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Bruce Springsteen - Springsteen on Broadway Music Album Reviews

Even when Bruce sticks to the script in a playhouse, he can deliver a ranging and intimate performance full of the history and emotion befitting his long career.

Before the Boss hit the boards at the Walter Kerr theater in October of 2017, no one really knew what to expect. While Springsteen has toured solo acoustic before, such as for 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad or 2005’s Devils and Dust, those were still concerts, within the established framework for such. And even though he has a reputation for storytelling even within E Street Band shows, the concept of what he intended—“My show is just me, the guitar, the piano, and the words and music. Some of the show is spoken, some of it is sung. It loosely follows the arc of my life and my work,” as he stated in the press release for the Broadway run—wasn’t clear until opening night.

Springsteen on Broadway meets all the criteria of a traditional Broadway show, or at least one that could have potentially qualified for a Tony award: It’s staged in a theater, its run was of sufficient length, and the show was scripted, e.g., there was a “book” which was the same night after night. The latter might seem like a pejorative, especially in the context of Bruce Springsteen, whose live shows are well-known for their spontaneity and unpredictability.

But a large portion of the impact of Springsteen on Broadway comes from the juxtaposition of the script and Springsteen’s delivery of the material, combined with the quality and depth of the emotion in the musical performances. Intimacy isn’t simply a function of size and proximity; it’s about connection, about vulnerability and the ability to effectively tell a story. For Bruce, it’s both a talent and a learned skill. (Or as he tells us twice in the course of the evening, “That’s how good I am.”) All of that comes through like an electrical charge if you were fortunate enough to witness Springsteen on Broadway live, but it also transmits in a similarly visceral way on record.

The setlist of the Broadway production changed very little over the course of the stand. Some of the songs, like “Thunder Road,” or “The Promised Land,” are delivered uninterrupted, others are used as active vehicles to support the story, like “Growin’ Up” or “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” “Born in the USA” is preceded by a story that artfully takes you from the song’s genesis to an elegy for Springsteen’s friends who were killed in action in Vietnam; unsurprisingly, the performance that follows is angry, bitter, and every bit as powerful as a full band version would be.

As she has through the run of the show, Patti Scialfa joins her husband for “Tougher Than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise,” but the impact of her appearance is slightly muted on the audio artifact as her contribution is limited to acoustic guitar and vocals; the glow the two emit when side by side, and Bruce’s smile as she walks onstage, isn’t something that comes through as well on album.

On a similar note is how Springsteen interacts with the physical space of the theater. He moves between center stage and a standing microphone, or the piano, with a similarly stationary microphone. But the size of the theater and its acoustics are such that, combined with the physics of projection, allow Springsteen to step away from the microphone and still be completely audible, though lower in volume and not directly amplified. This is something that’s not going to be immediately obvious to the listener who hasn’t seen the show and takes a bit of getting used to on this recording, as it initially comes across as a glitch in the recording, rather than a deliberate device.

The recording is slightly longer than the Broadway show with the inclusion of “Long Time Comin’” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” which were originally substituted for the husband-and-wife duet towards the end of 2017 when Patti was under the weather and couldn’t appear. The former is responsible for a deeply emotive passage about Bruce’s father, where he is audibly moved to tears for what feels like forever, but is only a minute or two. Understandably, Springsteen is also somewhat misty earlier in the set, when speaking movingly about his friendship with the late Clarence Clemons; “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” is, as it has been since the Big Man’s passing, here both elegy and celebration.

When you view the tracklist for Springsteen on Broadway and evaluate it from the perspective of one night’s performance, it’s an impressive list of songs. But when you look at it as representative of a body of work spanning four decades—which this production decidedly cannot escape representing—it is a more than suitable tribute to what Springsteen himself refers to as both his service and his “long and noisy prayer.” Amen to that. Music Album Reviews

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