BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: HAMMERSMITH ODEON, LONDON '75 (1975/2006)
1) Thunder Road; 2) Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out; 3) Spirit In The Night; 4) Lost In The Flood; 5) She's The One; 6) Born To Run; 7) The E Street Shuffle; 8) It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City; 9) Backstreets; 10) Kitty's Back; 11) Jungleland; 12) Rosalita (Come Out Tonight); 13) 4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy); 14) Detroit Medley; 15) For You; 16) Quarter To Three.
Although you could theoretically apply the tag «archival release» to Live 1975-85 as well, or at least parts of it, that sprawling monster was a mish-mash retrospective, joining the past with the present, and not really part of the «vault-emptying drive» that began with Dylan and truly caught up with the majority of classic rockers at the turn of the millennium. Having successfully entered the game with Tracks, what Bruce really needed at this point was a bona fide recording of a complete, unaltered performance from the glory days — and hardly a better choice could have been made than this show from November 18, 1975, Bruce's first ever gig across the ocean in which he managed to conquer the somewhat skeptical British audiences in one two-hour long shot.
The recording, made available in both CD and DVD format, as some cameramen were fortunate enough to capture the young Boss in all of his bearded, hat-wearing, proto-indie-rock glory, has tremendous historical importance — although Born To Run was already climbing up the charts and critics were already outgushing each other, this is still Bruce Springsteen in his «pre-superstar» days, when all the now-classic material was still fresh and vibrant, and he got to perform ʽBorn To Runʼ not because, you know, what's a Boss show without ʽBorn To Runʼ? but simply because he'd only just written it and meant every word and every note of it. This is that particular era where the man had to work hard, and though nobody can accuse Bruce of not having worked hard enough even after the world was his for the taking, there are different kinds of hard out there, and this is one of these shows that actually caused people like Landau to go nuts, so...
In terms of surprises, there's not a lot of them, though people unfamiliar with the man's mid-Seventies routine might find it amusing to hear Bruce insert so many strains of his various influences into the songs: Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Van Morrison, Isaac Hayes, and even Gary U. S. Bonds are all channelled, either by themselves, or as threads interwoven into the man's own compositions. Not that these bits are in any way the best parts of the show — as good as Bruce is at setting fire to his own songs, he is usually awful when covering other people, because he's really only got one mode of functioning (Boss mode!) and he always converts everything to that mode, no matter how much he might like and respect the originals. Was that really a piece of Sam Cooke's ʽHavin' A Partyʼ at the end of ʽThe E Street Shuffleʼ? Did he really lead ʽKitty's Backʼ into Van Morrison's ʽMoondanceʼ at one point? Oh, I'm sorry, I thought that was just some random small twist in the arrangement.
This is why the most easily skippable part of the album is the so-called ʽDetroit Medleyʼ, where Bruce mashes together some Shorty Long and Little Richard tunes with seemingly no other purpose than demonstrating his Rock And Roll Credentials, or else people might want to think of him as a jazz-pop artist or something. Not that the E Street Band couldn't carry a proper rock and roll tune — on the contrary, they just try way too hard, and yet it still feels that this isn't the kind of music that comes naturally to them. One catch is that Springsteen has always had a poor sense of humor, and for basic rock'n'roll humor is essential — he's singing ʽGood Golly Miss Mollyʼ as if he were pounding it with a wrecking ball or something, with his pay depending on how many small bits and splinters he could produce: energetic, powerful, and deadly serious. Okay, Cap'n, we got it, just stop it right there, please? The poor girl can't take any more of this.
For his own stuff, though, this approach is naturally the perfect one, and the performance is generally stellar, with relatively little in the way of storytelling to prevent Bruce from setting up Fort New Jersey in what used to be Gaumont Palace. The songs are not too different from the studio counterparts, except for maybe ʽE Street Shuffleʼ, which is much countrified from its funky origins and features an extended slide guitar solo that might remind you of the Allman Brothers, although the sprawling, messy nature of the tune on the whole shows more of a Van Morrison influence (no wonder ʽMoondanceʼ is quoted, albeit inside another song); and the opening ʽThunder Roadʼ which, as was typical for Bruce at the time, is performed in its stripped-down version, with keyboards and harmonica bearing the brunt of the melody.
But, of course, you don't need me or anyone else to tell you that this here stuff is all about youthful exuberance and total conviction, rather than about making the live audiences witness something they could never encounter on the studio record. In terms of sheer intensity, these versions might really blow some of the originals out of the water — if you prefer the man's full-throttle roar to the inevitably slightly more subdued, controlled singing in the studio — and let us not forget that The E Street Band on stage takes pride in being even tighter and more focused than when contributing overdubs to studio tapes. Me not being the major Springsteen fan on the block, the originals are not that well ingrained in the brain to allow for astute nuance-spotting comparisons with this show — but, heck, even I have to admit it was one hell of a show.
It probably makes more sense to just watch the video, though, which (at least in the original release) came packaged together with the CDs (in fact, the video was released even earlier, on the 35th anniversary edition of Born To Run) — the image quality is not much to speak of, but at least it is professional, and it really is fun to see The Boss working hard to earn that title, rather than just keep on confirming it. The beard! The hat! No muscles! Little Stevie still years away from his Baba Yaga image! How could this not be a thumbs up?