A week ago today, on Dec. 4, Bruce Springsteen released The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, an elaborate box set commemorating the 35th anniversary of the release of The River, Springsteen’s fifth album.
This is Springsteen’s sixth box set or multi-disc set dating back to 1998. He previously released box sets commemorating the anniversaries of Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town; plus Tracks, a collection of outtakes from the first quarter-century of his career; and The Album Collection Vol. 1, which included remastered versions of his first seven studio albums.
The Ties That Bind features four CDs, three DVDs, a replica notebook of song lyrics, and a glossy hard-cover coffee-table photo book. It retails for somewhere north of $100, depending on where you buy it, and is either an essential purchase or a dubious waste of money, depending on how serious a Springsteen collector you are.
At first blush, The Ties That Binds includes an eye-opening array of music from The River recording sessions and the ensuing tour in support of the album. On CD, we have: a.) the remastered album The River, b.) the one-disc album Springsteen turned in to Columbia Records in 1979 only to pull it back at the last moment, and c.) 22 outtakes from The River recording sessions. On DVD we have d.) a documentary about the making of The River, e.) a five-song video from the rehearsals for the tour, and f.) three-quarters of a professionally filmed concert from Nov. 5, 1980, in Tempe, Ariz. If you don’t have any of this, then your decision is simple. The Ties That Bind will blow your mind.
Unfortunately, there is little here that breaks new ground, at least not for the avid Springsteen collector. The remastered album was included in 2014’s The Album Collection. Ten of the 22 outtakes were released 17 years ago on Tracks and do not appear to have been remastered for The Ties That Bind. The one-disc album and most of the other 12 outtakes have been widely circulated as bootlegs, as has the audio from the Tempe concert. The documentary aired on HBO several times the week prior to the release of the box set. The coffee-table book and the replica notebook are nice but entirely superfluous. This collection is about the music, and most of it is recycled.
So what are we to make of all this? The four CDs offer very little by way of encouragement. The previously bootlegged material now has been professionally mixed and mastered and represents a significant sonic upgrade over the bootlegs. That’s a plus. Then there is the documentary, which is very good but hardly as good, as informative or as entertaining as the documentaries that came with the Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town box sets. The rehearsal video is fun but we only get a 20-minute snippet.
What sets The Ties That Bind apart, really the only thing that sets it apart, is the Tempe concert video, which is a revelation. Shot by a four-camera crew with excellent camera location and direction, this remarkable 24-song video document shows Springsteen and the E Street Band at work onstage like no other concert video. Visually and musically this video is nothing short of astonishing.
As previously stated, The River was Springsteen’s fifth album but was the first that came close to capturing his onstage sound. Listen to the album, though, and then watch the video and you realize that no studio album could ever properly capture the magic of Springsteen in concert.
The setlist from Tempe was 35 songs. This video captures 24 of them — with the audio professionally mixed and mastered for the first time — and lasts 2 hours and 38 minutes. It’s not quite the entire concert but it’s more than enough to convey the idea of what Springsteen was like onstage at his peak. And words can only understate just how electrifying his live shows were. You had to be there.
I saw Springsteen live for the first time on Feb. 28, 1981, at the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum, 115 days after Tempe. Like everyone in attendance, I was completely blown away. The Tempe concert is pretty much what the Greensboro show looked, sounded and felt like. The setlist was a little different. Springsteen opened Tempe with “Born To Run,” which was part of the second encore in Greensboro, and there were a few other differences but these are minor details. The meat and potatoes from both shows were the same. Oh yeah, our seats in Greensboro were in the right rear corner of the arena, nowhere near as close as producer Thom Zimny’s camera crew was in Tempe, which makes the video even more of a treat.
The gold standard of Springsteen tours was the Darkness On The Edge Of Town tour in 1978, perhaps the most palpably intense tour in rock history. The River tour may have been a close second. I saw both the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead four times in the 1970s. Mick Jagger had a well-earned reputation for his frenetic stage performances, and the Stones were smoking hot in concert. The Dead were renowned for playing until the wee small hours of the morning. When they got a groove on and moved past all the sloppy noodling, they were mesmerizing. Neither had anything on Springsteen.
The longest Stones concert I ever saw was about 90 minutes. When I saw them in 1972 on the infamous Exile On Main Street tour, the show lasted exactly 70 minutes, six minutes less than Springsteen’s first set on New Year’s Eve 1980 at Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum. At the other end of the spectrum, I twice saw the Dead play shows of more than five hours — including a 1973 concert and jam session with the Allman Brothers in Washington, D.C., that was pushing seven hours when I was forced to leave — but at times they were as immobile as cigar store indians onstage. They could have been sleepwalking.
Springsteen was the best of both worlds. His shows on The River tour lasted close to four hours, occasionally longer, and, as the Tempe video clearly shows, he was every bit as wild and unleashed onstage as Jagger ever was. Springsteen bounced around the stage as if his hair was on fire, climbing on the amplifier stacks and dancing on Roy Bittan’s piano, sliding on his knees across the stage to play a guitar solo at Clarence Clemons’ feet, wading out into the crowd in mid-song and even body-surfing the crowd through the arena. Four hours of this was exhausting just to watch. Mick Jagger likely would have been gasping for air midway though a Bruce Springsteen concert. The Grateful Dead never would have made it that far.
So, does the Tempe video by itself make The Ties That Bind worth buying at a hundred bucks a pop? Probably not but that’s entirely in the eyes and ears of the beholder. Of course, there was a brief window of time when you could have had the Tempe video for pennies on the dollar. You had to be on your toes, but on the morning of Dec. 4, the Tempe video was available for download on the iTunes store for $1.99. That is not a typo, boys and girls. $1.99. Whether that was just a limited offer or a mistake by Apple, that link was taken down within a few hours of going up. There’s no question that was value for the money. Not so sure the same applies to The Ties That Bind.