Review Summary: Though it fails to fully capture the spirit and feel of a Springsteen concert, the performances are so great it still stands as one of the best official live albums of all time.
"It's not enough," wrote David Fricke way back in '87 on this mammoth 3 CD/5 LP boxed set of live material. I remember having a hearty chuckle the first time I read that two years ago. 3 CDs of live performances not good enough? I, an easy to please 16 year old had just gotten into The Boss, had never been to a show, and had certainly never heard anyone describe a triple album as too short. Over time, I came to realize the truth of his words.
By all accounts, Bruce put out a live album about a decade after he should have. The only white guy (and really one of a precious few of any skin tone) to ever come close to the energy and organized chaos of a James Brown show, he had built his career on his rock revivalist gigs that combined balls-out rock with a surprising lack of ego (especially for the 70s). His mix of humorous and emotional, personal stories with his folk ballads, anthemic rockers, and killer R&B covers made him unique in the time of emotionally distant and disconnected glam stars who heaped on the theatrics possibly to distract the audience from potentially empty music. As these 3 discs show, Bruce was and is a master showman who can not only write some of rock's all time best songs, but he can tear down that ever-present wall between star and crowd. Tracks like the extended "Rosalita," a somehow-even-more-depressing version of "The River," the most beautiful rendition ever of "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," and an exuberant "Born to Run" are highlights in a box set that is itself a highlight.
But wait, if these songs are all good, why is the album "not enough?" Well, trying to condense a decade's worth of grade-A rock into a single document is simply impossible. To try to give a cross-section of his work, Bruce and whomever helped him pick tracks mined bits and pieces from various shows over the years. Thus, a song from the make-or-break 75 tour opens the album, some tracks from the nearly-worshipped Darkness tour follow, then some underrated River tour shows, and finally we get a liberal splash of the unfairly-maligned stadium rock of the Born in the U.S.A. tour. Now, even though the nature of each of these tours is wildly different from the others, the music all sounds like it could have been taken from the same show if you cut out audience sound (the number of people applauding is really the only noticeable difference between time periods). The problem is that, given the wealth of material taken, one has to ensure it isn't too much for disc and LP time limits. Therein lay the tragedy of this album.
To fit everything on 3 CDs, liberal cuts were made within certain tracks, particularly on the tunes taken from the Roxy 78 show. That means less stories and, even worse, less music (the middle jam of Backstreets is completely cut). You still get the hilarious tale of Bruce's teenage legal troubles and him telling his mom to stop trying to get him to give up rocking (seriously, can anything so magnificently tear down the mythos we assign our music heroes like having to ask your mom
to leave you alone from the stage?) on "Growing Up," and what is left of "Backstreets" still tops the already perfect studio version. It does create a certain amount of irony though; you see, this live set was created to combat the bootleggers, who had been rampantly selling taped concerts pretty much since the word got out that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band put on the best damn show you ever did see. However, these cuts ensure that anyone hooked by this album will then seek out bootlegs for the full experience.
Ultimately, despite the flaws of its edits, I cannot in good conscience not recommend this album. 2 years ago it turned a pimply, arrogant 16-year old from a kid who thought that Born to Run
was naive into a rabid fan of Bruce Springsteen. Every great live album should make you feel like you were there and, although this fails in that respect, even a hatchet-job Springsteen show is more inspiring, more exciting, and more moving than any other band's concerts could even aspire to.