Bruce Springsteen’s moving and mesmerizing Western Stars, which I reviewed when it came out less than five months ago, enjoyed the success it deserved, though it perhaps wasn’t “#1 on charts in every continent on earth,” as a recent press release claimed. (They have record charts in Antarctica?) Now Springsteen has taken the unusual step of releasing a film in which he performs live versions of all the songs from the album with a band that features his wife, Patti Scialfa, and a 30-piece orchestra that includes violins, violas, cellos, French horns, and trumpets.
I haven’t yet seen all of the film, which he made in a century-old barn at his farm in Colts Neck, New Jersey, but it reportedly includes noteworthy material, including spoken introductions between numbers. That and the performance visuals likely make it a worthwhile supplement to the studio release, but the soundtrack CD adds somewhat less.
Here, the spoken intros have been edited out, with the exception of a brief bit at the beginning of “Chasing Wild Horses” about how “you can’t run away from it all forever and you certainly can’t outrun yourself.” Springsteen performs the songs in the same order on both albums, and the arrangements are essentially unchanged; indeed, the length of many of the live and studio recordings differs by just a few seconds. Often, the only indication that this is a live album is that some tracks begin with a count-off or end with soft applause from the handful of people watching in the barn.
Bruceaholics will note subtle differences. Springsteen’s voice sounds a bit more weathered on some of the live tracks than it did on the studio album, and there’s an occasional instrumental variation, such as at the conclusion of the soundtrack version of “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe,” where accordionist Charlie Giordano receives a bit more time in the spotlight. Also, the live CD ends with a bonus track: a fine cover of “Rhinestone Cowboy,” the 1975 chart-topper from Glen Campbell, whose music clearly influenced Western Stars.
Though I’m enough of a Springsteen fan to want both the studio and live versions of these songs, many listeners will understandably be satisfied to have only one or the other. If that sounds like you, and you haven’t already bought the original album, I’d suggest you pick up the live one, because I find its performances just slightly more engaging, and because it includes the Campbell cover. But you can’t go wrong with either disc, both of which are exceptional from start to finish.
FROM GARAGE ROCK TO DISCO
The song you’re most likely to be familiar with here is Cannibal & the Headhunters’ “Land of 1000 Dances,” a national Top 30 hit in 1965. Radio and original versions of that number are on the program, as is a 1968 cover of it by a group called Skylite. Though arguably influential, much of the rest of the program is so obscure that the text and images on the book’s cover try to draw attention by focusing as much on the famous groups these acts toured with as on the Rampart Records acts themselves.
Inevitably in a box that features about two dozen artists and a label’s complete singles catalog (including A and B sides), this is a multifarious and uneven affair. But there are all sorts of gems and curiosities buried here. A group called the Invincibles, for example, covers Tommy James’s “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” reminding us of James’s songwriting strengths and of how suited to soul this number is. Cannibal & the Headhunters, meanwhile, deliver a surprisingly strong doo-wop performance, “Here Comes Love”; and future star Barry White shows up singing lead with a group called the Atlantics on the vintage “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” not to mention—if you can believe it—an R&B-flavored version of “Home on the Range,” the old western anthem.
That’s when they performed the New York holiday gig that’s preserved on this two-CD set. New Riders’ blend of rock and so-called “cosmic country” was never anywhere near as inventive or well delivered as what issued from outfits like the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, but it was easy on the ears, especially on ballads and mid-tempo numbers like “Rainbow,” “Linda,” and “Portland Woman.”
Those numbers are all here, along with such other group favorites as “Contract,” “Henry,” and the group’s cover of “Hello Mary Lou,” the Rick Nelson hit. There’s nothing in this 22-track collection to write home about but I’m still glad to have these performances, which take me right back to 1972.
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