Reviewing The Promise box actually makes as much sense as Reader’s Digest reviewing The Holy Grail. In many ways The Promise defies all earthly attempts to describe, label or criticize. It is the Holy Grail for Springsteen fans. Even after its release, going through the list of contents makes you wonder if it was all just a dream. Did we really get a complete 1978 show on DVD? Was there really a camera present during the fabled Darkness sessions? A double album of Darkness outtakes? No freaking way!
But yes way. It was true. And the world didn’t implode when we first held it in our hands. And after about a month, most fans probably even managed to listen, watch and read their way through it a few times.
The first impression you get when you finally hold the box in your hand is the exquisite packaging. The idea of embedding the six discs in a replica of one of Bruce’s notebooks is truly inspired. The notebook itself is an invaluable look into Bruce’s work methods at the time, and offers a great additional illustration of the grueling Darkness sessions that the documentary is so full of. The printing, too, is superb. I keep wanting to grab those paper sheets and photos that have seemingly been inserted into the notebook with see-through tape, but they remain stuck. Only problem with the packaging is the loose pamphlet of lyrics from the outtakes album. The letters are so tiny you need to be under 40 to read them properly. Good thing you can also find the lyrics on websites such as this one.
The remastered album
At six discs, The Promise box set is the most comprehensive release Bruce has ever put out. First there is of course the original remastered Darkness album. It is almost ironic how the album itself has been overlooked in the excitement over all the other content. But the Darkness album still holds up, and to these ears the remastered version offers a noticeable difference in clarity and punch. I haven’t made a song-by-song comparison and analysis, and not being an audiophile, my perception may be imagined. But I’m pretty sure my old, original CD has had its last spin.
The outtakes album
The fact that Bruce had more than a few spare songs after the Darkness album was completed has been a public secret for years. Most people probably thought the best of them ended up on Tracks more than 10 years ago. Now we know that what ended up on Tracks were merely some of the songs that were actually mixed and finished. The Lost Sessions, as the new double album of outtakes is subtitled, includes an abundance of songs that, for the most part, needed additional work.
Much has already been said about the modern fingerprints that you find on these songs, not least newly recorded vocals. Some fans would have preferred the original recordings - missing lyrics, missing instruments, and recording errors notwithstanding. That may have been historically interesting for about one listen. However, the restored, polished and altogether completed songs that Bruce decided to release, have a whole lot more to offer in terms of listening pleasure for, I bet, 9 out of 10 fans and general music lovers. And unlike the “new” Michael Jackson album, or the horrendous Viva Elvis album, this is Bruce himself, and other original E Street Band members, who did the work. Not some fancy producers with little or no feel for the original music.
Many of the songs on the double album have circulated among fans for decades in rough, bad sounding, unfinished versions. And a good bunch of them - “Racing in the Street”, “Because the Night”, “Rendezvous”, “Talk to Me”, “Fire” and “The Promise” - were previously released in very different versions, or by other artists. Still, there are several gems here that weren’t even rumored to exist. For instance, how could an epic masterpiece - and the perfect companion piece to “The Promise” - like “Breakaway” have remained buried for so long? And the glorious “The Brokenhearted” is a song other artists would have killed for. Not to mention an up-tempo pop song like “Ain’t Good Enough For You” and the bluesy “It’s a Shame”. There are at least a dozen songs here with potential to become classics - and live favorites - not counting the ones that have already been so for years.
The outtakes album may not be as thematically consistent as the mother album (not much is), but to say that it’s just a bunch of songs thrown randomly together would be wrong. A lot of the material focuses on love and, not least, girls who can’t, girls who won’t, and girls who mustn’t.... do the things Bruce wants them to. It takes the final, hidden, track, “The Way”, and the short ditty “Rendezvous”, for him to come up with something resembling happy love songs.
Altogether, the album is a fascinating insight into an alternate universe that could very well have happened, if Bruce had been less sure of the direction he wanted to take with his music, as the documentary so eloquently shows.
I still can’t quite fathom that the documentary exists. If fans had known that hours and hours of video footage was shot during the Darkness sessions, there would have been bomb threats, kidnappings, boycotts, hunger strikes, you name it, to have it released. And here it is, out of the blue, seamlessly utilized in what is possibly the most interesting Springsteen documentary to date. Intertwined with modern interviews with Bruce, band and producers, the old black and white footage is what makes this stand out. You get a clear sense of the atmosphere in which the Darkness album was created. A very young-looking Bruce alternating between obsessiveness and goofiness, surrounded by his “soldiers”, whose faces turn increasingly weary as time goes by and no new album materializes.
One of the things that strikes you, as you watch the documentary, is how incredibly conscious Bruce was of what he wanted to do and who he wanted to be. He had it all planned, and nothing could make him shift his focus. The schism between Bruce writing and recording tons of potential pop hits and yet sticking to his more gloomy artistic vision runs through the documentary as painful evidence that long-term success doesn’t come from taking the easy way out.
The only thing you wonder about is why there are more interview bits with Patti Scialfa, who wasn’t even part of the Darkness album, than with Clarence Clemons? It’s a minor quibble regarding an otherwise extremely well-structured documentary, but both Patti and Nils’ appearances seem slightly out of place. Save them for the Born in the USA reissue in a few years.
What made Bruce decide to spend a December day at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park with the band and a film crew and run through Darkness album live, without an audience, no one really knows. Some have speculated that Bruce never was completely happy with the way the Darkness album sounded and that he wanted a better representation of those songs. Others believe they had planned to include one of the full-album performances from the 2009 tour, but for whatever reason decided that didn’t float. It doesn’t really matter anyway. What we do know now is that it was an amazing idea, because by God, it works. This must be one of the most intense performances ever put to the screen.
Cut to the bone, like the Darkness album itself, we see the 1978 version of The E Street Band (with Charles Giordano replacing Danny of course) lined up on stage in an empty theater, and - with no fuss and no distracting between-song comments - tear through the 10 classic songs with frightening energy and focus. The lighting is dimmed, the colors paled, as is appropriate for these songs, but the picture is still crisp and clear. Same thing with the sound. If you got the blu-ray version and hooked it up to a decent stereo, this could be the best sounding release by Bruce ever.
Particularly, “Prove It All Night” and “Streets of Fire” are taken to new heights here. No disrespect to Nils Lofgren, but in this reviewer’s opinion, his guitar style never truly fit these dark, brooding songs. Bruce’s own angry powerhouse solos just do a better job conveying the emotions expressed in the lyrics. His playing may not be as tuneful as it was on the Darkness Tour, but he still knows how to wring out a solo that leaves you breathless, especially when the sound is so well-defined as is the case here. Who needs Guitar Hero when you can play air guitar to this six-string feedback extravanganza? Wow!
Thrill Hill Vault 1976-78
To fill up the Paramount 2009 disc, Bruce chose to add some assorted clips of studio, rehearsal and live clips from the Darkness period. But this stuff is more than just filler. Here you will find some of the most interesting moments of the whole set. And not just because Bruce is seen playing shirtless in his house and Steve is seen without head gear. The highlight is a haunting early live version of “Something in the Night” with different lyrics and more verses. The released studio version may be better song-writing craft, but the version we get to see here is just epic Bruce at his best.
Then there’s the alternate version of “The Promise” recorded during a studio session. The music is about the same as the released take on the double album, but Bruce’s singing is dramatically different. Some would say it’s horrible and way off the mark, but whereas the released version sounds resigned, this one is so full of pain you can only compare it to the “Sad Eyes” interlude from “Backstreets” circa 1977-78. Or add a few grunge guitars and this would have been Bruce channeling Kurt Cobain (except Kurt wasn’t even a teenager yet).
Finally on this disc, we also get an official release of five songs from a show in Phoenix in 1978 that were professionally filmed and edited. One of them, “Rosalita”, we’ve all seen a million times already on TV and on the Video Anthology, and clips from some of the other songs have been used in various documentaries. But here they are all together, uncut and in the best possible quality.
Houston ‘78 Bootleg
The five songs mentioned above work as the perfect warm-up to what many fans probably regard as the main event of the whole box: a full show on DVD from the legendary Darkness Tour. Just typing that sentence makes my skin tingle.
Ever since my younger days when I and a friend of mine, and fellow Bruce geek, would pull many an all-nighter watching bad, grainy bootleg videos of Bruce live shows till 6 in the morning, fueled by Coca Cola and potato chips, the thought of an official video release of a Darkness show was the ultimate bliss we could imagine. There was nothing in the world we would rather have. Not wealth, not world peace, not a room full of hot, naked women. No, give us a Darkness show on video in perfect quality (DVD’s weren’t invented back then) and our happiness would be forever sealed.
Fast forward to 2010 and the dream has come true. Well, sort of. This is indeed an officially released, complete show from the Darkness Tour (bar a few minutes of “Quarter to Three”), but while it is definitely, by a wide margin, the best complete footage from 1978 we have ever seen, it’s not perfect. If you expected a well-edited, high definition experience with stellar sound, like the Hammersmith ‘75 DVD or Hyde Park, you will be disappointed. The disc is appropriately labeled “Bootleg”, because that’s what it could have been, albeit based on a master tape of the in-house video recording, and cleaned up more professionally, than, say, the famous Largo ‘78 bootleg ever will be. But all the clean-up equipment in the world could not have turned this into a truly professional looking and sounding concert movie.
When that is said, what we get is more than satisfying. It clearly demonstrates that Bruce Springsteen in the years between the Born to Run and Darkness albums had taken a giant leap when it comes to live performance. Fans have called the Darkness Tour the best rock ‘n’ roll tour by anyone ever, and Houston ‘78 certainly doesn’t disprove that statement. We get all the trademark songs and sounds that made the tour so fabled among fans: the 10-minute version of “Prove It All Night” including the majestic piano and guitar intro; the explosive combination of “Candy’s Room” and “Because the Night”; the haunting early version of “Point Blank”; a frantic set of encores.
The only real letdown is that the “Sad Eyes” interlude during “Backstreets” is inexplicably cut short. Not by an error on the original tape, but by Bruce himself, who for some reason loses his momentum and kicks back into “Backstreets” before the usual emotional climax of “Sad Eyes”.
The rest of the show, however, makes up for it in intensity, and by the time the credits roll over the screen, you are left utterly convinced that there’s nothing like a Darkness show. Pound for pound, round for round, The E Street Band may be better musicians today, Bruce may have perfected his stage show, the song catalogue is more vast and varied, but in terms of emotion, focus and pure necessity, nothing will ever beat the Darkness Tour. This DVD is all the proof you need.
To live and die
Part of me is kind of glad the Houston DVD and the rest of the box wasn’t released when I was 25. My friend and I might have choked on our potato chips in sheer elation. At least we would have died happy.... Die happy? Is that what we can do now? The Darkness box was released just a few days before my wife and I left for a two-week vacation to the United States. As always when I plan to get in one of those winged metal tubes that travels 600 miles an hour, 30,000 feet above the ground, I can’t help wondering if I’ll ever make it back. Of course, my rational self knows that air travel is much safer than the train ride taking you to the airport, but still. It felt urgent to me not only to get the box before we left, but also to listen to and watch every little bit of it. Just in case that metal tube came to the very reasonable conclusion that a 100 ton metal tube can’t fly.
As it turned out, it could and it did, and I survived all six flights that my trip entailed, but if one of those planes had gone down, I’d like to think that one of the last thoughts in my head - other than how I would miss my wife, family and friends - would have been one of peace and tranquility. Because as bummed out as my untimely departure would have made me, at least I’d gotten to watch an official release of a complete Darkness show, at least I’d listened to a full-band “The Promise” in perfect quality, at least I’d witnessed how a 60-year-old Bruce can still blow minds with that “Prove It All Night” guitar solo. At least I’d held that wonderful box in my hands. Much worse cards could have been dealt me in life.
King Arthur never found his Holy Grail, but to me and I bet, most of you who didn’t quit reading long ago, watching and listening through these eight hours of transcendent music, it sure feels like we were handed ours in the shape of a trashy looking old spiral notebook.