They simply couldn’t have hit this amazing story any better.
But for anyone who hasn’t yet seen, heard and otherwise fully experienced Bruce Springsteen’s long awaited, just released deluxe The Promise: The Darkness On The Edge Of Town Story boxed set, there are a few bumps along the road to what is otherwise quite possibly the most lovingly crafted and executed repackage of what was already a damn near-perfect record ever.
So, I thought it best we get these out of the way early on.
For many fans, the biggest pull of this set is going be the DVD of the complete performance from the Houston stop on what is now considered the mythical 1978 Darkness tour, and the performance included here does not even remotely disappoint.
For those same fans, the fact that the Houston show has had nowhere near the widely bootlegged exposure of stops in Passaic, NJ (Bruce’s “birthday show”), and at venues like San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom is a definite plus.
Captured on a particularly hot night in Texas, Springsteen and the E Street band are nothing short of electrifying here. The extended piano and guitar intros on “Prove It All Night” — long the stuff of legend, and now finally out there for wider public consumption on an official release — are worth the price of admission alone.
The video footage is likewise better than anything that has been gathering dust in a warehouse God knows where all these decades has any right to be. However, the occasional drop-offs in sound quality — especially for those of us who already have soundboard bootleg recordings of those 1978 Darkness shows — are, admittedly, a little frustrating.
When stacked up against the Houston performance — as well as the extra Darkness tour footage from Phoenix — Bruce and the ESB’s 2009 run-through of the complete Darkness album before an empty house at Asbury Park’s Paramount Theatre also comes up a little flat, at least comparatively speaking.
Don’t get me wrong here.
Even now, there is no band in all of rock and roll that holds a candle to the collective tightness of the E Street Band. They remain a well oiled machine that is simply unmatched in terms of tightness and musical chops.
But without the rapturous crowd and communal sing-along party atmosphere of their present-day arena and stadium shows, they also look a lot like what they actually are — which is a bunch of old guys playing the hits. Again, make no mistake here. I have nothing but respect for these guys, and I would pay the big bucks and book the plane tickets to see Bruce and the E Streeters run through Darkness in a New York heartbeat.
But here, it comes off as kind of anti-climactic — especially after viewing the three-plus hours of a young, hungry vintage ESB hitting on all cylinders in Houston seen here on the Darkness tour. Bruce in particular, seems to really be straining on some of the vocals — although in all fairness, he totally nails “Something In The Night.”
Which is one of the many unexpected surprises of The Promise: The Darkness On The Edge Of Town Story. Most of the other high points occur on the real centerpiece of this set — an undeniably manufactured, but nonetheless amazing sounding “lost album” of Darkness outtakes called The Promise.
But we’ll get to all that soon enough.
What mostly separates this set from similar digital revisions of both historically significant and otherwise classic rock albums though, is the way it so completely tells the story of what actually went down at the time. Coming off of the success of Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen was at a pivotal career crossroads in the three years between the time he was anointed as the savior of rock and roll on the covers of Time and Newsweek and the 1978 release of his followup album, Darkness On The Edge Of Town.
During this time, Bruce didn’t so much carry the world on his shoulder, as he did in a notebook of lyrics and half-scrawled ideas, which is reproduced here in one of this sets nicest touches. Rather than the usual essay from some critic or (dare I say it) would-be “Rockologist,” this is that all-too-rare boxed set annotation that provides a unique look inside the mindset of the actual artist at the time.
Taken together with the DVD documentary film on the making of the Darkness album here, what emerges is a portrait of a future legend with everything on the line at the time in a true make-or-break moment.
Faced with lawsuits that kept him from recording at the time, Springsteen refused to either compromise or, more importantly, to fold. Some of the best moments of this entire boxed set in fact come on the rare glimpses of Springsteen performing covers like the Animals’ “It’s My Life” on the road, while he was in a purgatory state of legal limbo that kept him from recording.
In that respect, this is exactly why The Promise: The Darkness On The Edge Of Town Story is so much more than just another digital remaster of an iconic rock classic. This one tells a story, and a very riveting one at that.
But there are lighter, and more humorous moments on the video portions of this set as well.
Seeing a shirtless 1977-era Springsteen sporting what comes close to a full blown Afro, and rare footage of Steve Van Zandt’s actual hair are absolutely priceless, as is the way Bruce pokes fun at engineer Jimmy Iovine in the lyrics to “Aint’ Good Enough For You.”
Mostly though, Thom Zimmy’s documentary on the making of the Darkness album is a rare look into Springsteen’s legendarily painstaking recording process at the time.
And then of course there is the real meat of this set — the two-disc set of Darkness outtakes, assembled here into a manufactured “lost album” called The Promise.
Many of these tracks will be already familiar to hardcore Bruce fans with healthy bootleg collections, including songs like “Spanish Eyes,” “Outside Looking In” and “The Way” (which shows up here as a hidden, uncredited track on the end of the second disc). And of course, there is also the first appearance on an official release of the full E Street Band version of “The Promise” itself — a track long regarded by Springsteen fans as one of his greatest officially unreleased recordings.
More interesting however, is the way these songs reveal the very possibly different path Springsteen’s career might have taken had they been released on an official recording at the time they were first recorded.
In the Making Of Darkness documentary on this box, Van Zandt (and other E Streeters) repeatedly bemoan the songs that got away. Hearing them here now, it’s hard to disagree.
In addition to songs which became hits for other artists like “Because The Night” (Patti Smith), “Rendezvous” (Greg Kihn Band), “Fire” (Robert Gordon, The Pointer Sisters) and “Talk To Me” (Southside Johnny), a convincing case can also be made that with songs like the lesser known “Save My Love,” “The Brokenhearted” and “Someday (We’ll Be Together),” Springsteen could have easily made his mark as one of the all-time best writers of the great three-minute romantic pop song.
The evidence offered up on The Promise: The Darkness On The Edge Of Town Story makes it hard to disagree. If the “lost album” they are calling The Promise here actually did come out in say, 1977, I’d rank it right next to Born To Run, The River and Darkness itself in my all-time top five Springsteen albums.
For hardcore Bruce fans, the songs on The Promise also offer a rare look into Springsteen’s songwriting process. As the documentary DVD reveals, Springsteen often pieced bits of lyrics floating around in that notebook of his, to eventually form more fully realized songs. Evidence of this on The Promise can be heard in songs like “Come On, Let’s Go Tonight” (“Factory” meets “Out In The Street”) and “Breakaway” (“The Price You Pay”).
Whether you are already a dedicated Springsteen fan, or have just always wondered what the fuss about this guy is all about, here lies your answer. Oh, and by the way, they did a bang-up job on remastering the original Darkness album too.
As these digitally remastered versions of music history go, it simply doesn’t get any better than this.