Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 12, 2005)
Lord, it’s lonely being someone who defends Bruce Springsteen’s brief time without the E Street band. Actually, those two entities remained parted for quite a while. Except for a quick reunion documented in the 1995 program Blood Brothers , Bruce had little to do with the E Streeters as a whole between the end of the 1988 Amnesty International tour and the start of the Reunion tour in 1999. Sure, he played with individual members at times, but did very little with the full group.
Springsteen went on two tours between 1988 and 1999. One of them didn’t require E Street or any other band. Bruce’s 1995/1996 shows were totally solo, so no band accompanied him.
On the other hand, the 1992/1993 tour caused many fans heartache as they saw Springsteen hit the road with a band not named E Street. Only one E Streeter was still in the fold, as Roy Bittan continued to play keyboards. (E Streeter - and wife - Patti Scialfa also performed a little at times, but she wasn’t a consistent member of the group.) Otherwise, Bruce was in new territory here, as a bunch of folks largely unfamiliar to his fans took over the spots held by the E Streeters for so many years.
I may remain in the distinct minority, but I still think this was a good idea. In 1988, one could tell that Bruce needed some sort of change. After all the success and scrutiny of the late Eighties, he clearly needed a break from the tried and true, and the dissolution of the E Street Band was the most distinct cut he could execute.
Whether one likes the players in the 1992/93 band or thinks they’re as good/better/worse than the E Streeters, the fact remains that this period obviously rejuvenated Bruce. Most of the Nineties were relatively quiet for him. He produced three new albums, though two - Lucky Town and Human Touch - came out on the same day in 1992. Otherwise, the subdued Ghost of Tom Joad and the subsequent solo tour were his only real activity until the second half of 1999, when he took E Street back on tour.
If you look at Bruce’s recorded work, it may not look like he’s been too busy in the 21st century. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Sure, he’s only put out one album through the end of 2004, though all signs point to a new record in 2005. Through the first half of the decade, we got no original albums other than 2002’s The Rising.
Nonetheless, Bruce has been more engaged and involved than in a long time. He spent most of the first half of 2000 on the road as he and E Street finished the reunion tour, and then he worked on The Rising. With that finished, Bruce took on a massive tour that kept him on the road from August 2002 through October 2003. 2004 saw a few more dates via the “Vote for Change” tour. We also got DVDs from the Reunion and Rising tours.
Again, on paper, it probably doesn’t look like Bruce has done much more over the last five years than he did during the initial half of the Nineties. The difference comes from the feeling that he’s always out there and working. Bruce seemed like he was absent most of the Nineties, but ever since the Reunion tour started, fans haven’t been able to get away from him. He’s always playing or recording or on the verge of one or the other.
I think that a combination of the solo tour and the 1992/93 trek are what allowed him to regroup and come back so strongly. Even if you hate the music played with the “fake band”, it seems tough to deny that Bruce enjoyed himself and it allowed him to break out of the routine.
Personally, I think the 1992/93 band was just fine. Were they as good as the E Streeters? No, but that doesn’t make them bad. They were more than competent and they worked well for the music Bruce made in the period. Indeed, on subsequent tours, some of the 1992 tracks haven’t flowed very well when played by E Street.
For most fans, the 1992/93 band’s biggest crime is simply that they weren’t E Street. That’s unforgivable in the eyes of many, but I think those folks need to get over themselves. Take the 1992/93 band on their own merit and lose the personal enmity toward them.
To get a good look at both the strengths and the weaknesses of the 1992/93 band, we check out their only official live release, Bruce Springsteen In Concert: MTV Plugged. Shot in the middle of the 1992/93 tour, this performance doesn’t come from a standard show ala the New York City and Barcelona DVDs with E Street. Instead, Bruce agreed to play MTV’s Unplugged series and they filmed a small concert in a studio. However, Bruce changed his mind and decided to make Unplugged an electric affair, much to the theoretical chagrin of the suits at MTV. Three stripped-down songs do appear: the previously-unreleased “Red Headed Woman”, “Growin’ Up” and “Thunder Road”. Otherwise, this is a full-rockin’ concert.
Most of the program’s 16 songs come from then-current material. As mentioned, “Red Headed Woman” was a new number in 1992, and nine of the other tunes came from either Lucky Town or Human Touch: “Better Days”, “Local Hero”, “Man’s Job”, “Human Touch”, “Lucky Town”, “I Wish I Were Blind”, “The Big Muddy”, “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On), and “My Beautiful Reward”.
1973’s Greetings From Asbury Park New Jersey brought us “Growin’ Up”, while “Thunder Road” is from 1975’s Born to Run. We locate the title tune from 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, and 1982’s Nebraska presents “Atlantic City”, though the originally-acoustic tune gets a rocking rendition here. 1984’s Born in the USA tosses up “Glory Days”, and “Light of Day” is a number Bruce contributed to the 1987 movie of the same name; Joan Jett did it there, but it became a staple of Bruce’s 1988, 1992/93 and 1999/2000 tours.
This setlist means that fans who maintain animosity toward Bruce’s 1992 work won’t find much to like here. For those with a more open mind, however, there’s a lot to like on display. It helps that many of the 1992 songs played are very good. I don’t know how any Springsteen fan could slam wonderful numbers like “Better Days”, “I Wish I Were Blind”, “Human Touch”, “Lucky Town” and “Local Hero”. I think these stand up with much of Bruce’s best work, and the versions rendered at this show are consistently strong. Indeed, “Town” and “Blind” are serious show-stoppers.
As for the other then-new tracks, they vary in quality. I’ve never warmed up to the innuendo-laden “Red Headed Woman”, and “Man’s Job” still sounds like a piece of fluff to me. “57 Channels” does better but never quite overcomes its jokiness, and I don’t much care for the rootsy sound of “Big Muddy”. “Beautiful Reward” is a more satisfying song and one that I probably should like a lot; it simply never endeared itself to me as much as I’d like.
When I’ve listened to Plugged over the years, it’s always been for the 1992 songs with two exceptions: “Light of Day” and “Atlantic City”. Plugged marked the first official release of Bruce’s take on the former, so if I wanted to check on the song, I had no other choice. (“Light of Day” subsequently appeared on the Live in NYC package.) “Day” is always fun live, and it works well here.
This take on “Atlantic City” was notable because it departed so much from the Nebraska version. Bruce did that one solo with just an acoustic guitar, while this edition is a full-band performance. Springsteen got a lot of use out of this style for “City” over the years, and it also shows up on NYC. As with “Light of Day”, Plugged was the first time we got a legal release of the rocking “City”, and that made it a highlight.
I’m not wild about ”Darkness” partially due to burnout. Bruce has played it so much over the years that I’ve gotten sick of the tune. It doesn’t help that the Plugged version is a bit turgid. “Glory Days” lacks the tightness of the E Street takes and tends to ramble. Both “Growin’ Up” and “Thunder Road” lose something without a full band behind them, at least in these renditions. As heard on the 1975-85 live album, Bruce did “Road” well as a solo piano track, but that positivity doesn’t carry over to the Plugged take.
As directed by Larry Jordan, Plugged is a fairly well-presented show, though not one that’ll make much of a mark visually. Despite being an MTV production, the concert doesn’t suffer from any annoying quick-cutting or distracting camerawork. It’s a simple presentation that neither adds to nor detracts from the music.
Probably the best thing about Plugged is Bruce himself. He seems awfully loose during the show, an attitude that I think mirrored his tone throughout the 1992-93 tour. When I saw him that year, I’d lost some of the passion behind my interest in my work. Oh, I was still a big fan, but my ardor had cooled since its peak in 1986-1988.
The 1992 shows did a lot to bring back my enthusiasm. Bruce played with a fluidity largely absent from the 1988 concerts - my main live exposure to him at that point - and he also dug in with great intensity when appropriate. The one-two punch of “Souls of the Departed” and “Born in the USA” really impressed, and other parts of the show delivered similar strengths. These were vivid and lively shows that clearly presented Bruce as strongly engaged and involved for the first time in a while.
And that’s what we see in Plugged. Considering that I’ve seen him live 48 times since 1999, obviously I continue to really enjoy his concerts. However, he doesn’t often seem as loose and unguarded as he does in Plugged.
So slam the 1992/93 band if you’d like, and criticize them for the sin of not being E Street. The 1992/93 group wasn’t perfect, but they were just what Bruce needed at the time, and they produced some excellent material as well. Plugged acts as a reminder of that.