It’s hard to say what the most bizarre thing about Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band’s December 7 concert at the Carousel House on the Asbury Park boardwalk. It might have been the fact that the set was almost entirely composed of recently released outtakes from Darkness On The Edge of Town. Maybe it was the decision to hold it in an old, dilapidated building that used to house an antique merry-go-round. Or perhaps it was the unorthodox move of repeatedly calling the entire crowd onto the stage. Then again, it’s possible the most surreal aspect of the concert was simply the experience of watching a show often held in front of 80,000 fans with fewer than 60 other people. The show — which will be streamed on Vevo starting today — was held to promote the new Darkness On The Edge of Town box set. As was the case last year when Springsteen filmed a complete performance of Darkness up the boardwalk at the Paramount Theater, only the 1978-era E Street Band was invited to play (with Charlie Giordano subbing in on organ for the late Danny Federici). This time they were joined by Jackson Browne collaborator David Lindley (who played violin on some of the original sessions) and a five-piece horn section. It was one of the toughest tickets in Springsteen history. Fifteen contest winners from the Springsteen fanzine Backstreets were allowed to bring a single guest, and 29 other VIP’s (family, management, media) brought the total attendance to 59. Dozens of other hardcore fans braved the frigid weather to stand outside for hours to catch tiny glimpses of the show and hear what they could. Those inside got to stand so close that at most any other venue they would have been on the stage. Cameras crews whirled around the stage all night, occasionally bumping into the audience.
The show felt like more like a film taping than a live concert. Each song was played at least twice, which was a real blow to the momentum. Springsteen took long pauses between each song to address the band — and occasionally gently admonish them for mistakes. The E Street Band hadn’t played most of the songs since the original studio sessions 32 years ago, and the fact that they were often variations of songs they’ve played hundreds of times must have been downright confusing at times. “That couldn’t get any better,” he said after one take. “But we’re still gonna do it again.” Bruce repeatedly asked the audience to sing along to the songs. “The singing members of the E Street Band aren’t here,” Springsteen said — then noted the hurt expression on Clarence Clemons’ face. “I’m sorry Clarence. You can sing. So can Steve, and in a pinch [bassist] Garry [Tallent] can too. We used to have microphones by Max [Weinberg] and [Roy] Bittan, but those went away. Max did sing ‘Boys’ on the last tour. We’re waiting for the next one to have Roy sing. He’s going to sing ‘Strangers In The Night.’ No, he’ll do ‘I’m Too Sexy.’ His wheelhouse is 1990s nostalgia.”
The band was looking more closely at Bruce than usual for cues, and Springsteen’s eyes were firmly locked to the teleprompter all night. It’s hard to blame him. Imagine opening “Racing In The Streets” with “I got a sixty-nine Chevy with a 396” for over 30 years — and then suddenly it’s “I got a ’32 Ford, she’s a 318.” It’s appropriate the show was held on the grounds of a former amusement park, because it often felt like a Springsteen concert on the other end of a funhouse mirror. How often in rock history have decades-old studio outtakes and early version of songs been revived for the stage? Even well-known outtakes like “Because The Night” and “Fire” were left unplayed, making room for wonderful obscurities like “Talk To Me,” “(Come On) Let’s Go Tonight” and “One Way Street.” During four of the songs Bruce or Steve urged the tiny audience to crowd onto the stage. It was bizarre — almost like walking into a movie you’ve seen countless times. It’s a very different view when you’re standing directly between Clemons and Springsteen, especially when the microphone is shoved near your face and you scream out the line “Just like Jimmy Iovine” in the middle of “Ain’t Good Enough For You.” If that wasn’t weird enough, during a brief break Springsteen came into the audience and mingled with the crowd — even taking my reporter’s pad out of my hand and flipping through the pages. “I want to make sure you get down every one of my brilliant words,” he said. That doesn’t happen at Giants Stadium. The second-to-last song was “The Promise,” which hadn’t been played with a band since early in the 1978 tour. It’s one of his best songs, and the only Darkness outtake that undoubtedly should have made the album. With Lindley on the violin, it was extremely powerful — but Springsteen demanded a second take that didn’t pack the same emotional heft. After that they passed out Santa Claus hats to the entire audience for “Blue Christmas.” Afterwards the staff tried to usher the crowd quickly out the door, but most people stayed around to mingle with The E Street Band and Springsteen himself — who appeared to be in no hurry to leave.