CDs have Boss' N.Y. spirit

It was a gorgeous summer evening, inside a jam-packed bar about two blocks from Madison Square Garden in New York City. The sounds of Bruce Springsteen blasted from the jukebox, and there was only one thing everybody was buzzing about.

The Boss was in town.

And it seemed everyone in the place had tickets to that night's show.

Few artists could electrify or capture the spirit of a city as busy and as jaded as New York, but with his 10-night, sold-out stand at MSG last summer, that's exactly what Springsteen did. He grabbed front-page headlines with the controversial "American Skin," he and the reunited E Street Band dazzled audiences with their passion, conviction and musicianship, and — over the course of two weeks — they played to about 200,000 people.

Now, the magic of two of those nights has been documented on "Live In New York City," an invigorating double-CD that hit record stores this week. And although it's absolutely impossible to ever fully capture the feel and the emotions that come with a Springsteen concert on any recording, "Live in N.Y.C." does a remarkable job of doing so.

The record opens with the driving and confident "My Love Will Not Let You Down" and is followed by a booming, guitar-heavy and torrid rendition of "Prove It All Night." A rhythmic version of "Atlantic City" is another early highlight, as is a rocked-up performance of "Youngstown." "Born To Run" closes the first side with a bang.

The true gem of disc one, however, is a stunning, slightly re-arranged version of "The River." Starting off with a moody saxophone — courtesy of Clarence Clemons — the instrumentation is so rich and organic that it immediately captures the listener. It's not until the vocals arrive that you even realize it's "The River" being played, and when those vocals do arrive, Springsteen sings with as much feeling as he did when he first debuted the song at MSG's "No Nukes" show 21 years earlier.

(I saw Springsteen sing "The River" on several stops on the 1999-2000 tour. Each time, he sang with his eyes closed throughout almost the entire number, apparently lost in the storyline and seemingly taken back to the day he wrote it.)

Disc two opens with "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," which includes Springsteen's spirited and often humorous introduction of the band. Serving as part band leader and part evangelist, Springsteen preaches the gospel of rock 'n' roll with inspiring vigor, and on the new "Land of Hope and Dreams" — the song which closed most shows on the tour — he reconnects with his often-visited message of hope and promise.

"American Skin (41 Shots)" will, of course, draw some of the greatest interest. A political firecracker and a socially conscious gem, the tune was inspired by the 1998 death of Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant who was shot at 41 times and killed by New York police officers as he reached into his pocket to retrieve his wallet. Although the song touched off a firestorm in New York last summer and drew protests from the NYPD, Springsteen never backed down. He played the song at every MSG show and, on the live album, he even asks the audience for quiet as the number begins.

The message is clear: An innocent man was killed, probably due to his skin color. And the song is as powerful and as important as anything Springsteen has ever done.

Other jewels found on this wonderful album include a rare performance of 1973's "Lost In The Flood"; a re-arranged, more deliberate version of "Born In The U.S.A.," which emphasizes the anger and sarcasm of the song; a beautiful and raspy rendition of "Jungleland"; and a clever take of "If I Should Fall Behind" in which several of the E Streeters share vocal duties.

What also makes the recording special is that although the performances are tight and always on target, it's still somewhat raw. The backing vocals are just that — backing vocals — not always pristine harmonies, and despite E Street's legendary status, you feel you're listening to a real a rock 'n' roll band. And there are times when the moods and images created on by the music are so picturesque and cinematic, you feel you are indeed "Live in New York City."

Review: **** (four big stars)