Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band

Live in New York City (Columbia)

This two-CD set finds the 51-year-old Boss in better form than any voice coach could ever have predicted. Sure, neither he nor saxman Clarence Clemons is nailing quite as many of the high hard ones as they once did. But the fact that they're still hitting anyof them is reason enough for rejoicing in the E Street nation.

Only the most puerile purist could reject these reworked but still stirring renditions of "Born in the USA" and "The River," both of which take a mellower approach than Springsteen's Reagan-era recordings. Which is not to say that the Big Apple blowout reproduced here lacked for bombast. For proof, look no further than the extended "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," which finds Bruce's preacher-man persona in full florid glory, delivering high-octane exhortations whose inspiration clearly comes from somewhere below the Bible belt.

Conversely, "Jungleland" and "Badlands" hew close to classic E Street arrangements while also showcasing the elder Springsteen's clearer, less guttural delivery. Other pleasant surprises include "Don't Look Back" and "My Love Will Not Let You Down." Kept under wraps until the recent Tracks package, both tunes benefit from bracing treatments that nearly belie their status as outtakes. Perennial crowd-pleaser "Out in the Street" likewise billows into an exuberant call-and-response coda that gives fans a chance to stretch their own vocal cords. The somber "Youngstown" is served up with an even grittier sheen than the original, while "American Skin (41 Shots)" proves all night that Springsteen hasn't lost his eye for the details of devastation.

Kudos aside, none of these selections are likely to win Springsteen any new devotees. And critics might contend, justifiably, that Bruce's audience patter and patented band introductions are as spontaneous as a theme-park review. But really, so were the feigned fainting spells and other histrionics that preceded many a sweaty encore during the lean, hungry years during which Springsteen built his legend. So, whether you deify or despise him, this set serves notice that the Boss is indeed back and damned near as bad as ever.

 
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