Bruce Springsteen Surprises Asbury Park Film Screening - Rolling Stone
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Bruce Springsteen Surprises Asbury Park Film Screening

Springsteen opened up about performing, losing Clarence Clemons and more during hometown festival, which also included a mind-blowing Bob Dylan event

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Chris Spiegel/AP Music & Film Festival

Fans at the Asbury Park’s Music + Film festival had seen a lot of rare, mindblowing live Bruce Springsteen footage by the end of Saturday night. In the city’s old Paramount Theatre, where Springsteen has performed many times, they saw rare clips like a highly-charged performance of “Quarter to Three” from the Bottom Line in 1975, where Bruce got so caught up in the energy that he dropped his guitar pick, and a fan handed it back to him. There was a wild performance of “Who Do You Love” into “She’s the One” from the Tunnel of Love tour that featured a truly astonishing display of public affection between Springsteen and Clemons — and their last-ever show together, performing “Growin’ Up,” in 2009. The audience also saw a long clip of the E Street Band performing a soul medley at the Apollo in 2012, where Bruce climbed up the theater’s pipes into get to the box seats, belting “The Way You Do the Things You Do.”

But the most incredible part of the night happened at the end, when the real Bruce Springsteen walked out. The surprise happened after Christopher Phillips, the publisher and editor of Backstreets, brought out Springsteen’s director and archivist Thom Zimny, who curated the event, the Springsteen Archives. Then Phillips introduced, simply, “Bruce.” The crowd went nuts as Springsteen walked out in a red sweatshirt with the number five on it. He took a seat while waving, doing his best to calm them down. “I’ve lived many lives,” he said when the applause finally died out. “I’ve never seen a lot of that stuff myself!”

Security was tight — fans had to place their phones into Yondr pouches, which were unlocked at the end of the show. But they were treated to an insightful conversation with Springsteen about what it’s like to watch your own musical evolution. Springsteen said that he’s glad it exists: “The sad thing is we were superstitious about being filmed,” he admitted of the band’s early days, saying he thought, “A magician should not look too closely at his magic trick. It’s very strange in the beginning when you hear your actual voice coming back at you on tape, you don’t like it. And when you see yourself on film, you don’t like that either! You always think you’re handsomer than you really are. You think you sound better than you actually do. So you got to get over that.”

Phillips then asked Springsteen to comment on various chapters of his career that shown at the event. Springsteen reflected on playing the Bottom Line in 1975 just as Born to Run was about to be released. The band played ten shows in five days, and  Bruce said they changed the band’s dynamic entirely. “When we came out of the Bottom Line, we were officially contenders,” Springsteen said. “For better or worse, when we we weren’t expected to be good, we were expected to be great. And we did all we could to try to prove that.”

Springsteen talked about playing the Apollo in 2012, which was a night of firsts — the band’s first time playing the soul capitol, the first with a reassembled lineup and their first without Clemons. Springsteen said he decided to perform a death-defying stunt when he messed up the arrangement to the Temptations cover. “I had to make up for fucking up the whole thing,” he said, explaining why he climbed stairs into the balcony and over a front-row railing as Patti Scialfa looked on, concerned.  “Now that‘s something we should put out,” he said, turning to Zimny. “I didn’t know that was shot that well.”

One thing that is being released, according to Springsteen, is his performance at Jazz Fest in 2006, just eight months after Hurricane Katrina. The performance of “My City of Ruins” with the Seeger Sessions Band was chilling. Springsteen recalled getting in a day earlier and touring the Lower Ninth Ward, seeing the devastation. “Rock & roll is best when there are high stakes on the table,” he said. “That’s when something much larger than yourself can occur. It’s music that’s meant to push up against things: Whether it be against troubles and hard times. It’s lovely and fortuitous to be able to perform to [perform that service.] It’s one of my top five ever live performance experiences ever.”

Springsteen was not interested, however, in talking about new music. Though he had announced his first album in five years earlier in the week, he did not take the bait when Phillips pivoted from a conversation about the genius of early E Street keyboardist David Sancious to the fact Phillips played on Springsteen’s new album Western Stars. “Yeah David is on there,” Springsteen said. “We don’t have talk about it!”

Zimny and Springsteen talked about their working relationship. While Zimny often searches through the archive for Springsteen material, Springsteen’s detective work is simpler: he goes on YouTube a lot. He also takes inspiration from odd places. Shortly before filming a complete performance of Darkness on the Edge of Town in 2009, Springsteen saw a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie on TV. He thought was “filmed excellently” and  he phoned Zimny past midnight, asking him to take a look for inspiration. Springsteen gave more straightforward directions to Zimny for the recent Springsteen on Broadway film, saying they didn’t want to take too many risks because “the Broadway show was going so well.”

Springsteen showed he could be self-critical. Commenting on a performance of “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” from 1974, he admitted, “I thought I was going to fall asleep at any moment! The tempo I put it at couldn’t have been any slower….I went to the bathroom and I came back and I was still playing!” He was more sentimental talking about the meaning of that song. “Things had just started to happen, so it was a goodbye song,” he said. “It was a goodbye song to Asbury Park. I love this memory: the last night Danny [Federici] played with us, I said, ‘What do you want to play?’ He said, ‘Well I want to play ‘Sandy.’ The song is about the end of something wonderful, and the beginning of something different. So that song said , in the moment I was just about to leave Asbury, I knew my life was going to change…and so it was the very very resonant song in my life.”

The night wrapped with Springsteen reflecting on the last show he played with Clemons, in 2009, in Buffalo. “I had never saw that before. It’s lovely to have the story of me meeting Clarence, when is completely true. All of the events actually happened. It’s lovely to have that story. Our lives were never the same again. I miss the big man.”

The Asbury Park Music + Film Festival was full of one-off moments for hardcore music fans. The festival, entirely for charity, benefits kids in the challenged community, providing them with musical instruments, education and scholarships. “It’s so important to us that the students in Asbury Park, one of the great music cities in the country, get the strongest music education possible,” said Eric Novod, the director of education at the Lakehouse Music Academy in Asbury Park. “We’re seeing this collaboration truly make a difference in students’ lives.”

The other major highlight was The Bob Dylan Archives, which Sony Pictures Classics Co-Founder and Co-President Tom Bernard called “the coolest event in the fest – always has been, always will be.” (Full disclosure: the studio is also releasing a documentary of which I’m a producer.) Dylan’s manager, Jeff Rosen, showed up with a hard drive full of rarities from one most important vaults in all of music. Rosen, reclusive like his boss, was out of sight of the audience, introducing each clip with historical context. He began with the 1963 Newport Folk Festival; a 22-year-old Dylan plays “North Country Blues” surrounded by fellow musicians, including banjo player Clarence Ashley, who was scoring hits as early as 1928 — Rosen noted that Ashley looked a little nonplussed by Dylan’s performance. There was “Hard Rain” from the TV show Quest in 1964, where Dylan played the song on what looked like an old western set, sitting down on a cot for the final verse.

There was rare color footage from 1966 by D.A. Pennebaker. Dylan, in a checkered navy suit, sang “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” – a different person than the “Hard Rain” clip, completely relaxed, playing with the phrasing, drawing out words. Rosen showed footage of later in the show — Dylan with a Telecaster, trading wiry licks with Robbie Robertson for “Baby Let me Follow You Down.” There was a soulful live “Going Going Gone” from 1976 and stunning gospel footage (“What Can I Do For You” from 1980). But the highlight came when Dylan did Empire Burlesque‘s “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)” at New York’s Supper Club, where Dylan played four shows in two days, warming up for MTV Unplugged.

The professionally-filmed show has been sought after for fans for years, and it’s clear why: Dylan was all smiles, swaying as he noodled on the acoustic guitar,  crooning the song, stripped of its Eighties sheen, with deep feeling. The event also featured a long-lost commercial for Love & Theft, Dylan playing cards with Ricky Jay before the game turns into a brawl, and “Cry a While” from 2002 Grammys. While Dylan was stone-faced as he growled the blues stomper, guitarist Larry Campbell couldn’t help but smile when the band hit an explosive turnaround. Here’s hoping Dylan will continue his Bootleg Series for a long time and put out some of the treasures shown in Asbury.


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