Album Reviews: Bruce Springsteen - Springsteen on Broadway, Plus Music from Tom Petty, Big Star, and the Animals

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Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway show, which ran from October 2017 to December 2018 at the Walter Kerr Theater, will stand as one of the most powerful works of art that he has ever created. That’s saying plenty, given that his resume also includes some of the greatest concerts and albums of the entire rock era, not to mention Born to Run, one of the best musician autobiographies ever written.

In fact, that book inspired Springsteen on Broadway, which culls some lines from the text. The autobiography delivers far more detail, of course, but the show has the advantage of telling the story in Springsteen’s own spoken voice and of interspersing it with performances of the music it fostered. 

Seeing Springsteen on Broadway live was obviously the best way to experience it, but if you missed that opportunity, you can still watch the entire performance on Netflix. After you do that, you’ll likely be praying for a Blu-ray release. Meanwhile, you’ll want this new two-CD set, which preserves every song and monologue in the two-and-a-half-hour performance.

The musical numbers include some of the highlights from Springsteen’s catalog, starting with “Growin’ Up” and including such other classics as “Thunder Road,” “Born In the U.S.A.,” “My Hometown,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” and the show-closing “Born to Run.” But this is no greatest-hits concert, nor is it really an attempt to sum up Springsteen’s spectacular career. This is about the life that sparked that career, and it includes only songs that help to tell that story.

That said, the musical performances are consistently excellent. They also tend to be very different from the previously recorded versions, most of which feature rock arrangements and Springsteen’s full band. Except for two numbers where his wife, Patti Scialfa, adds vocals, he is accompanied here only by his own guitar, piano, and harmonica. These solo versions shed new light on virtually every song.

Springsteen’s introductions to the tunes, which account for a bit less than half of the show, are easily as noteworthy as the music. While his concerts are known for their spontaneity, these monologues were scripted and delivered almost word for word every night. It’s a testament to Springsteen’s skill as a performer that he is nevertheless able to make them sound almost off the cuff, as if he is forming his thoughts as he speaks.

Part of the appeal of the monologues stems from the way Springsteen intersperses their many serious and touching moments with frequently self-deprecating humor. "I come from a boardwalk town where everything is tinged with just a bit of fraud,” he announces at the beginning of the show. “So am I. [In] 1972, I wasn’t any race-car driving rebel, I wasn’t any corner street punk…I’ve never seen the inside of a factory and yet it’s all I’ve ever written about. Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something of which he had absolutely no experience. I made it all up.” 

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He also talks about being “Mr. Born to Run.” “My home, New Jersey, it’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap,” he says, sardonically quoting what may be his best-known song. “Listen to the lyrics…I gotta get out, I gotta hit the highway, I’m a road runnin’ man, I got the white-line fever in my veins…I’m gonna run, run, run, and I’m never coming back.” Springsteen pauses, then says, “I currently live 10 minutes from my hometown. But ‘Born to Come Back’? Who would have bought that shit?”

Prepare to be wiping away tears within minutes of laughing at lines like that, such as when Springsteen introduces “Long Time Comin’” by describing the morning his elderly father showed up at his house and said, “You’ve been very good to us,” and then, “And I wasn’t very good to you.” Springsteen says he took that as the apology he’d waited years to hear, and he adds a bit later, “If I had a wish, I wish he could have been here to see this.” 

Speaking of wishes, Springsteen also talks emotionally about his mother before performing “The Wish,” his tribute to her, at the piano. Equally moving—and eloquent—are his eulogies for his teenage friends who died in Vietnam, and for the E Street Band’s late Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons. And he’s never more poignant than in his comments about marriage and introduction of Scialfa, who joins him on stage for “Tougher Than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise.” 

There are also well-stated references in the introduction to “The Ghost of Tom Joad” to a certain unnamed president who wants “to destroy the idea of an America for all.” But family and personal growth are the main focus of this riveting performance, which proves once again that Springsteen is as skilled a storyteller—and as exceptional a human being—as he is a musician. Two and a half hours will fly by as you listen to his reminiscences and songs. And when it’s all over, you’ll look forward to hearing it again. 

BRIEFLY NOTED

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Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, The Best of Everything 1976-2016. If Tom Petty’s six-disc Playback anthology is more than you want or more than your budget can stand, consider this two-CD, 38-track set, which compiles newly remastered versions of “I Won’t Back Down,” “Listen to Her Heart,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “Free Fallin’,” “American Girl,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Southern Accents,” and all of the other solo and band hits of the late, great Tom Petty. Also here are some album standouts, two previously unreleased tracks, and four surprisingly strong performances by his early group, Mudcrutch.

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Big Star, Live on WLIR. Big Star cofounder Alex Chilton sings lead and provides guitar work on this live-in-the-studio 1974 performance for New York’s WLIR-FM. The concert followed the recording of the group’s second album, Radio City, and features a trio consisting of Chilton, drummer Jody Stephens, and bassist John Lightman. (Lightman replaced Andy Hummell, who had departed along with cofounder Chris Bell.) This album, which first appeared on disc back in 1992, probably isn’t the best place to get your first introduction to Big Star, but it’s well worth hearing and sounds a lot better than it used to on this restored and remastered edition. The 15-track program includes a brief interview segment; such Big Star standouts as “September Gurls,” “The Ballad of El Goodo,” and “Back of a Car”; and an excellent cover of Loudon Wainwright III’s “Motel Blues.”

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The Animals, Greatest Hits Live!. “House of the Rising Sun,” the Animals’ 1964 smash hit, reappeared on the U.K. charts in 1972 and 1982, but by 1967, the group had already seen their fortunes decline and had disbanded. They reformed a few times in later years, however, including in 1983, when they performed a New Year’s Eve concert at London’s Wembley Stadium. First issued on LP in 1984, a recording of that show was subsequently remastered and has since been reissued several times with a bonus track (“When I Was Young,” a top 20 U.S. hit from 1966), most recently by a British label called Secret. As the concert demonstrates, the band could still deliver the goods in 1983: vocalist Eric Burdon is in fine form, as are bassist Chas Chandler, keyboardist Alan Price, drummer John Steel, and guitarist Hilton Valentine. Though a few of the group’s biggest hits are missing, the 11-song program covers most of them, including the aforementioned “House of the Rising Sun,” as well as “It’s My Life,” “Don’t Bring Me Down,” “I’m Crying,” “Bring It on Home to Me,” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches…

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