Within the world of Bruce Springsteen, little ever occurs quickly and/or easily, as least not in regard to his public work. Rumors and innuendo, fits and starts - these mark virtually every stirring of the Boss. A new album, a new tour, the purchase of a bagel - none of these can happen without months of gossip beforehand.
So it occurred with his new DVD release entitled Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: Live In New York City. Of course, endless rumors surrounded the 1999-2000 tour itself, and when it ended on July 1, 2000, the speculation about by-products related to it began. One could compile a book based on the endless possibilities bandied about, though I don’t know why one would want to do so.
In any case, an actual video product related to the tour finally appeared in the spring of 2001 when HBO aired the special that constitutes much of this DVD. Even before it ran, many rumors indicated that a DVD of it would be released before too long, with the initial word saying it would come out in June. That didn’t happen, obviously, and the rumors flew about when and what - and if - we’d finally get. The same show broadcast on HBO with no additions? That program plus some bonus tracks presented separately, ala the album release? A concert that actually provided a normal running order and approximated a full Springsteen show?
Now that the disc is actually here, we know that option two is the one we got. The DVD features performances from Bruce’s final two shows of the tour; these took place on June 29 and July 1 of 2000. (The performance on June 27 was shot as well, but none of those examples were used for the program.) With a couple of notable exceptions, the running order of the HBO version followed a “standard” concert. Oddly, though “Code of Silence” - a new tune that debuted near the end of the tour and only made eight live appearances - led off both nights, it doesn’t appear anywhere here. Instead, “My Love Will Not Let You Down” - the second song on 7/1 - starts the DVD, and from there we go through much of that show’s set list. “American Skin (41 Shots)” and “The Promised Land” popped up between “The River” and “Youngstown”; the latter doesn’t appear at all, while the former is moved to the end of the program for reasons unknown. (More about that later.)
With those exceptions, the DVD follows the 7/1 setlist through the completion of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”. That song normally appeared roughly two-thirds of the way through the concert, including the encores. However, very little crops up after “Freeze-Out” on the DVD. Typically, Bruce used the slot after “Freeze-Out” as a “wild card” area. Some songs showed up more often than others, such as the acoustic version of “Born in the USA”, but quite a few esoteric choices made that section. On 6/29, he did “The Promise” and “Another Thin Line”, while 7/1 got “The E Street Shuffle” and “Lost in the Flood”; the latter literally hadn’t been played with the band in decades.
Thanks to the DVD’s bonus tracks, we get to see these, but they’re gone from the program proper. After “Freeze-Out”, the show cuts immediately to “Born to Run”, which normally closed the first encore. We then go to “Land of Hope and Dreams”, a new tune that ordinarily finished the evening, though Bruce took many liberties with that over the tour; it did finish the 6/29 show, but “Blood Brothers” ended 7/1 and the 15-month-plus-long worldwide trek.
Strangely, the HBO program cuts much of the show’s final act. I attended 14 concerts on the tour, and the alteration of the flow feels quite odd. It’s as if I read two-thirds of a fine book and suddenly found a quick synopsis of the climax and denouement; the program ends rather abruptly.
However, this is the perspective of someone very well acquainted with the concert, so I probably shouldn’t knock the DVD for it. Would I feel the same way if I’d never gone to one of the shows? Probably not, though I still think the jump from “Freeze-Out” to “Born to Run” is sudden. (Not to mention the strange fade-out between “Out in the Street” and “Freeze-Out”. Most of the editing between the two concerts occurs seamlessly, but because “Street” segued into “Freeze-Out”, the change seems jarring. I’d be curious to know why one night’s set couldn’t be used for the program; something nasty must have marred parts of each evening’s performance for them to take such an ugly measure.)
As a whole, the program offers a solid representation of Bruce’s work. It can be tough for someone who has seen a show many times to then see it on video. Overall, I most enjoy concert programs if I never watched the performance live. A look down my favorite concert videos includes Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, Prince’s Sign O the Times, and David Bowie’s Serious Moonlight. I didn’t take in those first two tours, and I only saw Bowie once during that trek; considering that I barely knew any of his work at the time, for all intents and purposes, my true exposure to the concert came via the video. When I see a tape or DVD of a performance I know well, I tend to be less enchanted just because I’m so aware of the different options; I could choose what to focus on during the actual shows, but here the director decided for me.
That said, Live provided a tastefully compiled piece. Many modern concert programs go for the excessively jittery and effects-laden “music video” look, but Live avoids those trappings. A few quick cuts occur during appropriate spots, but for the most part, it remains restrained and mature. The director accurately sensed that Bruce generates enough excitement on his own, and there was no need for silly gimmicks.
As such, the show comes across as a fine representation of the concert. I never found myself arguing with the director’s shot choices, as I thought they seemed appropriate across the board. (Okay, never probably stretches the truth, but I quibbled with far fewer selections than usual.)
I wasn’t able to attend either of the concerts that made up Live, but comments from other die-hards have indicated that they weren’t the best shows of the tour. Part of this sentiment clearly results from the worship at the Holy Altar of the Setlist. Like many others, I followed the ins and outs of the 1999-2000 tour from start to finish, and it was absolutely fascinating to observe how the show changed - or didn’t - over its 134 performances. Bruce stuck with a basic show as represented here, but he indulged in an amazing number of additional tunes. Over 134 shows, he played a whopping 114 different songs. Many of these appeared only once or a handful of times, which made almost every show something unique. Even over the 14 concerts I attended, every night I heard at least one that I’d not taken in during a prior 1999-2000 performance.
Clearly there were a fair number of nights that I might have encountered only already-heard songs, but this remains an astonishing accomplishment, something that almost no other act of Bruce’s stature attempts. Pearl Jam shake up their setlists quite a lot, but no other band I like provides such variety. I’ve seen U2 nine times this year (with three more shows to go). In the eight shows since my first concert in April, they’ve played 13 songs I didn’t hear the first time. On the other hand, after my first 1999-2000 Bruce show in August 1999, he performed 32 numbers I didn’t hear that initial night. (For the record, I got an additional 11 new to me tracks over my final five shows, which meant I heard 67 of the tour’s 114 songs.)
This isn’t meant as a slam on U2; obviously I like them a lot since I’m seeing them 12 times this year. Though they really should spice up their setlists more often, U2 are much closer to the norm, whereas Bruce’s excursions into obscurities was very unusual. It had an odd effect, actually, in that any time we got a show that essentially represented the “standard” set, we felt vaguely cheated. Prior to the tour, if you’d told any of us that every night we’d hear numbers like “Prove It All Night”, “Jungleland”, “Two Hearts”, “Out in the Street” and “Murder Incorporated”, most of us would have collapsed with glee. However, when that becomes “normal”, it seems less exciting, and Bruce’s proclivity for variation made alterations almost routine.
Because it largely represents the common setlist, some folks will likely be disappointed by Live in New York City, but I think any such disdain would be misplaced. It appears to me that Bruce wanted to release a capsule of the tour, which meant the “standard” set. Of course, one could argue that rarities became normal in a way, so the show should have represented that, but that would be a much trickier task.
As it stands, Live in New York City shows Bruce Springsteen in good form. By the end of the tour, he and the E Street Band were a well-established unit, and that cohesion comes through during the program. The concert represents a nice cross-section of the tour’s standard tracks and does so in a clean, satisfying manner. Bruce die-hards will likely never get the be-all and end-all video program that we’d so love, but Live in New York City presents a very entertaining and enjoyable piece.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: Live In New York City appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall, the picture looked terrific, as it provided one of the strongest concert presentations I’ve seen on video.
Sharpness consistently appeared crisp and distinct. Concert videos inevitably encounter a few out of focus shots, and I saw one or two of those, but they were quickly corrected, and the vast majority of the program showed no signs of those concerns. Almost all of the show displayed detailed and well-defined images. On occasion, slight jagged edges gave some aspects of the show a mildly ropy look, but those instances were very infrequent. I discerned no signs of moiré effects or edge enhancement. The videotaped program demonstrated no issues related to artifacts or other interference; it seemed clean and fresh.
Bruce’s show used a pretty subdued palette; he and the others wore mainly black and other very dark tones, so most of the colors came from the lighting. These hues appeared consistently clean and accurate, as I detected no bleeding or noise attached to them. Colors came across as warm and natural, and the lighting never obscured the performers unnecessarily. Black levels seemed nicely deep and rich, while shadow detail was appropriately heavy but never excessively opaque. All in all, I found Live in New York City to offer a simply terrific visual experience.
Also excellent was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Live in New York City. As one expects from a concert presentation, the soundfield remained anchored in the front, where it showed outstanding stereo imaging. Bruce’s vocals appeared firmly set in the center, and the others’ singing showed up in appropriate areas to the sides. Most impressively, the instruments were accurately located and they demonstrated nice breadth and delineation. Despite the massive number of performers, I could distinguish the various instruments with surprising ease, as they were placed in a natural and clear manner. They also blended together smoothly to create a forward soundstage that consistently created a real and involving setting.
As for the surrounds, they largely offered a general sense of ambience. The mix went for a “you are there” tone, which unfortunately seemed slightly boomy at times; the apparent attempt to place us in Madison Square Garden could result in a little excessive echo. Nonetheless, these concerns were minor, and I thought the rear speakers added a solid impression of depth and dimensionality to the presentation.
Audio quality sounded solid across the board. Bruce’s vocals demonstrated a vivid presence that put them strongly out front. He always appeared distinct and accurate, and the clarity of his singing was impressive. The rest of the track also showed fine warmth and a dynamic tone. Because the show included so many players, the package took on a “wall of sound” feeling at times, but the instruments remained crisp and vivid during the concert. Bass response seemed generally deep and rich, and highs were clean and bright. At times I thought the drums could have been a little punchier, but as a whole, I felt very pleased with this mix.
Unlike most DVDs, Live in New York City packs a wealth of extras. Most of these appear in the second disc, but DVD One tosses in a few of them. Most notable is New York City Serenade, a 19-minute and 40-second program in which we find a mix of concert snippets and interviews conducted by Bob Costas. He chats with Bruce and all members of the E Street Band: drummer Max Weinberg, sax player Clarence Clemons, guitarist Nils Lofgren, keyboardist Danny Federici, bassist Garry Tallent, keyboardist Roy Bittan, guitarist Steven Van Zandt, and guitarist Patti Scialfa. Not surprisingly, the comments from Bruce predominate. These remarks are moderately interesting but not terribly informative.
More tantalizing are the concert clips, since many of them show songs that don’t appear anywhere else on the DVD. We find bits of “Adam Raised a Cain”, “The Ties That Bind”, “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, “Back in Your Arms Again”, “The Promised Land”, and the rendition of “Blood Brothers” that closed the tour on July 1. It seemed odd that the title tune didn’t make the cut, but it wasn’t played at any of the three shows filmed; of its five 1999-2000 appearances, it was last played on June 20, 2000, which coincidentally, was my final Bruce show of the tour. Anyway, these clips were a little frustrating, since I’d love to see them full length, but this was still a decent diversion.
In addition, DVD One features a Photo Gallery. This piece gives us two minutes of filmed pictures that are accompanied by excerpts from “Jungleland”. The images mix concert shots and backstage snaps as well. Oddly, a number of them seem awfully blurry, and they make for a modest diversion at best.
On the DVD Two, we discover a wealth of songs left out of the main program. Presented with the same excellent 16X9 enhanced picture and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound witnessed during the HBO show, this disc includes 11 tunes in all for an extra 81 minutes and 20 seconds of music. When both discs are combined, we pretty much approximate a full concert. Actually, that’s not really true, for DVD Two provides some songs that almost never appeared together the same night. For example, “Backstreets” and “Jungleland” rotated in a spot near the end of the show.
A few pieces of esoterica make this area. Most notable is the inclusion of the rarely played “Lost in the Flood”. It made its sole 1999-2000 appearance on 7/1, so it’s a nice addition to the package. “The Promise” showed up at only four shows, though it was played at both 6/29 and 7/1. “Don’t Look Back” - the second song on 6/29 - wasn’t as unusual, but it only appeared at about 12 percent of the concerts, which makes it a minor rarity.
Of the remaining tracks, the acoustic “Born in the USA” received the fewest airings, but it still hit at about 38 percent of the concerts. “Jungleland”, “Backstreets”, “Darkness on the Edge of Town”, and “Ramrod” all made between 40 and 50 percent of the 134 performances, while the final three songs - “Light of Day”, “Thunder Road” and “If I Should Fall Behind” - made each and every concert.
For diehard fans, “The Promise” and “Lost in the Flood” clearly offer the highlights. The latter is especially terrific simply because, well, it’s a terrific version. I’ve never been a big fan of 1973’s Greetings From Asbury Park, the album that spawned “Flood”, but that track always stood out to me as a great one, and I once had a killer live version of it on a bootleg. It’s great to have another excellent rendition of it, and one that provides much stronger audio quality.
Other stand-outs include “If I Should Fall Behind”, a song from 1992’s Lucky Town that never did much for me on the record, but it worked very well during the 1999-2000. “Light of Day” grew a little tiring at times during the tour itself; as with “Freeze-Out”, the song’s extended shtick got old after a while. Nonetheless, the version here is good, and Bruce’s pro-Jersey bit in the middle remains fun. Overall, the addition of these 11 songs makes the package much stronger than it might have been.
For the two-DVD release of Bruce’s Video Anthology that hit shelves earlier this year, this disc’s producers added one extremely generous touch. During the credits on the second platter, we heard Bruce’s “Lift Me Up” presented in its entirety. Since that song only appeared on the soundtrack of John Sayles’ Limbo, its inclusion was a real treat.
Much to my pleasant surprise, they did it again here! As the credits for the bonus songs run, we get a full rendition of “The E Street Shuffle” as performed on July 1. Despite the lack of visuals, I was very pleased to get this great extra.
Did any frequently performed tunes fail to appear on the DVD? Yup, but just a few. “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and “The Promised Land” are the major omissions; the latter made 73 percent of the shows, while the former was heard at 85 percent of the concerts. A few Born in the USA tracks also appeared at many shows but not here; “Bobby Jean”, “Darlington County” and “Working On the Highway” all were played at between 56 and 68 percent of the concerts. The only other song that appeared at least 40 percent of the time but didn’t earn a spot here was “Hungry Heart”.
Which 6/29 or 7/1 songs didn’t make the DVD? Despite appearances both nights, “Code of Silence” and “The Promised Land” remain absent. In addition, from 6/29 we lost “The Ties That Bind”, “My Hometown”, “Another Thin Line”, “This Hard Land” and “Growing Up”. From 7/1, the DVD omitted “E Street Shuffle”, “Further On Up the Road”, “Bobby Jean” and “Blood Brothers”.
While it would have been great to get all of these tracks on the DVD, only the absence of “Blood Brothers” seems odd. I understand its omission from the main program. Bruce clearly wanted the HBO special to present a representative sample of a “standard” concert; except for “American Skin” - which didn’t exist until late in the tour - “My Love Will Not Let You Down” and “Atlantic City”, none of the songs appeared at fewer than half of the shows, and most made almost all of them.
Since the bonus songs seem to represent sop for the big fans - many of whom will purchase DVD players just to get this package - the lack of “Blood Brothers” and some of the other oddities appears more remarkable. Nonetheless, I don’t want to complain, for I feel quite pleased with the set as a whole. As was the case with the Springsteen Video Anthology that hit DVD earlier this year, the Live set proved to be much more generous than it needed to be. Bruce easily could have simply issued the standard HBO program, but instead we found a package that offered more than 80 minutes of additional music.
Overall, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: Live in New York City is a real winner. Rock performers don’t get much better than Bruce, and the material on the disc shows him in fine form as he runs through a mix of hits and well-loved album tracks. Both picture and sound quality are absolutely terrific, and the extras help make this good collection great. For both established fans and those new to the magic of Bruce, Live in New York City is a must-buy; in my opinion, the combination of musical quality and DVD presentation make it the best concert program on the market.