In Concert / MTV Plugged

Bruce Springsteen

Columbia Records, 1993

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


One of the many oddities I have noted over three decades as a rock and roll fan is that a major artist's harshest critics can typically be located in the very midst of his or her quote-unquote biggest fans. These are the twitchy, occasionally cringe-inducing folks who know everything there is to know about "their" band, from birthdays and shoes sizes to childhood friends and home addresses. Seeking to fill up whatever empty spaces exist in their own lives with the details of someone else's, they can take possession over their idols in a way that is both bizarre and sad.

One of the rallying cries of these hardliners is change. Change is good only in that rare instance where it conforms with their vision of their idol. Any other change is terrible; it violates the bond between the artist and his most devoted fans and violates their image of the thing they worship as immutable, immortal and completely theirs.

If you think I'm exaggerating, you have not hung out with very many Bruce Springsteen fans.

It's actually kind of a miracle this album ever happened. In its own way, it constituted an in-your-face declaration of independence by the man himself from his most ardent, change-averse fans. They were mad enough when Springsteen dismissed the entire E Street Band in 1989 and recorded 1992's dual offerings Human Touch and Lucky Town with session musicians. But to release a live album that dares to feature an almost entirely new band walking in the footsteps of the mighty E Streeters? Blasphemy! A hundred lashes! Stone the infidels!my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

As the world surely knows by now, though, one of the privileges of scoring one of the biggest-selling albums of all time and following it with the highest-grossing tour of the decade is, if you don't blow the bucks on girls and dope, you can pretty much do whatever you want for the rest of your career. If people don't like it, screw 'em.

That's certainly the attitude Bruce took towards the whole "unplugged" concept when MTV invited him to play a set for their acoustic showcase. He keeps to format for exactly one song here -- his deliciously lascivious tribute to wife Patti Scialfa, "Red Headed Woman" -- before laughing, putting down his acoustic and calling in the band.

As for said band, they aren't the E Streeters, but they aren't half bad. Pianist Roy Bittan -- along with Scialfa, the lone holdover from E Street days -- holds things together in his unofficial capacity as musical director, and the group plays with power and enthusiasm, if not always mastery. An early highlight is "Darkness On The Edge Of Town," rendered with all the customary passion and embellished with background vocals from the band's five-woman, two-man chorus. (The star of that chorus being veteran soul man Bobby King, featured on "Man's Job" here as he was on Human Touch.)

As one might expect, in this 1992 performance Springsteen focuses on material from Human Touch and Lucky Town, mixing in just enough older material to keep the diehards happy. To give the man credit where it's due, his choices from the sometimes spotty newer material are right on. "Better Days" is an uplifting place to start -- the background vocal chorus works like a charm -- and "Man's Job," "Human Touch," "Lucky Town" and others all receive faithful treatments.

The pick of the litter here, though, are the live versions of three of the best songs from these too-often overlooked albums: "I Wish I Were Blind," "If I Should Fall Behind," and "Living Proof." Only the second of these three has been played with any frequency since the '92-'93 tour, yet all three are gems that show off Springsteen's gift for imbuing his songs with genuine emotion.

The hardliners, of course, would have none of this, clamoring ceaselessly for the return of the E Street unit they knew and loved. And let's face it, the unit captured on this album, talented as it was, had an impossible job. Icons are not replaceable, least of all icons as deserving of that status as the E Street Band.

In the end, Bruce stuck faithfully with his plan and this band through the '92-'93 tour, and played a lot of strong shows with them. They earned this memento of their time in the sun. But when it came time to record new material for Bruce's 1995 greatest hits collection, a bunch of familiar faces would return to the picture, and the brief era chronicled on this album would officially be over.

Rating: B

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2005 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia Records, and is used for informational purposes only.