The title was pushing it, since only one of the forty songs was recorded as early as 1975; maybe because his old manager would have got the cash? But it does progress chronologically for the most part, with the bulk of three sides coming from L.A.’s Roxy Theater in 1978, then a couple of sides bouncing between Nassau Coliseum and the Meadowlands in 1980 and 1981, and the final four sides coming from the Born In The U.S.A. mega-tour. (Again, with few exceptions, everything comes from either L.A. or New Jersey.)
The opening “Thunder Road” from 1975 is mostly Bruce and Roy Bittan on piano, making for an intimate start. It’s also a good setup for the club atmosphere of the Roxy shows, which is where his storytelling works best, as on the lengthy rap in the middle of “Growin’ Up”. Soon enough, the recordings move to the hockey arenas and stadiums, where the sound of “Bruuuuuce” fills the gaps between songs (though you can almost hear the footsteps of the crowd heading towards the bathroom during “Working On The Highway”). In a harbinger of the future, Patti Scialfa gets to wail a bit by herself on “Cover Me”, and “No Surrender” is transformed into a sensitive folk song.
Of course, the big excitement to collectors was any and all of the songs that hadn’t ever been on a Springsteen album before. “Paradise By The ‘C’” is a good-timey instrumental showcasing Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici. You gotta wait all the way until side seven to hear “Seeds”, a song he apparently ever only played three times, which is just as well, since it’s the groove from “Pink Cadillac” for about five minutes with canned horns. That comes out of “Born In The U.S.A.” and precedes the lengthy intro to “The River”, wherein he does a monologue about how he and his dad never got along except for this one time he went for his physical at the draft board and they didn’t take him. Lest anybody be confused about how he felt about the Reagan administration, an angry cover of Edwin Starr’s “War” comes next. (Maybe he’d heard Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s version?)
His shows always included a rousing cover or twelve, so we also get a hot performance of the Stax nugget “Raise Your Hand” (also covered by the J. Geils Band in the same era). Then there were the songs made famous by others, like “Fire” (Pointer Sisters) and “Because The Night” (Patti Smith). A reverent cover of “This Land Is Your Land” from 1980 sets up the leap to the near-present and a trio of songs from Nebraska that manage to come across in a stadium setting. It’s fitting that the set ends with his cover of Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl”, a B-side that was a big radio hit around these parts.
Being who it was and when it came out, every major publication (led by Rolling Stone, who were always close to his payroll) hailed the box as the greatest development in the evolution of recorded music. Granted, Springsteen’s live shows are what sustained his reputation over all those lean years, helped along by bootlegs often derived from local radio broadcasts of shows such as these, albeit with four-letter words and references to bootleggers rolling tapes. (While Bruce is the only person we see on the cover, for the first time, the E Street Band was given equal billing, and rightfully so.) And the set sold very well, considering that it was Springsteen, and it was Christmas. And just like that, everybody who wanted it had it, and returns of unsold copies after the new year were plentiful. That doesn’t take away just how solid it is.
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Live/1975-1985 (1986)—4