Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Springsteen At The Agora Goes Over The Counter

As someone noted some time ago, the Grateful Dead had it right all along. We’re talking about bootlegs here, and the only surprise is that it took other artists so long to figure it out.

Bootleg recordings, especially jazz and classical bootlegs, have been around forever. Rock bootlegs came onto the scene in the late 1960s with Great White Wonder, a now-legendary Bob Dylan bootleg LP, and soon became a booming (if illegal) industry and remained so until the internet made free bootlegs downloads as easy as a couple of keystrokes.

While most artists cried foul and screamed bloody murder at the mere thought of bootleg recordings, the Grateful Dead quickly recognized that bootlegs weren’t going away and instead got ahead of the curve. The Dead not only encouraged their fans to tape their shows, but the group’s sound engineers often aided fans by showing them the optimal locations for microphone placement and the proper settings to get the best possible sound.

The Dead took matters a step further by releasing an avalanche of concert recordings from their own vaults, starting in the early 1990s with One From The Vault and following that with the highly successful Dick’s Picks series. The Dead’s back catalogue now features several lines of great sounding concert recordings.

It took a while, but other artists finally began to follow the Dead’s lead. Bob Dylan’s outstanding bootleg series is now up to 11 essential volumes with the official release of The Basement Tapes, recorded in 1967 with the group that eventually came to be called The Band. Beginning in 2002, the Allman Brothers Band started releasing several of their classic performances from the early 1970s, then began collaborating with Live Nation to make Instant Live recordings of their concerts available to fans shortly after the completion of each show. Neil Young began emptying his archives for commercial release about 10 years ago. There are many others.

Free online bootleg downloads altered the equation a bit, but the fact remains that bootlegs are still bootlegs. Whether purchased surreptitiously at a hip record store or downloaded for free online, lack of proper engineering means sound quality will always be an issue with a bootleg, even with a soundboard concert recording.

That was the thought that prompted Bruce Springsteen to start his own live download site — live.brucespringsteen.net. A vocal opponent of bootlegs in his younger days, Springsteen apparently mellowed his stance over the years, and when a staff member pointed out to him the number of his live shows available on YouTube alone, Springsteen’s very admirable response was, “Well, we can do it better than that.”

And indeed they have. Springsteen began by selling fully mastered downloads of his 2014 world and U.S. tour shows on his own website, brucespringsteen.net. Those links were removed late last summer, but they’re back, now available for purchase on live.brucespringsteen.net. The 2014 tour recordings are, in fact, the backbone of the site’s available downloads, at least for the time being.

In time, we’re told, live.brucespringsteen.net will feature a wealth of classic Springsteen concert recordings, and there is a bountiful body of work to pick from, judging from the multitude of Springsteen bootlegs long in circulation. The first archived show made available was the March 9, 2012, show from the Apollo Theater in New York City, an excellent show broadcast live on satellite radio, but hardly one of Springsteen’s many essential vintage performances.

The second release, however, Aug. 9, 1978, from the Agora Theater in Cleveland, Ohio, is an all-out classic, a legendary performance from what many believe to have been Springsteen’s best and most musically intense tour, the Darkness On The Edge Of Town tour. The show from the Agora was one of five shows from the ’78 tour broadcast live on a regional network of FM radio stations. Not surprisingly, all five have been heavily bootlegged over the years. The others, for the record, were July 7 from the Roxy in Los Angeles; Sept. 19 from the Capitol Theater in Passaic, N.J.; Sept. 30 from the Fox Theater in Atlanta; and Dec. 15 from the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Look for some or all of those to make it to the live site at some point.

The Agora show originated on Cleveland’s WMMS-FM as part of the station’s 10th anniversary celebration and was simulcast all over the Midwest, as far south as St. Louis, as far west as Chicago and as far north as Minneapolis. Unlike the available bootlegs of this show, this official release is the pre-FM master, taken from seven 15-IPS reel-to-reel half-track tapes, transferred and engineered digitally using the same Plangent mastering process used on the recent The Album Collection box set.

The various Agora bootlegs were among the cleanest-sounding Springsteen boots in circulation. The sound was a bit thin, perhaps, and the organ and piano were mixed more prominently in places than the guitars and saxophone, which sounds a little weird, but the overall sound quality was extraordinary for a bootleg. The newly released version retains and even improves the clean sound from the bootlegs. The tapes were corrected for speed variation to eliminate any wow and flutter. The sound has more heft to it, and the stereo separation is much sharper with a wider soundstage. The keyboards still tend to stand out over the strings and reeds, but that’s the way the show was recorded. Not much can be done to fix that.

While the sound quality of this recording is excellent, the performance is nothing short of stunning. Cleveland, a hard-core blue-collar town, jumped on the Springsteen juggernaut early on, and the Boss played there frequently throughout the early and mid-1970s, developing a huge and devoted following. That following turned out en masse for the Agora show, and the chemistry between artist and audience is obvious.

Darkness On The Edge Of Town ranks with Springsteen’s greatest albums, a lyrical masterpiece by a lyric-driven artist. Yet over the years, Springsteen has expressed regret at the way the album turned out, saying that it wasn’t until two years later with The River that he and the E Street Band actually figured out how to navigate their way around the studio and get the same sound on record that they produced onstage. Springsteen insisted that the songs on Darkness turned out much better live on the ’78 tour than they did on the album itself. The band played six of the 10 songs from Darkness at the Agora show, and all six just sizzled with intensity. E Street drummer Max Weinberg said in later years that in his mind, the Agora concert was the best show the E Street Band ever played. That’s saying a mouthful, but there is no disputing that this was an electrifying performance.

Most bootleg download sites will pull the links to performances that are available commercially, thus avoiding legal hassles over mechanical royalties. Just as well, because the version of the Agora show now available on Springsteen’s live site is a considerable improvement over the bootleg versions in circulation.

All live downloads on live.brucespringsteen.net are available as standard mp3 (256 kbps for $9.95) and FLAC ($12.95) digital files, high-quality CDR pressings ($23), and state-of-the-art 24-bit/192 KHz high definition audio (24.95).

It’s also worth noting that all of Springsteen’s commercially released albums are available as digital downloads on live.brucespringsteen.net, including the remastered versions of his first seven albums, which debuted in The Album Collection box set last fall.

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