Like many others, I'm sure, my main Christmas present this year was "The Promise," the deluxe Bruce Springsteen "Darkness on the Edge of Town" box set. It's not for the casual fan, and can hardly be absorbed in one sitting. In total, you've got:
- The remastered version of the original album, "Darkness on the Edge of Town."
- A 2-CD set, "The Promise," which includes songs recorded for "Darkness" that did not make the final cut on the album.
- A documentary on the making of the album.
- A DVD that includes the band playing "Darkness" from start to finish, in an empty auditorium, in December 2009; random footage of the band recording some of the "Darkness" outtakes, and several songs from the 1978 Phoenix concert.
- A DVD of an entire concert (Houston) from the 1978 tour.
The packaging is impressive and frustrating at the same time. It's a spiral notebook, with notes that Bruce made during the period that he was contemplating and then recording "Darkness." There are handwritten lyrics, there are typed lyrics, and there are pages of Bruce trying to come up with the perfect song sequence for the album. A lot of it is interesting, but without much in the way of context, it's a bit like a photo album with a bunch of pictures in it that aren't in chronological order.
But for the hardcore Bruce fan, the entire package is a delight. I feel like I haven't even scratched the surface of it yet, but a few first thoughts:
* What is striking about many of the songs on "The Promise" is that they sound as if they would have fit perfectly on Bruce's last album, "Working on a Dream." That was hardly the most-loved album of his career, but what the old songs demonstrate is that there has always been a side of Bruce - even as he was making what may have been the toughest and bleakest album of his career - that wanted to do nothing but record pop songs.
* It pains me to say it because I didn't see him until 1980, but when you listen to the 1978 concert video, it's easy to see why long-time aficionados consider this to be the greatest tour of his long career. Having said that, there is something to the minority view that at this point of their career, the band was almost too manic. Bruce is so energetic, a veritable whirling dervish, that there are moments that it almost seems like parody. But then you come back to the music, remarkable music, and you remember that these were young men, playing to a young audience, and having the time of their lives. And you can only wish that you'd been there.
* Although I've written about it before, I have to say something about the version of "Prove It All Night" that the band played on the 1978 tour. On that tour, they played a version of the song that was never heard again - one with a lengthy, almost 6 minute intro, that stretched the song to almost 12 minutes. The intro would begin with just Roy on piano, and then Bruce would join in, usually with a verbal interjection at some point, and then the rest of the band, increasing the tempo and the tension until you can almost feel the song explode on itself. But what is most amazing about the '78 version is this - I've now heard five versions from that tour: The Roxy, Phoenix (on the box set), Passaic, Houston (also on the box set), and Winterland, and they are all different - Roy's piano varies, as does Bruce's solo. Even though I never saw it in person, I'm convinced that this was the band's single finest moment live.
* So far, my favorite part of the set is the 2009 concert played to no one. The band is no longer young, and the songs are no longer young. Everyone is dressed in basic black, and there's no playing to the audience, because there is no audience. Bruce and the band - and with the exception of Charlie Giordano for the late Danny Federici, this is the 1978 band (no Nils, no Patti, no Soozi) - are playing for themselves, and the results are wonderful. There is less movement, and sure, Bruce can't hit all of the same notes now as he could back then - but it hardly matters. What the show proves is that you don't have to be young to rock out, and that the band today is just as vital as it was more than 30 years ago.
All in all, pretty damn good stuff.