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Three Times a Boss | Reviewing Springsteen’s New Trio Of Live Albums

New Bruce, old Bruce, arena-rock Bruce, bar-band Bruce; they're all here.


It’s a good month to be a Bruce Springsteen fan. With his typical too-much-is-not-enough approach to performance, The Boss is dropping not one, not two, but three different live albums (and one accompanying concert film) in the weeks leading up to the holidays. With songs and stories drawn from more than four decades of his career, he’s got you covered, no matter which of his many incarnations and variations — new Bruce, vintage Bruce, funny Bruce, serious Bruce, arena-rock Bruce, bar-band Bruce — happens to float your particular boat. Of course, if you’re only interested in getting one new Springsteen live album, and you want to know which way to turn, well, then I’ve got you covered. Here’s a quick rundown on the trio:

Springsteen On Broadway

TRACKS: 30 (16 songs + 14 introductions)
LENGTH: 148 minutes
YEARS COVERED: 1972-2012
THE STORY: Recorded during Bruce’s recent New York theatre residency and released two days before the Netflix video version, Springsteen on Broadway is basically the ultimate unplugged Boss show. And in fact, it actually has a few things in common with his VH1 Storytellers DVD from back in 2005. It features the same blend of intimate acoustic performance and conversational, confessional storytelling, as Springsteen discusses and dissects his life, career, music and motives with the same mix of humour, romance, sentimentality and self-mythology he brings to every arena. Only here, in keeping with the more sophisticated theatrical setting, the spoken-word narrative part fo the show is far more prominent, linear, literary and structured. To Springsteen’s credit, it never comes off as rehearsed or rote; he relates every anecdote, sells every punch line and conveys every emotion as if for the first time. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of emotion to go around. He’ll make you laugh with stories about his early career and admissions that burst the bubble of his image. He’ll make you cry when he talks about his difficult relationship with his father and his love for late bandmate Clarence Clemons. He’ll inspire you with his everyman patriotism and honesty. He’ll entertain you with a slate of classics from Born in the U.S.A. to Born to Run (though really, this show is more about the monologues than the music). But mostly, he’ll make you appreciate the fact that he’s still around, still giving his all — and still one of the most compelling and vital artists of his generation.

The Roxy 1975

LENGTH: 116 minutes
YEARS COVERED: 1972-1975
THE STORY: For the past several years, Springsteen has been sifting through his voluminous live archives, rewarding fans (and thwarting bootleggers) by releasing pristine versions of significant gigs online. So far he’s unearthed more than 30, but this Sunset Strip set from October 1975 is the oldest. And perhaps one of the most historic. It was taped during a four-night club stand — Bruce’s first in Los Angeles — just months after Born to Run came out and weeks before he was on the covers of both Time and Newsweek simultaneously. So it’s one of the last shows he played before he became nationally famous. And judging by this 14-song set, he was ready for it — and anything else that might come his way. Fans already know the piano version of Thunder Road that opens the night; it became the first track on the 1986 box set Live 1975–85. The rest of the show sounds just as fresh and freewheeling, from Steve Van Zandt‘s smoking guitar work on Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out to covers of Sam Cooke‘s Having a Party, The SearchersWhen You Walk In the Room, Chuck Berry‘s Carol and Carole King‘s Goin’ Back — which he first played two days earlier when she was in the room and never played again after these gigs. Fun fact: Robert de Niro supposedly claims Travis Bickle‘s line ‘You talkin’ to me?’ was first uttered by Bruce at one of these shows. You want more history than that, read a text book.

The Live Series | Songs Of The Road

LENGTH: 88 minutes
YEARS COVERED: 1977-2013
THE STORY: Look for some more classic Springsteen — without having to download (and pay) for dozens of hours-long shows? Try this compilation of road-song highlights from Bruce’s live archives — the first vintage offering he’s made available on streaming services. Like the Roxy show, it also starts with a swell (albeit more conventional) version of Thunder Road from Albany in 1977. Then it moves into a high-concept car-and-driver set list featuring oldies like Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, Out in the Street, Racing in the Street, Cadillac Ranch and (of course) Born to Run, along with newer and lesser-known gems like Highway 29, Used Cars and the rollicking rarity Action in the Street, which he only performed on tour in 1977. So basically, it’s pretty much designed to be blasted in the car when you make your next highway run. Just don’t blame me if you get a ticket.