those voodoo vibes that only he can bring. They continue with, “Dream Warrior.” Here Widespread shows what they do best while playing with the jazz/blues legend. The 12 minute “Arlene” is relentless and anytime Panic plays this song watch out, you’re going somewhere! The spectacular show closes with a Grateful Dead staple, “Creampuff War.”

It really doesn’t get much better than this and I am positive there will be many more shows from Widespread Panic in the upcoming posts.

Be sure to check out this recording of Halloween 2010 and so many more on nugs.net.  This soundboard recorded professionally mixed show is available for purchase as downloadable mp3, lossless, and CD shipped to your door.  It’s also available on demand.    Rock ON!

-Jam Band Purist