It’s not enough. By anyone else’s standards, of course, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band Live/1975-85 is an embarrassment of riches — five albums and ten years’ worth of barroom, hockey-arena and baseball-stadium dynamite; greatest hits, ace covers, love songs, work songs, out-of-work songs — the ultimate rock-concert experience of the past decade finally packaged for living-room consumption, a special gift of thanks to the fans who shared those 1001 nights of stomp & sweat and the best possible consolation prize for the poor bastards who could never get tickets.
Still, Bruce Springsteen could have filled another five-record set with what’s missing from this one. Particularly conspicuous in their absence are still-unreleased gems like “The Fever” and “Rendezvous,” as well as vintage show stoppers like “Jungleland” and “Kitty’s Back,” a song that used to inspire lengthy E Street flights of hot jazz fancy in its mid-Seventies heyday. It is also a little disappointing that Springsteen has not included any recordings from the blazing five-alarm shows of 1973 and ’74 that led the critic Jon Landau, later his manager, to write the infamous, ultimately prophetic line: “I saw rock & roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” Instead, this boxed set starts in 1975 with the Born to Run tour, when the “future” had already arrived on wings of rueful media hype.
Regrettably, Live/1975-85 has been dropped in our laps with the same attendant hysteria. But minor caveats about content aside, it’s going to take more than cheap overkill, like all-Bruce radio and USA Today‘s ludicrous Elvisversus-Bruce readers poll, to eclipse the sheer physical wallop of Live/1975-85 and the spectral wonder of its forty songs, not to mention the incomparable charisma of the singer. If nothing else, this set is an extraordinary demonstration of how Springsteen’s telepathic command of a concert audience has increased in direct proportion to the size of his stage. In his rousing cover of Eddie Floyd’s 1967 Stax hit “Raise Your Hand,” an encore recorded at the Roxy, in Los Angeles, in 1978, Springsteen doesn’t just ask for a show of hands — he demands it. “You think this is a free ride?” he bellows before giving the crowd one last blast. “You want to play, you got to pay!” Six years later, in a big New Jersey arena, he strips “No Surrender” to its naked, valiant core, backed by just guitar, harmonica and the massed hush of twenty thousand people holding their breath.
Loosely chronological in structure, this set also charts the evolution of Springsteen’s lyric themes from early Great Escape anthems (“Growin’ Up,” “Thunder Road”) to the macrocosmic resonance of Born in the U.S.A., with its gritty telegraphic novellas of average Joes and Josephines up against a wall of irrevocable economic change and eroding social values. At the same time, this Bruceograph-style overview plots his corresponding progression from fanciful, often mischievous overarranging — the revved-up boardwalk baroque of “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” — to the knuckle-sandwich sound of “Cover Me” and the previously unreleased “Seeds.” By the time he took the big leap into outdoor stadiums in 1985, documented with heady 3-D frenzy on sides seven through ten, Springsteen was having no trouble zapping fans half a mile away with his short-story rock & soul.
To be sure, the ’78 Roxy version of “Spirit in the Night,” the most enduring of Springsteen’s florid love-and-wheels narratives, is certainly a cracker, distinguished by Max Weinberg’s dropkick drumming and Clarence Clemons’s lusty foghorn sax. Yet “Racing in the Street,” Springsteen’s grim Darkness portrait of a generation racing to a dead end, draws its power from a deeper well, palpably accelerating with pensive desperation as Danny Federici’s sorrowful organ clouds over Roy Bittan’s ballerina piano figure. And any idiot who still believes “Born in the U.S.A.” is all stars and stripes will definitely get baked by the fiery rage and sense of utter betrayal at its core, vividly illustrated by Springsteen’s rockets’-red-glare guitar solo and the atomic E Street crescendo that detonates the theme’s climactic reprise.
In some instances, it’s the little details and subtle flourishes on Live/1975-85 that bring Springsteen’s vision to life. He practically scrapes the pit of his desire with a gravelly, almost laryngitic vocal on the ’75 Roxy version of “Thunder Road” (“Roy Orbison singing for the lonely/Hey that’s me and I want you only”), accompanied only by piano and the delicate tingle of Federici’s glockenspiel. His solo rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” taken at a slower, more thoughtful pace, amplifies not only Guthrie’s fierce democratic pride but also the song’s unspoken promise of a brighter future (“And a voice was sounding/As the fog was lifting/Saying this land was made for you and me”). And although it doesn’t have any words, the quickie instrumental “Paradise by the ‘C,'” with its R&B bluster and frat-rock sass, speaks volumes about Springsteen’s pre-glory days in North Jersey seaside clubs. It doesn’t take much to imagine the crowd at the old Upstage in Asbury Park tanking up to this one.
Two of the album’s finest moments aren’t even musical. Springsteen’s opening rap to “The River,” delivered over a twelve-string guitar reverie by Nils Lofgren, is a poignant ramble about his father — the tensions, the petty disagreements and, ultimately, the reconciliation. With “War,” however, Springsteen gets right to the point, dedicating it to the post-Vietnam kids in the crowd (“The next time they’re gonna be lookin’ at you”) before leading the E Street Band into an explosive reading of the 1970 Edwin Starr hit with his best tonsil-ripping yell and plenty of spitfire guitar.
All this and — finally! — “Because the Night” and “Fire,” too. Live/1975-85 could have done with a few less Born in the U.S.A. numbers — eight of the album’s twelve songs are reprised here — and maybe a few more covers, particularly Springsteen’s highly personalized renditions of the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and Bob Dylan’s “I Want You.” But it seems churlish to carp about titles when there is so much raw power, lyric honesty and spiritual determination packed into this box. For best results, just pretend you’re at the foot of the stage. Then, as Springsteen instructs in “Spirit in the Night,” “stand up and let it shoot right through you.”