Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band - London Calling: Live In Hyde Park [Blu-Ray review]

* Released in June; also available on DVD
London Calling: Live In Hyde Park was shot at 2009's Hard Rock Calling music festival in London during Bruce Springsteen's Working On A Dream Tour and marks the first time one of his live performances has been officially released in its entirety...for the most part (apparently, a couple of very minor between-song edits were made, but the setlist is otherwise intact). The performance, with The E Street Band, clocks in at a hefty 2 hours and 45 minutes - a marathon for most live acts, but commonplace for the Jersey workhorse. A Springsteen concert doesn't rely on bells and whistles in the form of a stunning light show or fancy staging...in fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find another A-list touring act who gives you less in those departments. No, it's pretty much all about the music, as this latest video document amply demonstrates.
A robust cover of The Clash's "London Calling" opens the show before an exuberant crowd of approximately 50,000, who witness the concert begin in the bright sunlight of early evening, play on through a picturesque sunset, and eventually into the curfew-breaking dark of night. Three tracks from the mid to late 70's follow ("Badlands", "Night", and "She's The One") before the obligatory new material (from 2009's Working On A Dream) gets showcased. "Outlaw Pete" from said album manages to avoid the momentum-killing pitfall that plagues most performances of an artist's newer songs. Despite its epic eight minute running time, Springsteen and band manage to command rapt attention from the audience as they lead them through the song's cinematic peaks and valleys. An always lively "Out In The Street" provides the show's funniest moment, as Springsteen mock collapses following a return to the more-elevated-than-usual stage after a brief trip down to the crowd's level, exclaiming "Are you fuckin' nuts?! Somebody get me a fuckin' elevator...I'm fuckin' 60!". At this point, his long sleeved shirt, which started out dry and a solid colour of gray, is well on its way to becoming a completely black, sweat-soaked mess. Next is the title track to his latest album, marking the only other new song played during the set (which isn't quite representative of the amount of new material played during most shows on the tour). "Seeds" and "Johnny 99" are followed by the dark "Youngstown", which features the best non-Boss moment of the evening from guitarist Nils Lofgren's animated, spectacular soloing. A cover of The Young Rascals' "Good Lovin'" lifts the oppressive (in a good way, though) vibe of the preceding song, giving Springsteen an opportunity to go back down to the crowd and collect signs being held up by audience members with song requests, which is a regular tradition at one of his concerts. Born In The U.S.A.'s "Bobby Jean" and then a cover of Jimmy Cliff's "Trapped" win out, as Springsteen informs his band of what song they're playing next by holding up the request signs for them to read. It's partly this type of spontaneity and walking-the-edge aspect of a Springsteen show that makes it an affair that is rarely boring.
At this point we're merely a little ways past the show's halfway mark. Springsteen is next joined onstage by Brian Fallon, the lead singer of one of his favourite newer bands that he champions frequently, The Gaslight Anthem. Fallon manages to not muck things up too badly before exiting and giving way to The Rising's "Waitin' On A Sunny Day". The song, now a virtual concert staple, falls short of the stature of most of Springsteen's regular live repertoire, but it more than does its job in providing a fun counter-balance to his more serious work, engaging the crowd with a chorus ready-made for audience participation. A one-two punch of Darkness On The Edge Of Town's classics "Promised Land" and "Racing In The Street" are followed by "Radio Nowhere", one of the heavier songs in Springsteen's catalog that has never translated well in the live setting, although the version played here seems to have a little more life to it than usual. A couple more numbers from the 9/11-inspired The Rising find drummer Max Weinberg providing another funny moment during "Lonesome Day" (he loses grip of a drumstick that ends up clunking him on the head) and a powerful performance of that album's title track, which does a masterful job of conveying two emotional elements (melancholy and uplifting inspiration) that are rarely able to occupy the same space within a song. "Born To Run" gets an energetic airing out and if Springsteen is sick of playing his umpteenth version of perhaps his best-known song then there's certainly no evidence of it here. "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)" sustains the energy level before leading into a subdued and reflective rendition of "Hard Times (Come Again No More)", written in 1854 by Steven C. Foster and an extension of the American roots music explored by Springsteen on his 2006 Seeger Sessions project. A lively performance of the celtic rock style "American Land" also follows in that same vein, but not before a stirring "Jungleland" precedes it. Closing the show are a couple more Born In The U.S.A. numbers in "Glory Days" and "Dancing In The Dark".
Shot in HD, I was immediately taken aback when I began playing the Blu-Ray disc and saw that the picture was presented in video, not film (the latter seems more commonplace for these type of releases). The visuals looked crisper and deliver, in my opinion, a much more enjoyable viewing experience. There's one close-up shot of saxophonist Clarence Clemons during "Jungleland" where you can make out virtually every nose hair up his schnoz. Sound-wise, the disc sounded great, at least with the PCM Stereo setting I listened to it on. I have read some reviews that criticized the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix, which supposedly buries certain instruments in the mix. Along those lines, that gripe is one of the few critiques that has been directed at Springsteen's live performances before, that he has too many musicians onstage to the point of overkill. To a limited degree, I must concur. Between himself, Lofgren, and Stevie Van Zandt, the guitar portion of the group is obviously more than covered, yet there's a fourth guitarist in Soozie Tyrell onstage for most of the songs as well. Her backup vocals and violin work do play an important role in the band, however. And then there's also a fifth guitarist in Patti Scialfa, Springsteen's wife. She's actually absent for this performance, having missed portions of the tour to tend to the family's kids. Again, her vocals add a different range, but having five guitarists playing at once is a little much (this reminds me of some of the jibes Scialfa would receive from hardcore Springsteen fans on an online forum I used to frequent, where they'd derisively joke that her guitar wasn't even plugged in). But the big band is just part of the live Bruce experience, which director Chris Hilson does an overall good job in bringing into our homes, with judicious use of aerial crane shots that capture the scope of the event. One gripe, though (speaking from a Springsteen fanboy's perspective): I could have used more shots of original E Street Band members Garry Tallent (bass) and Roy Bittan (piano) and less of unnecessary backup singers Cindy Mizelle and Curtis King Jr.
Not to belabour the platitudes, but to watch Springsteen work is a sad reminder that there are few (if any) younger musical artists that can carry on the torch when it comes to displaying his level of showmanship. Into his 60's, his energy level is something to marvel at, even if his voice has lost a little bit over the years and he has to rely now on a teleprompter. Springsteen proudly asserts that he thinks the band has never sounded better than it did on the last tour. That may be debatable, but if they've lost anything it's certainly not much. One does wonder how much longer Clemons can continue touring, however. He still brings it musically, blowing out some stellar solos, but it's downright painful watching the 68 year-old gingerly move around following years of multiple knee and hip replacements.
The bottom line is London Calling: Live In Hyde Park surpasses 2001's outstanding Live In New York City DVD in terms of being the proverbial "next best thing to being there" for a Bruce Springsteen concert.
Extras: pretty slim, with only two extra videos, but hey, the main program is almost three freaking hours long! One of the videos is a haunting performance of "The River" from Springsteen's Glastonbury Festival appearance from the previous day that was broadcast on the BBC (well worth a look if you can find the whole program online to download...it runs a total of 96 minutes). The other is a video montage set to the music of "Wreckin' Ball", a recent non-album track that was written to commemorate the closing of New Jersey's Giants Stadium.
Rating: ★★★★

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