Posts Tagged ‘the Ghost Of Tom Joad’

The lesser known fifth and final leg of the Joad tour comes into fresh view with Nice, France 1997. After 18 months on the road, Springsteen’s solo acoustic performances were honed to a sharp edge, contrasted throughout with humour and soul. “Nice 1997″ offers nine songs from restless heart of Joad, plus captivating readings of “Darkness On The Edge Of Town,” “Murder Incorporated,” “It’s The Little Things That Count,” “Highway Patrolman,” “Long Time Comin’,” “Saint In The City,” “Growin’ Up” and the tour premiere of “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch).”

Every Springsteen tour starts with a vision and an underlying narrative. What story is our favourite artist telling through his setlist and presentation? Over time, setlists typically evolve and tours explore new themes, keeping things fresh but sometimes departing significantly from the initial concept.

Springsteen’s solo-acoustic tour for “The Ghost of Tom Joad” was unwavering in conserving its original vision. Beyond special nights in Freehold and Asbury Park, from the earliest shows in late 1995 through final gigs in the spring of 1997, the core songs from the album served as the spine of the show, while Bruce’s performances stayed steely and steady. Nice, France, a stop from the tail-end of the Joad tour and the first Archive release from 1997, presents an opportunity to reassess this compelling commitment from the little-heard fifth leg.

Bruce performed the same songs from Joad at the LA shows as he would in Nice, more than 120 performances later. “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “Murder Incorporated,” “Born in the U.S.A.,” and “This Hard Land” are also intact. Adding “Brothers Under the Bridge,” which debuted the second night at the Wiltern, 13 songs remained in the set, anchoring the tale and tone of this special solo outing.

Which isn’t to say those songs are played exactly as they were in the fall of 1995. The Nice performance is unmistakably honed after a year and a half on the road without a band. Case in point: Springsteen’s guitar playing feels less muscular but more masterly. Because the arrangements largely remain faithful, the differences are subtle, but a song like “Murder Incorporated” has evolved from stark noir to more of a beautifully sung cautionary tale, with Bruce’s guitar weaving an unsettling rhythmic bed that lulls us into submission.

“Straight Time,” “Highway 29,” and the title track play truer to form, but there’s extra weariness in the tone of the protagonists that makes their stories resonate all the more. Heard through a post-Western Stars filter, “Highway 29” feels like a progenitor to that recent masterwork, especially its title track. Truest of all is the four-pack that served as the lyrical denouement for show. Nice gets sublime readings of “Sinaloa Cowboys,” “The Line,” “Balboa Park,” and “Across The Border,” and the verb is accurate for these near novellas.

On Broadway, Springsteen set up familiar songs with stories and vice versa, but this storytelling sequence is more like an author reading to an unfamiliar audience. As such, Bruce’s performances of the material place a premium on the vivid details that make the narrative spark to life. For a performer who has earned the position of having his audiences eat out of the palm of his hand, brokering this type of connection with more demanding material must have been a fascinating challenge. Admiration for how he pulls it off night after night is well earned.

Other Joad tour stalwarts are also in top form in Nice. The 12-string reinvention of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” debuted at the Christic shows in 1990, still sends shivers up the spine. “Brothers Under the Bridge” is perhaps the most underappreciated entry among Springsteen’s Vietnam Veterans material. The song was still unreleased when Bruce performed it on the Joad tour (it eventually came out on Tracks in 1998). The final line, “One minute you’re right there, and something slips,” remains one of the most haunting in the canon.

Nice would also see the final tour performance of “It’s the Little Things That Count.” Bruce revisited the song a couple of times at the Somerville, MA solo shows in 2003, but it has been unheard ever since. The song was written for Joad and later considered for Devils & Dust, but it remains officially unreleased in studio form. Gotta love the transition from “Little Things” to “Red Headed Woman”: “Speaking of tongues…”

Of course Joad tour setlists were not totally rigid. Nice finds Springsteen in something of a nostalgic mood, pulling the kindred “Growin’ Up” and “Saint in the City” into the set, connecting the Joad era to Springsteen’s last turn as a solo artist in 1972. He also takes “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” out for an entertaining spin in its tour debut. “Working on the Highway” is good fun, too, exposing the Born in the U.S.A. song’s Nebraska roots — listen for Bruce hitting a particularly impressive high note at the end of “cruel cruel worrrrrld.”

The final reinvention of the night comes with “The Promised Land.” As evidenced by his use of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” to close shows on his next solo tour in 2005, Springsteen is attracted to mesmeric arrangements. The transformation of “The Promised Land” could be the most radical of all his reinterpretations and merits reappreciation for sheer performance beauty and vocal control. We’re transfixed until that final percussive thwack breaks the trance of a spellbinding evening and a tour that stayed true to itself from the first show to the last.

words by Erik Flanagan

  • Bruce Springsteen – Lead vocals, guitar, harmonica
  • Kevin Buell – Keyboards (offstage)

Bruce Springsteen Live Concert CDs & Downloads

The new remasters collection Bruce Springsteen: The Album Collection Vol. 2, 1987-1996 makes a strong case for the artistic value of Springsteen’s E Street-less, mid-period output. Starting with 1987’s Tunnel Of Love, it was no longer really Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band. Despite the occasional presence of various bandmates on the album and subsequent tour, the signs were already there for his creative restlessness and decision to separate from the group to pursue different avenues of making music. (He made the split official in 1989.) And to hear tell of it in various biographies and assessments of his career through the years, Springsteen spent most of the next decade wandering the artistically frustrated desert, on albums and tours that lacked the passion and vision of his earlier work. The limited-edition release Bruce Springsteen: The Album Collection Vol. 2, 1987-1996 probably isn’t going to convince anyone that the Boss was better off without his once and future band than with it, but what it does do is make a cohesive and convincing argument for the merit of his work during this creatively searching era—yes, even the stuff with the really crappy production values.

When Springsteen published his memoir Born To Run in 2016, it was clear he didn’t want to talk much more than he already had in interviews about the hiatus of the E Street Band or the interpersonal and creative tensions that led to his decision. He barely spends two pages on it, admitting his own role in the issues, but seems to summarize it with, “I felt I’d become not just a friend and employer for some, but also banker and daddy.” The recording of the simultaneously released Human Touch and Lucky Town is omitted entirely, and aside from discussions about his personal life, much of these years is dismissed by him as his “mid-’90s drift.” It’s too bad he glosses over it, because as is made clear by the engrossing 60-page book of photos, press clippings, and interviews accompanying this new collection, there’s a lot to be said about what he was trying to achieve with each of these albums.

Tunnel Of Love is perhaps the most contentious of these records. Hailed as a masterwork of a newly mature artist upon its initial release, it was subsequently criticized for its production and lack of consistent E Street input, with Springsteen playing many of the instruments himself. (The only thing he never attempted was drums, with Max Weinberg providing the sporadic percussion.) But while the cheesy keyboards and digitally fussy drums do indeed make some of the songs harder to listen to with fresh ears, one of the best elements of the newly remastered edition of this long-out-of-print vinyl is the very deliberate minimization of the hokier instrumentation, and teasing out the guitars wherever possible. Even “Brilliant Disguise,” an excellent song that became a hit for a reason, sounds a little crisper and less late-’80s smooth. But to take the time to study Tunnel Of Love closely is to again marvel at some of the finest lyrics of Springsteen’s career. From the solo vocal performance that kicks off “Ain’t Got You” to the muted angst of “Valentine’s Day,” the subtlety and depth of these songs about complicated adult love shine. It’s a strange beast for a record from the Boss, but it’s a hell of a successful one-off experiment.

From there, things admittedly get a little muddled. Human Touch and Lucky Town are the twin pillars of his respective artistic tactics: the former an agonized and fussed-over result of several years of obsessive workaday grind, the latter a three-week burst of raw and loose inspiration. Lucky Town is undeniably the superior of the two simultaneous releases, suggesting Springsteen was indeed at loose ends over the direction his music should take, finding more success in the fuck-it attitude of just unleashing some rock and hoping it worked. It’s the sound of him trying to genuinely create the feeling of rock ’n’ roll as a revivalist celebration, chasing that near-religious fervor his concerts are often credited with having. Hence the three backing female singers, shouting out refrains like they were gospel—he wanted it to sound like the gospel of rock. At the time it mustn’t have been clear he was pushing this angle too hard, chasing it too blatantly, as opposed to the vibe arriving organically from the music. The bluesy American roots rock that pops up is solid, but too often harnessed to his church-hymnal instincts. (“Souls Of The Departed” is just a hair’s breadth away from being an all-time killer rock song.) It’s a good album that should’ve been great.

Human Touch, by contrast, does many of the same things as Lucky Town, only milder and with less success. While some of it can be chalked up to his insistence on playing so many of the parts himself, thereby denying himself superior musicianship on the instruments, his session players did him no real favors either, especially Randy Jackson’s uninspired bass. Similarly, the songs often sound like the result of a guy in an echo chamber, demoing to a 4/4 beat on a drum machine and then not being pushed to vary those beats in the rhythm section. Great songs intermittently appear—“Gloria’s Eyes” cooks, and “I Wish I Were Blind” overcomes its generic-ballad orchestration to deliver a moving elegy—but it’s not enough to overcome dreck like “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On).” Human Touch, as he discusses in the lengthy Rolling Stoneinterview functioning as the accompanying book’s centerpiece, was who he was in the wake of his post-Tunnel divorce; Lucky Town was the direction he was moving. It was clearly the better direction to go.

But even with the albums being this uneven, the accompanying live record and EP demonstrate Springsteen’s power remained largely undimmed. 1993’s In Concert: MTV Plugged is an hour straight of killer live music, showing how even weaker studio tracks like “Man’s Job” get a rush of energy and power from the Boss in full onstage swagger. Plus, it provides previously unreleased tracks “Red Headed Woman” and the spectacular “Light Of Day,” long a set-closer during the era. But it also showcases what people don’t like about this era of Springsteen: He basically cedes lead instrument duties to keyboardist Roy Bittan, the keys taking pride of place in mixing and songwriting, never more apparent than in the full-band version of “Atlantic City.” It’s a hell of a show, but it does minimize Springsteen’s ax work far too much. The EP Chimes Of Freedom (from the Amnesty International charity tour in ’88) features four killer performances, one of them a cover of Bob Dylan’s title tune.

The Ghost Of Tom Joad stubbornly resists alteration in remastering. The record is an odd admixture of spare Nebraska-style minimalism (even more so, really, with the acoustic guitar barely audible at times) and the swooning high-gloss production that has always been his weakness. It’s a two-pronged strategy that would find better synthesis—if uneven results—on Devils & Dust, but that nonetheless contains some moments as good as anything he’s done. Songs like “Highway 29” and the title track find a fusion of wordy poetry and sparse melodism that elevate the material, but it’s occasionally too flat musically to really land, stripped-down folktales easier to admire than enjoy. Still, it stands as a coda to this era of Bruce’s wandering muse, finding meaning in the stories of the Mexican-American borderlands that feel more relevant than ever.

Blood Brothers(his much-vaunted E Street reunion to provide new tracks for the Greatest Hits release) is a superb five-song blitz, even if it now looks like little more than a tease for the reunited greatness to come. Still, taken as a whole, these records function as a kind of musical travelogue that saw the guy who made the world-conquering Born In The U.S.A. spend a creatively frustrating decade reinventing himself into the again-master songwriter and bandleader that would see the 2000s deliver on the promise of his former excellence. The path to get there was rocky, but filled with enough magic to make it worthy of appreciation in its own right.

The Album Collection Vol 2.  This release spans the period of 1987-1996, picking up where Volume 1 – released back in November 2014 – left off.  It’s due on May 18th from Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings on vinyl only.  Unlike the previous box set, no CD release has been announced.

Volume 2 contains four studio albums, one live album, and two EPs on 10 vinyl LPs – all remastered by Bob Ludwig and Toby Scott from the original analogue masters.  The set chronicles Springsteen’s adventurous, experimental period during and following the dissolution of The E Street Band.  While the band’s members are all present in guest spots on 1987’s Tunnel of Love(and the band would tour the album) it was a mostly solo, introspective affair highlighted by such standout tracks as “Brilliant Disguise,” “Tougher than the Rest,” “One Step Up,” and the title track.  Tunnel Of Love is followed by the pair of albums released by Springsteen on the same day, March 31, 1992: Human Touch and Lucky Town.  Though Roy Bittan was on board as a musician and co-producer, the only other E Streeters to make an appearance on Human Touch were Patti Scialfa and former member David Sancious.

The album instead welcomed studio veterans like Jeff Porcaro and Randy Jackson as well as background vocals from Sam Moore of Sam and Dave and Bobby Hatfield of The Righteous Brothers.  Human Touch scored hits with its title song and “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On).”  Lucky Town employed a sparer sound and seemingly a more personal approach than Human Touch.  Bittan and Scialfa were on hand, along with drummer Gary Mallaber, Randy Jackson, The Faces’ Ian McLagan, and future E Street touring member Soozie Tyrell.  The album yielded favorites such as “Better Days” and “If I Should Fall Behind.”

The box continues with 1993’s live album In Concert/MTV Plugged (featuring Bittan, Scialfa, and Bruce’s touring band) and then with 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, a dark, stripped-down spiritual sequel to Nebraska that was hailed by many as his best album in years, and certainly his most adventurous.  Garry Tallent, Danny Federici, Scialfa, and Tyrell all contributed to the album.  Two EPs round out the box’s contents.  1988’s Chimes of Freedom was released in support of Amnesty International’s Human Rights Now! tour.  Anchored by a cover of Bob Dylan’s title song, it also featured live versions of “Tougher than the Rest,” “Born to Run,” and the rare B-side “Be True.”  Blood Brothers, the second EP, was originally released in 1996 to coincide with a film of the same name chronicling The E Street Band’s temporary reunion to record additional tracks for Springsteen’s Greatest Hits LP (which isn’t included in this box set but will be released on vinyl for Record Store Day on April 21).  Blood Brothers has five tracks from the reunited band – four from the studio sessions and one (“Murder Incorporated”) live, as heard in the song’s music video.

In Concert/MTV Plugged makes its U.S. vinyl debut in this box set, while Blood Brothers is a worldwide vinyl premiere.  A 60-page book featuring memorabilia, photos, and period press clippings is included with the set.

Look for The Album Collection Vol. 2, 1987-1996 from Columbia/Legacy on May 18th.

Bruce Springsteen, The Album Collection Vol. 2, 1987-1996 (Columbia/Legacy, 2018) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada Links TBD)

LPs 1-2: Tunnel of Love (Columbia OC 40999, 1987)
LPs 3-4: Human Touch (Columbia C 53000, 1992)
LP 5: Lucky Town (Columbia C 53001, 1992)
LPs 6-7: In Concert/MTV Plugged (Columbia CK 68730, 1993) **
LP 8: The Ghost of Tom Joad (Columbia C 67484, 1995)
LP 9: Chimes of Freedom (Columbia 4C 44445, 1988)
LP 10: Blood Brothers (Columbia CSK 8879, 1996) *

this striking cover song by the Mumfords and Elvis Costello taken from the solo album “The Ghost Of Tom Joad”  by Bruce Springsteen with echoes of Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck  , here is the version from Bruce with Tom Morello