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Posts tagged ‘Bruce Springsteen’

Seeing ‘Western Stars’

Western Stars

“This is my 19th album,” Bruce Springsteen says towards the beginning of the film Western Stars, “and I’m still writing songs about cars.” But then he excuses himself by explaining how cars can become a metaphor for all kinds of things, including travelling without getting anywhere.

Western Stars is a performance film, but much more than that. Recorded over two days in front of a small audience in the hayloft of the 19th century wooden barn on his property in New Jersey, it features the 13 songs from the recent album of the same name, played by around 30 musicians: a basic band of various guitars, keyboards, bass and drums, plus two trumpets, two French horns, a string orchestra of violins, violas and cellos, and four or five female backing singers, discreetly directed by the album’s orchestrator, Rob Mathes.

There are a few differences from the album versions, but the sound of Bob Clearmountain’s mix is so close to the lush Californian warmth of the original recordings that I found myself frequently checking for signs that the musicians were miming. An inability to spot anyone playing the glockenspiel part on “Drive Fast” provided the only evidence that post-production work had been undertaken.

Having seen the trailer, I worried in advance that the film — directed by Springsteen with his long-term collaborator Thom Zimny — would include too much footage of wild ponies cantering in slow-motion through desert landscapes beneath spectacular open skies, close-ups of silver and turquoise jewellery on weathered hands, and El Camino pick-ups raising dust on long, lonesome dirt roads. There’s some of that, particularly in the early sequences, but the visual clichés recede as more serious matters come to the fore in what Springsteen calls “interstitial material”, the snatches of home movies and found footage with voiceovers in which he introduces the songs and reflects on their themes of life, love, loss and longing.

On the face of it, the songs on Western Stars aren’t about Springsteen. One protagonist is a stuntman, another a fading movie actor. But, as he said during a Q&A session that followed the screening I attended this morning, “When I write a song in character, it’s a way of exploring your own life and struggles.”

After feeling initially indifferent towards much of the album, it came as a surprise to discover how rewardingly the film illuminates their qualities, both via Springsteen’s commentary and the performances. “Sleepy Joe’s Café” was a song I quite disliked until seeing it contextualised in a social setting. “Somewhere North of Nashville” acquires greater depth. “Stones”, sung as a duet with Patti Scialfa, his wife of 30 years, is now almost unbearably moving in its evocation of the undercurrents of a long marriage. (“I should have had Patti on the record,” Springsteen said during the Q&A.)

The songs I already liked gain a new lustre. “Moonlight Motel” adds a couple more shades of gorgeous soul-weariness. The soaring “There Goes My Miracle” is introduced with a rumination on “losing the best thing you ever had — the perfect formula for a pop song.” Or maybe it was “the formula for a perfect pop song”, which it is. Watching the string players tear into it with such joy, I thought of how I’ve always believed the special E Street secret is making every person in the audience feel as though they’re up on stage, playing in the band, sharing that special exhilaration; this lot made me wish I’d carried on with violin lessons.

* This weekend’s London Film Festival screenings of Western Stars are sold out. It will be in cinemas around the UK on October 28, three days after the release of the soundtrack album.

California dreams

 

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There was no law preventing Bruce Springsteen from making a California-themed album, and Western Stars seems to have received a generally warm reception for its ballads of longing and regret, laden with strings, banjos and steel guitars. For myself, I find it a little bit soupy in texture, predictable in content and lacking in energy. I’ll probably be listening to “Moonlight Motel”, “There Goes My Miracle” and the title track occasionally in the future, but to these ears it’s his least distinguished work since the Human Touch / Lucky Town dual release in 1992, and far behind other non-E Street Band solo albums such as Nebraska, Tunnel of Love and The Ghost of Tom Joad.

Its arrival did have one unexpected benefit. While pondering the list of artists and songwriters that he presented as having provided direct inspiration for the project, I pulled out a couple of albums recorded in Los Angeles half a century ago by the singer Johnny Rivers, mostly because the first of them — Rewind (1967) — includes several songs by Jimmy Webb, one of the names Springsteen mentioned. The second album — Realization (1968) — has no Webb songs, but it does have a feeling of continuity with its predecessor.

Born John Ramistella in the Bronx in 1942, Rivers might easily have become one of those Italian American pop singers who found fame in the early ’60s: a rival to Dion DiMucci, John Mastrangelo (Johnny Maestro), and Francesco Castelluccio (Frankie Valli). Instead he moved with his parents to Baton Rouge, Louisiana as a child, absorbing the local R&B and rock and roll sounds as he grew up and became a guitarist. Having changed his name at the behest of Alan Freed, he moved to Los Angeles at the end of the ’50s, working as a songwriter before Lou Adler had the brainwave of recording his nightclub act at the Whisky à Go Go, where his repertoire — with a stripped-down trio completed by Joe Osborn’s bass and Eddie Rubin’s drums — included songs like Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” and Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son”, both of which became hit singles for him.

Rivers was a good songwriter (“Poor Side of Town”, his self-penned 1966 hit, is a beauty) but a better interpreter; whatever the material, he retained a kind of plaintive honesty. Rebirth and Realization show him grappling with a broader range of material, from Motown songs (“Baby I Need Your Lovin'”, “The Tracks of My Tears”) to Paul Simon’s “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” and Oscar Brown Jr’s “Brother, Where Are You”, as well as demanding Webb songs such as “Rosecrans Blvd” and “Sidewalk Song (27th Street)”. With arrangements by Webb and Marty Paich and great playing from the Wrecking Crew, the two albums form a fine snapshot of an artist getting to grips with material from songwriters exploring the new ways of living, thinking and behaving.

Out of the two albums, I selected four tracks to create what I think of as a perfect summer EP. The first is Webb’s “Do What You Gotta Do”; there will be those who prefer the later readings of this sublime song by the Four Tops, Nina Simone or even Roberta Flack, but I like this one for its conversational understatement. The second is “Positively 4th Street”, which Dylan names in Chronicles Vol 1 as his favourite cover of one of his songs, perhaps because Rivers took a gentler approach to the song’s bitter invective than the man who wrote it. The third is “Summer Rain”, a great piece of orchestral folk-rock written by James Hendricks, a former Mugwump (with Mama Cass, John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky) and a regular collaborator with Rivers. The fourth is Rivers’ own “The Way We Live”, in which he takes the sound and cadences of “Positively 4th Street” — particularly Larry Knechtel’s Al Kooperish B3 — and applies it to his own thoughtful meditation on life in America as the decade turns sour.

I suppose I can see what Springsteen was getting at when he namechecked Webb, particularly if he was thinking of the hits the songwriter provided for Glen Campbell: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston”, with their powerful sense of geographical and emotional distance. (It was Rivers, as it happens, who took “Phoenix” to Campbell, having recorded the first version of it on an album already overloaded with hit singles.) More so, anyway, that Burt Bacharach, also on Springsteen’s list, whose chromatic melodies, sophisticated harmonies and games with metre are about as far from Bruce’s basic bluecollar style as you could get within the same general idiom.

I’m going to give Western Stars a few more spins in the coming days, but at the moment those four Rivers tracks are the ones I can’t get out of my head. And I’ll be thinking of the night in London in the spring of 1973 when he turned up at the Valbonne, a Mayfair discothèque, to promote his latest album by playing an early-evening showcase set with an A Team line-up consisting of Chuck Findley on trumpet, Jim Horn on saxophones, Dean Parks and Herb Pedersen on guitars, Mike Melvoin on keyboards, Jack Conrad on bass and Jim Gordon on drums. Few of us who were there will forget a storming show that, of its kind, rivalled Van Morrison’s Caledonia Soul Orchestra at the Rainbow the following month and wouldn’t be bettered until Springsteen turned up at Hammersmith Odeon with the E Street Band two years later — which is saying something, for all concerned.

Greetings from Asbury Park

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There are many heroes in Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock & Roll, a documentary film in which the writer/director Tom Jones explores the musical history of the New Jersey beach resort. Bruce Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt and Southside Johnny Lyon top the bill, but the list also includes David Sancious and Ernest “Boom” Carter, respectively the organist and drummer with early editions of the E Street Band, who provide eloquent accounts of the music to be heard in the clubs and bars of the town’s West Side, where the black population lived.

Springwood Avenue was the West Side’s main stem, and the Orchid Lounge was where great music was heard (Carter mentions Grant Green, Jimmy McGriff, and many others). The cross-community synergy between West and East was important in the development of the music for which, in the wake of Springsteen’s success, Asbury Park eventually became internationally famous, but it had come to an end in 1970, when a riot over the Fourth of July weekend saw 75 per cent of the businesses on Springwood Avenue burned to the ground, never to be rebuilt.

The riot — eventually suppressed by the arrival of state troopers — expressed the desperation of people who felt they had nothing. Tragically, and as is so often the way, the principal victim of their demonstration was their own community. The film ends on an upbeat note, looking at the current activities of the Lakehouse music academy and studio, where very young musicians are given a chance to learn, to play and to perform, but it cannot pretend that the grievances which erupted almost 50 years ago have been properly addressed.

Springsteen, Van Zandt and Lyon speak with great fondness about what the place gave them, by enabling them to immerse themselves in the world of music. Unlike Dylan and the Beatles, Springsteen says, those who learnt their trade in the Asbury Park bar bands were not musical revolutionaries: they were alchemists, he says, taking bits from all over the place — soul, R&B, Elvis and Little Richard, the British Invasion — and turning it into something of their own. He and his old friends speak with a warmth that is as powerful a defining characteristic of their music as any stylistic element.

The film shows us important venues including the Convention Hall (where the Who shared a bill with Herman’s Hermits and the Blues Magoos), the Upstage Club (where, because it lacked a liquor licence, teenagers could congregate to play and listen) and the Stone Pony (made famous by Southside Johnny and Miami Steve). At the screening I went to, it finished with 20 minutes of a recent fund-raising concert at which practically everybody who ever played in an Asbury Park bar band gathered on stage to run through cheerfully chaotic versions of “Johnny B. Goode”, “Bye Bye Johnny”, and — at Springsteen’s behest — “Lucille”, in the great Everly Brothers arrangement.

The director both excavates the Asbury Park legend and polishes it up a bit. And why not? As Springsteen remarks: “Everything’s broken. We are the fixers of broken dreams.”

* The film was shown on Wednesday of this week at various cinemas in London. There seems to be a screening on May 25 in Liverpool, and there may be others.

Bruce Springsteen at Wembley

Bruce River Wembley

Is it a fan’s wishful imagination, or does Bruce Springsteen reserve something special for the start of his London shows? I think back, in particular, to the spellbound harmonica and piano introduction to “Thunder Road” in a pin spot at Hammersmith Odeon in 1975 and the cathartic, eyes-closed rush through “Born to Run” at Wembley Arena six years later. Last night at Wembley Stadium it was a wholly unexpected solo-at-the-piano version of “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street” from Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., slowed down, like he did with “For You” in ’75, but still a little trip back to the unshadowed wordspinning joy of youth: “Mary Lou, she found out how to cope / She rides to heaven on a gyroscope / The Daily News asks her for the dope / She says, ‘Man, the dope’s that there’s still hope.'”

If that was one for the fans, so was the next: “Seeds”, which I don’t believe he plays all that often. First the harsh voice against the stripped rockabilly guitar, and then an eruption of full-tilt rock and roll thunder — a thousand guitars, a hundred horns, the shout of a Hammond organ, the implacable backbeat, the measured walk of the bass, all churning on and on and on towards some invisible horizon — that reminds you of exactly what this music can do, in the right hands. And the realism of the lyrics: a man drags his family across the country, searching for work, seeing the homeless men by the railroad track, listening to the children’s “graveyard cough”. And watching the world of other men go by: “Big limousine, shiny and black / You don’t look forward, you don’t look back.”

“Sorry, son, it’s gone, gone, gone,” the job-seeker is told. What hasn’t gone is Springsteen’s magical ability to make an audience both dance and think, sometimes in the same song. Over the next three and a half hours of a wonderfully warm evening there were many more moments of contrast between exhilaration and reflection, from the dedication of “Tougher Than the Rest” (a gorgeous duet with Patti Scialfa) to Muhammad Ali to the fury of “Death to My Hometown”, from “Sherry Darling” to “Candy’s Room”, from “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” to “American Skin (41 Shots)”. That last one resonates even more powerfully than it did when he wrote it in 1999, prompted by the shooting of the unarmed Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old street peddler from Guinea, by four plain-clothes officers of the New York Police Department who were later acquitted of second-degree murder. Last night he gave it full justice in a sombre, intense reading that was, for me, the centrepiece of the concert.

Billed as a tour revisiting The River, it has become something much less specific and more inclusive, although half a dozen songs from that great 1980 double album studded the set (I was sorry he didn’t include “Wreck on the Highway”, but you can’t have everything). This being an arena, the sound was never going to be more than an approximation, albeit a powerful one, of how he and the E Street Band can sound. The salient bits — the lead vocals, Nils Lofgren’s howling guitar solo on “Because the Night”, Jake Clemons’ invocation of his late uncle on “Jungleland”, Charles Giordano’s keyboard salute to Danny Federici on “Hungry Heart” — were fully audible, of course, but you’d wish that everyone hearing them on this tour could also know their impact in halls of more modest size and human scale — like Hammersmith Odeon, to which he returned with the Seeger Sessions show a few years ago — where giant screens are not required and the musical nuances of which they’re capable might be fully explored.

Still, one thing a Springsteen show never lacks is a sense of intimacy. And as it had begun, so it ended: Bruce alone with the audience, strapping on an acoustic guitar to summon our collective history with “Thunder Road”, just as he did on his last visit three years ago but somehow different and still the perfect closure to yet another night invested with so much emotion that every song had the weight of an encore.

Springsteen / Mandela

Bruce Springsteen and the expanded E Street Band played their first South African concert in Cape Town last Sunday night. Here’s the official film of how they kicked it off, with their version of “Nelson Mandela”, written 30 years ago by Jerry Dammers for the Special AKA. It’s a good example of why so many of us feel such enduring affection for Springsteen. This isn’t something slung together on a whim. It’s a gesture, perhaps for one night only, but he’s made sure to prepare it as carefully as the arrangements of his own songs. The bringing of the backing singers to the forefront, the horn riffs, the percussion, the solos from Jake Clemons on tenor and Tom Morello on guitar and the brilliant false ending make it one more entry in the cavalcade of memories he’s provided over the years.

 

Darkness on the edge of London

BruceBruce Springsteen took everyone by surprise with the announcement, about an hour into last night’s Wembley concert, that he and the E Street Band were going to stop answering requests and instead play Darkness on the Edge of Town, his great LP from 1978, in its entirety, from start to finish. This, after all, was a stop on the Wrecking Ball tour, promoting his latest album; it’s two and a half years since the documentary recounting the making of Darkness was released, with a great deal of attendant publicity. But what a fabulous decision it turned out to be.

The group of musicians on stage,  nowadays numbering about 17, was stripped back to something closer to the original E Street line-up as they set off into “Badlands”, hardly drawing a breath until the last chord of the title song died away three-quarters of an hour later. They gave the 10 songs a performance of unbroken seriousness and intensity, with several emotional peaks. For me, those came with a brutal “Adam Raised a Cain”, the shiver-inducing slalom through “Candy’s Room”, the finest reading of “Racing in the Streets” I’ve ever heard him give, and a majestic conclusion with “Darkness” itself.

For most artists, those 45 minutes would be enough to justify taking the audience’s money. Springsteen, however, gave us another two and a half hours of fun, games, and tears. I wished Curtis Mayfield had been alive to hear “People Get Ready” appended to the set-opening “Land of Hope and Dreams” as a coda and benediction; he would have been proud and delighted to hear his great anthem put to such fine use. The communal singing of the first verse of “Hungry Heart” and various bits of “Dancing in the Dark” reminded me for the umpteenth time that Springsteen is happy to give everyone in the audience a chance to share the experience of being the lead singer with the E Street Band. “Twist and Shout” came in a cowbell-paced version that would have pleased Bert Berns, the song’s co-writer and the master of bringing Latin accents to uptown pop-R&B, and might have come off a 1966 Bang Records 45. And to finish off, after the band had left the stage for the last time, their leader returned, alone with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica harness, to do that other trick of his: bestowing upon you the illusion that he’s chosen one of the night’s song just for you, personally. On this occasion it was a lovely unadorned version of “Thunder Road”, the first song he played on his London debut — his first concert outside the United States, in fact — back in 1975.

I have couple of criticisms. While the idea of replacing the sadly departed Clarence Clemons with a five-piece horn section is a good one (and Jake Clemons, Clarence’s nephew, does a lively job of filling the hole left by his uncle’s sound and personality), there are now too many musicians on stage: the sound is often too full, too massive, with Max Weinberg’s technically flawless big-band drumming filling too many holes, and the ensemble loses the precious sense of mobility and flexibility that was its hallmark (and which was immaculately reconstituted on the Darkness songs). On this night, too, from my pretty good seat, the sound was affected by a strong echo reflecting back from the stadium’s upper tiers, by a frequent indefinable booming sound in the lower frequencies, and by an occasional lack of muscle in the midriff.

That’s small stuff, however, when compared with the pleasures of an evening spent in the company of a man whose humanity and generosity of spirit continue to make his every concert a unique experience.