Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’s 1999 – 2000 arena tour was as much traveling tent revival as reunion tour. And if you caught one of the dates, chances are that comparison occurred to you even before Springsteen drove it home with his nightly impersonation of a preacher during ”Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” cheerfully bellowing about the soul saving power of rock. Billy Sunday himself would be hard pressed to invoke buzzwords like ”faith” and ”believe” as much as they turn up in an evening’s worth of Springsteen lyrics. Houselights came up at full blast for minutes at a time, bathing the congregation in divine light and defying the conventional wisdom that rock is best enjoyed in the dark. And the tour’s usual closing number, ”Land of Hope and Dreams,” a ”People Get Ready” style new tune, was pure secular gospel. About the time Springsteen got around to giving a heavenly shout out to ”whores and gamblers” along with the rest of us tramps, you might’ve been thinking that if church felt half this honestly redemptive, you’d be paying through the schnozz for a nosebleed seat there, too.
Like a lot of religious experiences, this one isn’t easily recaptured. But in lieu of a return to the mountaintop, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band: Live in New York City, a two CD document of the tour’s closing nights, will do. Considering that Springsteen is revered as the greatest stage performer rock has ever known, it’s surprising that it took him three tries at a concert album to get it right. The ”Live/1975-85” boxed set was too sprawling and too tied in to the ”Born in the U.S.A.” phenomenon — not aficionados’ favorite period. Then came the single disc ”In Concert/MTV Plugged,” which, with E Street ringers focusing on Bruce’s ”solo” material? well, we won’t go there. But fans will likely find ”Live in New York City”’s porridge not too epic and not too stingy, the balance of newer material, obvious classics, and obscure trifles just right. With half the 20 tracks dating back to ’79 or before, this could’ve ended up seeming like the ”River” tour souvenir that never was. But there’s surprisingly little sense of nostalgia tripping, and that’s a miracle in itself.
Unofficially, this is the soundtrack to an HBO broadcast airing this month, and a few of the album’s more drawn out numbers work better with visual cues; on the other hand, the audio-only experience spares you the gallons of on-screen sweat, which may fool you into thinking HBO is rerunning ”Waterworld.” The cable version leaves out the album’s last six numbers, which are partitioned off into an ”additional performances” annex at the end of disc 2. (An unlisted last minute addition, ”Born to Run,” had to be awkwardly grafted onto the end of disc 1.) This segregation between the main set and bonus tracks can get confusing, but considering how thoughtfully Springsteen sequenced the 13 song core, you can appreciate his attempts to maintain its integrity. The principal baker’s dozen moves from tender promises and sanguine proof through the night (”My Love Will Not Let You Down”) to a mid-concert swath of social realism and despair (”Youngstown”) before, of course, segueing back to urban ecstasy. With Springsteen’s old E Street homies on board, the balance is bound to tilt more toward his Chuck Berry side than the ghost of John Steinbeck.
But both the up Bruce and the down Bruce get equal time in a pair of previously unrecorded benedictions. ”Land of Hope and Dreams” is Springsteen at his most movingly idealistic, with a gospel train replacing the old, youthful promise of escape on a motorbike. But there’s no pie in the sky in ”American Skin (41 Shots),” his uncompromising elegy for police shooting victim Amadou Diallo. Even those ”additional” tracks that follow on the CD have been mindfully programmed: After the minute-long pause that succeeds the grim ”Shots,” leading off the bonuses is ”Lost in the Flood,” which, 28 years ago, marked the first time Springsteen wrote about a cop gunning somebody down.
Accidental homicides are the exception here, even if mortality does inform this whole midlife affair. Springsteen’s aim is nothing less than to remind us of our lost capacity for joy, and for two and a half hours you may find that you require less nudging than you’d figured. It’s not just the hokey idea of faith in the restorative powers of rock that he’s peddling. In the closing bonus track, ”If I Should Fall Behind,” which features almost the entire E Street Band trading lead vocals, he’s preaching the idea of basic companionship as a heroic virtue. You want elevation? The buoyant Live in New York City may convince you that heaven is a place where — sorry, Bono — at least one street does have a name.