Bruce was leading a leaner, meaner E Street Band in 1978, road trained to the nth degree from playing night after night throughout ’76 and ’77 to keep the wolf from the door while lawyers sorted out the messy business with Mike Appel that prevented him from recording with new manager/producer Jon Landau.
It shows, too. I’ve been listening to this recently released three-disc set, recorded live at the 1,800-seater Agora, for the past few days, driving around with it in the car and on the train on the iPod. Much bootlegged, though not one I ever owned or heard until now, it’s taken from a radio broadcast on WMMS. It was an era when Bruce talked a lot during his shows, stories from his past that might have had little more than a grain of truth in them but no one cared. All the tall tales led into songs and while he spoke, often passionately, the E Street men ticked over behind, every so often hitting the beat to emphasise a punch line, ever ready to pounce at the right moment and leap into songs like ‘Factory’, ‘Growin’ Up’ or covers like ‘Pretty Flamingo’ and ‘Rave On’.
In those days the E Street Band displayed their credentials by playing plenty of immaculate covers, as I noted myself when I saw Bruce a few times in ’74 and ’75 and wrote about this feisty upstart for MM. Although the Darkness songs wouldn’t have been performed at the shows I saw, the chats, the generous acknowledgement of stellar contributions from band members, the covers and – most importantly – the actual sound of the band, unusual for having both organ and piano, reminds me of those shows, three or four in New York, one on a revolving stage out on Long Island and a couple down the East Coast in Norfolk, Va., where ‘Flamingo’ followed a rap about the hottest girl on the block.
The night’s fun at the Agora begins with a rip snorting ‘Summertime Blues’, more Cochran than Who, Clarence taking the vote-hungry congressmen role, which segues via the archetypal ‘1-2-3-4’ into ‘Badlands’, followed by a brief respite and ‘Spirit In The Night’. Despite a 10-minute ‘Prove It All Night’, prefaced by a long, sulky guitar-piano intro, my favourite moment on Disc 1 is ‘Racing In The Street’, as ever a showcase for Roy’s piano which hits just the right note as it echoes Motown in Bruce’s exquisite metaphor for making the most out of life. The riches upon which Bruce could already draw is reflected in the choice of ‘Thunder Road’, introduced by a story about a road trip, and ‘Jungleland’ to close out the first half of the show, a pair of songs most bands would happily use to close out the night.
After Clarence’s showcase ‘Paradise By The C’ and a moody ‘Fire’, the second disc takes off with ‘Sherry Darling’, unrecorded then but clearly intended as the kind of singalong that ‘Hungry Heart’ would become. Bo Diddley is reimagined during ‘Not Fade Away’, a verse or three sung by Steven in what sounds a bit like a London accent, then ‘Gloria’ which segues into ‘She’s The One’. The central section of a 13-minute plus ‘Backstreets’ is given over to the slower, bluesy ‘Drive All Night’, soon to appear on The River, and ‘Rosalita’, almost as long and as lively as ever, includes a snippet of The Village People’s ‘Macho Man’.
Disc 3 opens with a gorgeous ‘Fourth Of July (Sandy)’, Danny on that swaying accordion, then it’s into a lengthy home straight: ‘Born To Run’, taken at one hell of a lick, followed by three encores, the recently written ‘Because The Night’, prefaced with some spacey high-end guitar descents over Roy’s ominous piano, Eddie Floyd’s fun-filled Stax belter ‘Raise Your Hand’ then, finally, ‘Twist And Shout’, opening in ‘La Bamba’ mode before morphing into something like The Beatles’ version via a mid-section drop away and slow build before finishing with one of those shuddering extended climaxes that’s as easy as 1-2-3 for this crew.
Bruce and E Street Band detractors have suggested that, at heart, they’re nothing more than a bar band and this live set won’t alter that view. I don’t care. Some of the best rock’n’roll I’ve heard in my life has been in bars and the E Street Band and their leader, brimful of energy and joi de vivre, are and always have been, quite simply, the best bar band in the world.