On “Frankie” and When Live Performances Can’t Beat the Studio Version

More than “Jungleland,” the thing that really caught my eye in the Gothenburg show (and pre-show soundcheck) was that Bruce was giving another try to “Frankie.”

He’s had a complicated history with the song ever since it debuted on the final leg of the Born to Run tour in 1976. It was recorded during the Darkness sessions but went unused, having much more in common with the lost fourth album than the released version of Darkness. Rerecorded in its definitive form during the Born in the USA sessions, it remained in the vault until the release of “Tracks,” although being considered (losing out to “Murder Incorporated”) as an option for the “Greatest Hits” album.

These series of events (the song being considered for three different albums) certainly suggests an affinity towards the song from Bruce, but sadly, its live performance history has been somewhat checkered.

It was tried live for the first time in years during the Reunion tour in New Jersey: it was night 13 (August 9, 1999) of the 15-night stand, played in the wildcard spot in the setlist in the show, after “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” Things started out promisingly but by the time the band reached the bridge, the playing was a bit heavy handed, and descended into trainwreck territory by the time they reached the instrumental coda. Reports from the show indicated that the crowd, save the hardcore fans, were lost to the significance of the song’s reappearance in the set. Audio can be heard here: (link to YouTube).

After exactly one performance on the Reunion tour, “Frankie” returned for exactly one performance on the Rising tour. Its second appearance, on September 7, 2003 at Fenway Park went a bit better, helped in part by several soundcheck performances. Things still weren’t quite right, however, as the band notably flubbed the opening, with Bruce and Danny not playing in sync with each other for the introductory organ/guitar line. Bruce’s vocal delivery wasn’t the greatest here, and I think Bruce oversang it. The instrumental coda flowed pretty well but Clarence’s solo wasn’t his finest moment. Bringing the song back to the introductory riff gave it a clean ending but also truncated the best part of the song.

Bruce tried the song on piano a few times during the Devils and Dust tour, and in its solo-piano debut in Milwaukee on August 7, 2005, Bruce provided probably his best vocal and harmonica performance of the song. His piano skills were sufficient only to get through the verses, though, and he ended things quickly, rather than including the instrumental portion at the end. Bruce even commented that “I can’t guarantee I get through it without any mistakes, so any mistakes are intentional.” A subsequent performance, captured on video (link) from the Meadowlands on November 17, 2005 shows him rushing through the performance, and singing it in what I’d call a lackadaisical manner. Whether disinterest or self-consciousness of his piano skills, this performance could charitably be described as “not very fulfilling.”

Almost seven years later, “Frankie” reappeared on Saturday night in Gothenburg. Video can be seen here: (link). It was soundchecked again before the show, and this time Bruce tried a rearrangement, adding a violin part for Soozie at the beginning of the song. The mid-song story telling was distracting in my opinion, but save that, there’s no denying that from the beginning to the end, this was the best performance in totality.

Unfortunately, neither Gothenburg nor any of the other performances can compare to the studio version. The last two minutes of that song, with the interplay between the piano, guitar, drums and saxophone is, according to a description I once read, “the E Street Band playing like an orchestra.” The precision of the solo has never been effectively replicated live (even when Bruce tried omitting the sax part altogether, as he did in Gothenburg, replacing it with a guitar part). Perhaps it’s just not meant to be. This doesn’t mean I don’t want Bruce to keep trying though.

For me, “Frankie” is the clear #1 on the list of songs that have never been able to be performed live better than they were in their studio incarnation. The balance of the list:

#5: Jackson Cage
I never understood why he dropped the harmonica part from the bridge.

#4: Magic
In fairness, Bruce never tried to perform a version in the album arrangement, with the organ line and percussion that added the mystical effect to the song. There was definitely power in the acoustic duet between Bruce and Patti but that was something he’d tried the two tours previous (“Mansion on the Hill,” “Empty Sky”) and seemed like taking the easy way out in 2007. With a little more rehearsal, the album arrangement could’ve worked live.

#3: Worlds Apart
On the studio cut, the drum machine kept the tempo moving. Live performances of the song were great in their own way but the piped-in vocals were troublesome and the various different parts played by the band didn’t coalesce as well as they should have.

#2: Pink Cadillac
A casualty of the size of the band, unfortunately. The dirty groove captured when just Bruce, Garry and Max were playing is lost with all of the extra players.

Dublin, RDS, July 17, 2012

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Report from the show can be found at Backstreets.

For the first show of a two-night stand, this was a very strong show. Yes, the shenanigans with the power switch were hilarious but there was still a very good show between them.

Adding “Rosalita” to the encores (via sign) was a great choice and felt very fresh. Bruce has the encore structure down quite well at this point but had seemed stuck in a rut in that he was only able to play certain songs from Born in the USA in there (“Bobby Jean, “Glory Days,” and “Dancing in the Dark.”) Playing the hits makes perfect sense but there are other things that could go in there — “I’m Goin’ Down” remains a very popular sign request; material from The River (“Hungry Heart,” “Cadillac Ranch”) would work as well. A little rotation goes a long way.

“Easy Money” was back with Patti on stage but it unfortunately took the place of “Shackled and Drawn,” which, given its regular appearances during Patti’s absences, has developed into one of the strongest new songs and while “Easy Money” is welcome in the set, it shouldn’t be at the expense of “Shackled.” Patti did come out to the center extension to sing the second verse, but she and Bruce didn’t do their walk to the opposite ends of the stage. When coming back up, Patti tripped twice, leading Bruce to joke about telling her “not to wear those high heels!”

It seems as if sign collection is going to happen each night after “Spirit.” I’m not really in favor of repeating what was done on past tours but without doing something, the signs are going to be a big distraction. Personally, I still wish he would just tell people to put them away. On the positive end, “I’m a Rocker” was quite good fun.

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London, Hyde Park, July 14, 2012

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Review of the show is on Backstreets.

Some additional thoughts:

It seemed at times as if Bruce was simply trying to recreate what he intended to do in Vienna and this time succeeding, getting the audience reactions he expected and his performance being enhanced as a result.  He still granted a sign request for a River outtake, but didn’t become overly distracted or lose his focus with the signs.  He played “Johnny 99″ as intended, and then still moved on to “Darlington County.”  Things that worked, such as “Raise Your Hand,” returned.  “Empty Sky” may still have been out of place but this time he knew where he was going with the song.

“Take ‘Em As they Come” was fantastic, certainly in large part to it being recently rehearsed in Zurich.  Nine years is far too long for this to have gone missing.   Note to Bruce (or Stevie): next up from Tracks disc 2: it’s time to bring “I Wanna Be With You” back into the set as well.

It’s been quite fun watching Garry on stage during the Eurropean leg of the tour, whether it’s him showing a little personality as he holds down stage left with Roy, or him joining in with Steve on backing vocals for “Spirit.”  Tonight, though, there was a huge grin on his face when McCartney was there.

I had heard bad things about Hyde Park following the 2009 show but having experienced it for myself I can only agree.  The mud situation was pretty horrible, woodchips notwithstanding.  Yes, the situation was terrible once the field had been torn up at the prior shows but that still doesn’t explain why some sort of turf protection (ie. the ubiquitous “terraplas”) weren’t used in the first placee.  Hopefully between the pulling of the plug and the terrible conditions will result in Springsteen’s management booking proper shows in London in the future.

The pulling of the plug on the band (literally) was quite remarkable given that Bruce came on promptly, without any delay on his part.  Despite simply having a large band with tons of equipment, the crew worked extremely quickly to have things set up after Fogerty finished.  Unfortunately, problems with the teleprompters had the crew scrambling and the show couldn’t start until everything was up and running.  I suppose there is something amusing that this was the show where Bruce actually got moving on time but the plug got pulled anyway.

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Prague, Synot Tip Arena, July 11, 2012

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My report from the show is available at Backstreets.

Some additional thoughts:

Yes, one could probably guess from the title of the site but I am a big fan of “This Hard Land,” but personal preferences aside, it’s a powerful song and a treat to get seemingly out of the blue.  Yes, there was a sign eventually passed up but it’s clear that after seeing the “Blowin’ in the Wind” sign Bruce had decided to play “This Hard Land,” and it was a great choice.

Nights like this only emphasize what a shame it is that Bruce’s handwritten setlists are no longer available.  I wonder if “Take ‘Em As They Come” made the setlist tonight after being soundchecked in Europe.  There was a small miscommunication between Bruce and Steve before “We Take Care of Our Own” and given the common word in the titles, it could well be that the song was under consideration for tonight’s show and it wasn’t clear when Bruce called out for a song after “Prove It.”  Here’s hoping “Take ‘Em” finally shows up soon (it was missing on both the Magic and Working on a Dream tours).

Full disclosure: it’s one of the few songs I am still “chasing”) and it is the opinion of this author that perhaps the only thing that was in any way wrong with the spectacular November 8, 2009 show was that it opened with “Wrecking Ball” instead of the far more appropriate “Take ‘Em as They Come.”

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Paris, Bercy, Night 2, July 5, 2012

The Backstreets report (to which I contributed) can be found here.

The beginning of the set was as if it was straight out of the reunion tour.  (Note to Bruce: I’ll also happily welcome parts of the show that feel as if they’re from the Tunnel, Magic or Promise tours).  Just an amazing surprise.  Yes, we expect night two to be different but this was just something else.  It’s as if Bruce realized how “on” the band was and wanted to keep pulling more and more different things out as a result.

By the time “Downbound Train” came out (the fourth song in) people were really wondering – what exactly has gotten into him?  Is he skipping the new songs?  Completely reworking the show?  The anything-goes element is a huge bonus to the fans who attend multiple shows on the tour.  Thanks Bruce.

It seems strange to have a single complaint after a show of this caliber but I do have one significant bone to pick with respect to the starting time of the show.  The ticket says 8:00 PM.  No one would be concerned if the show started at 8:10 or 8:15 or even 8:30.  But when Bruce doesn’t show his face on stage until almost 9:00 PM, it’s become a bit disrespectful to the audience.  At the risk of being the old man yelling at a cloud, the Paris metro doesn’t run all night, the show was on a Thursday (not a weekend), and people should be able to enjoy this sort of show without also having to worry about how they’ll get home (rant ends here).

I’ve had my concerns and apprehensions regarding Jake Clemons’ role in the E Street Band throughout this tour, so it is only fair to point out that he did a fantastic job tonight.  The new take on “Spirit” (see the Backstreets review) was refreshing, as was his excellent playing.  Tonight was perhaps the first time all tour that I felt he was truly filling the job of lead saxophone player in the E Street Band.*

*No disrespect is intended to either party but it bears noting that this is not – and, by definition can NOT be – the same thing as “filling the job of Clarence Clemons.”

Paris, Bercy, Night 1, July 4, 2012

My report from the show can be found at Backstreets.

A few additional thoughts:

Bruce had dropped “The Promised Land” from several of the shows on this leg of the tour already, to what I presume was good effect (having only read reports thereof rather than seeing the shows personally). And in fairness, I had written previously about the need to just drop one out of the several “tired” songs in the set, and how that itself would be a meaningful improvement.

Yet tonight’s show could not have more clearly illustrated that it is “Waiting on a Sunny Day” that needs to go most of all, even if “The Promised Land” stayed. Another child was pulled onstage, who not only didn’t know the tune of the song, but also didn’t know the words. This was not a crowd that needed to be thrown a bone of a singalong; the crowd was happy to sing along to everything from a hit to a deep album cut. It was perfectly obvious that the song was not needed in the set. Let’s hope Bruce noticed too.

Bruce has, from time to time, passed out water or his blue gatorade to overheated fans in the front, and I recall Stevie regularly throwing bottles of water out during a song at the end of the show. But I’ve never seen so much as what happened tonight. Eventually, after Stevie and Patti each emptied their supplies of water, Gil started passing out multiple cases of 1.5 liter bottles to the pit to make sure that not just the fans in the front were taken care of. I was impressed by their genuine concern.

The inclusion of “American Land” in the set was understandable but perhaps not the best choice. It could have been attributable to the heat, but there was no noticeable reaction or excitement from the crowd generally to the song, at least compared to anything else Bruce had played in the encore that night. Sure, the crowd enjoyed it, but would a well-chosen cover have gone over better? Probably. “Rockin’ All Over the World” would have been a good fit.

Night 2 Preview and Predictions:

Paris is one of only five two-night stands on the European leg (Barcelona, plus Dublin, Bergen and Gothenburg upcoming). Some of the “second night” setlist choices are likely: “No Surrender,” “Thunder Road,” “Night,” and “Prove It All Night” all seem likely. Perhaps “Shackled and Drawn” will take the place of “Easy Money.”

With Patti back on stage, the possibility for Tunnel of Love material in the set is intriguing. Perhaps “Human Touch” could make a reappearance as well.

The big hope here is that the band takes the opportunity to work up something new in soundcheck that hasn’t been played yet this tour. If they ask me, I’d suggest “Ain’t Good Enough For You” and/or “Gotta Get That Feeling.” The dearth of songs from The Promise on this tour has been frustrating, but it’s not too late to fix that!