I sometimes feel that Bruce Springsteen is a victim of his own popularity as well as his perceived New York/New Jersey-ness, often dismissed these days as more of an institution than great artist, a touring extravaganza for nostalgic old East Coasters. But the length and breadth of his musical accomplishments places him firmly in the realm of the greats of Rock, somewhat so obviously that, like a certain type of Hall of Fame athlete, you take him for granted until you start revisiting his oeuvre. I consider him part of the Big 3 of 1970s power pop singer-songwriters along with Tom Petty and Bob Seger, all artists of great integrity and short story-like lyrical brilliance who also share the same talent of being able to surround themselves with phenomenal backing bands.
On 1973’s The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, recorded two years before the breakthrough smash Born To Run, you can hear the young Springsteen growing by leaps and bounds and handily shedding the “New Dylan” moniker/trap that weighed heavily on so many talented artists in the 70s. The album contains the all-time concert fav “Rosalita” among several other standouts. But it’s the semi-title track, “The E Street Shuffle,” that gives a glimpse of the future for The Boss in terms of lyrical dexterity in painting a vibrant, multi-character milieu with a now-effortless rush of impressionistic words in contrast to the somewhat self-conscious overwriting of his debut Greetings From Asbury Park. Just as importantly, the track is the fullest realization yet of what would become the E Street Band’s trademark ultra-propulsive interplay between rhythm, melody and a big band sound that would lead to so many smash hits in the very near future.
The fully integrated sound that would lead Born To Run to such great musical heights is in full swing on “E Street Shuffle” with dazzling percussion, horns led by the dearly missed Clarence Clemmons’ big barroom sax and oddball instruments like a very wet and bouncy electric piano, as well as sizzling switches between Springsteen’s funk-inflected rhythm guitar and his incisive leads (the great Steve Van Zandt had not yet joined the band). Starting with a brief New Orleanian horn tune up, the song winds up being four and half minutes of unbridled joy and ecstatic catharsis, a tune about a party in the streets that sounds like a party in the studio. That there is a false ending and the last 50 seconds or so goes out with a nearly Isley Brothers-ish, oh-so-early-70s waketcha-waketcha boogie down guitar and horns orgasm makes this kick-ass track all the better.
“The E Street Shuffle” shows Springsteen and the E Street Band very near the peak of their rapidly developing powers as crafters of great American narrative Rock ‘n Roll. The characters spring to life with muscular, impressionistic lyrics, a Springsteen hallmark that would only become magnified with time. And the genuine ebullience and optimism of “E Street Shuffle” would be carried over and amplified on Born To Run but then begin to quickly fade into something much more pessimistic about the broken promises of the American dream with the edgier Darkness On The Edge Of Town, the very sad, downtrodden The River, the misunderstood, highly disillusioned Born In The USA and then the utter despair of Nebraska. Revisiting “The E Street Shuffle” it’s nice to hear a young Bruce and his compatriots healthy, vibrant and bursting at the seams with joy. All the more so because, just like most things in life, that spirit of unbridled optimism wouldn’t last.
As a bonus, here is a pretty friggin’ great live version from 2012 in Denmark where Bruce & the band are joined by the Roots for a good ol’ fashioned block party sing-a-long. From all the miles he’s traveled and the ups and downs he’s been through, The Boss’s enthusiasm for performing and collaborating still shines though and it’s clearly infectious even on an entirely new generation of musicians. The energy the two bands are giving each other while sharing the stage is a joy to behold.