For much of the seventies and eighties, Bruce Springsteen ended his concerts with a medley of R&B hits -- "Devil With a Blue Dress On" and "Good Golly, Miss Molly," among others. Coming after three hours of brooding over the darkness on the edge of town and later the promise and pain of being born in the U.S.A., it was more than a way for rock's consummate showman to exit on an up note: It provided an emotional climax that restated his faith that the music that changed his own life could still provide not only the escape his early songs sought but the sense of connection he later contemplated. But when he released Live 1975-85, the three-disc set that capped the most successful part of his career, the medley was nowhere to be found.
At three hours and up, Springsteen's concerts have always been extended and intense enough to form their own narratives, but neither of his previous live albums has captured them: Live 1975-85 is too unfocused, the single-disc MTV Plugged simply too modest. Recorded during the last two nights of his 1999-2000 tour with the E Street Band, Live in New York City and the accompanying HBO special, which premiered April 7, come closer to conveying the essence of a Springsteen show, at least partly because they retain much of the pacing and humor that made the concerts more than formulaic reunions. Reveling in the pure force of seventies rockers like "Prove It All Night," finding new nuances in acoustic songs like "Atlantic City," and ending with "Land of Hope and Dreams" -- a new song about "the rededication and rebirth of our band" -- Springsteen and his buddies live out onstage the search for "ties that bind" that's always been at the heart of his music.
But though Live in New York City hits all the tour's major themes, it hardly tells the whole story. Near the end of every concert, "If I Should Fall Behind," a love song Springsteen recast as a paean to brotherhood by having his bandmates trade verses, provided an underpinning for Springsteen's conception of his reunion tour as a testament to enduring loyalty. On Live, it lacks the same impact because it's reduced to an "additional track" tacked on out of sequence at the end of the second disc. Then there are the inevitable cuts. At first it's hard to blame Springsteen for editing out the throwaway rocker "Light of Day." But without it, the album lacks Springsteen's arena-rock-preacher act -- a comically exaggerated monologue about "the power! The promise! The majesty! The mystery! The ministry of rock and roll!".
Taken on its own, Live is still the best officially released evidence of the camaraderie that makes the E Street Band so vital, as well as an essential next chapter for an artist who hasn't released a studio album in some time. But there are still ways in which, as for so many of Springsteen's performances, you had to be there.
More than any other nineties band, Pearl Jam shares both Springsteen's conviction that rock can transform one's life and his early tendency to pay tribute to the artists who changed his -- in Pearl Jam's case, the Who and Neil Young. Once the band survived the runaway success of its grunge years and its protracted feud with Ticketmaster, its concerts, too, became less performances than celebrations of the enduring connection between the band and its audience.
Of course, Pearl Jam's approach to presenting those concerts couldn't be more different from Springsteen's. Instead of editing a live album from a tour or even a show, it released each of its full 2000 concerts -- all 72 of them -- as unedited separate albums in The Bootleg Series (Epic). (When Pearl Jam says unedited, it means unedited: Even the cheering while the band prepares for the encores lasts as long as it did live, which adds up to a lot of applause to listen to in the living room.)
The albums obviously aren't for the casual fan -- at around two hours each, they would require six days to listen to in their entirety. But they reveal a warts-and-all spontaneity -- a Vegas shot at "Can't Help Falling in Love," a surprisingly heartfelt version of Buddy Holly's "Everyday" in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas -- that most performers are afraid to commit to record. It's exactly the kind of looseness that would have made Live the concert album Springsteen deserves.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Live in New York City (Columbia)
The Bootleg Series (Epic)