More than most live albums, Live Bullet serves as an essential document of the career of the artist who recorded it. The album is a high-quality representation of Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band at the height of its powers in front of a fired-up audience, but that’s not the sole reason for its import. Live Bullet is one of the only ways you can hear the winding path Seger’s career took before superstardom fell upon him in the mid-1970s.

Seger was one of the last holdouts of the digital age, refusing to free up anything but a smattering of songs for streaming services and the like. That changed about a month ago, but of the dozen albums released to those services, 11 trace back no earlier than 1975. In addition, most of his early work has long since fallen out of print, so physical copies can only be pried from online sellers at exorbitant prices. Live Bullet, which includes songs recorded with long-lost bands the Bob Seger System and the Last Heard before he formed the Silver Bullet Band, allows at least a glimpse into the forgotten pre-breakthrough decade.

Live Bullet is also fascinating for the role it played in boosting Seger’s career. The album came out in 1976, not too long before “Night Moves” busted out as a top 10 single and rocketed the Detroit musician into another stratosphere. People wanting to hear more of this singer-songwriter who, at least on a national level, seemed to appear from out of nowhere turned to Live Bullet and latched immediately.

Playing from the Heartland

In many ways, Live Bullet captures an artist in transition. Seger leaned toward a harder-rocking style for much of the first decade or so of his career. His minor 1968 hit “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” was a fast-paced thumper, and it’s not for nothing one of the older songs he showcases on the live disc is called “Heavy Music.” Seger saved most of those older tunes for the second half of the show, knowing how much musical momentum he could build by having all of those ravers played in succession.

But much of the first half of the concert, showcased on the first of the two LP’s double-album set, was given over to songs he had just released on 1975’s Beautiful Loser. Here is the Seger most casual fans know beginning to emerge. On songs like “Travelin’ Man,” “Beautiful Loser” and “Jody Girl,” it’s easy to hear the insight and intimacy that would be displayed on future smashes like “Night Moves,” “Against the Wind” and countless more.

And therein lies the hidden significance of Live Bullet, in that you can hear in it the beginnings of a new, somewhat murkily-defined genre known as heartland rock. Many associate it with the 1980s, with Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and Tom Petty as the biggest proponents, able to marry the thunder of rock music to tales of ordinary folks you might meet in the neighborhood bar. While it’s true such music stood out in that decade as a remedy for American fans a bit baffled by the otherness of British new wave, Seger had already perfected the template years earlier. (Although the Boss often gets credit for this particular strain of music, Seger beat Springsteen to the highest reaches of the pop charts four years earlier.)

Local Boy Makes Good

Listening to Live Bullet and hearing the crowd’s rapturous and knowing response to the opening bars of each song, it’s tempting to think the album is full of hits. But that’s because Seger was playing in front of his Detroit faithful at Cobo Hall. In reality, none of the Beautiful Loser songs received any national attention until “Night Moves” sent radio programmers to Live Bullet for more examples of Seger’s naturally affecting storytelling ability.

It’s also compelling to hear how well the Silver Bullet Band took to the Beautiful Loser songs, considering they were mostly sidelined on the studio album in favor of Muscle Shoals pros. The band (Drew Abbott on lead guitar, Chris Campbell on bass, Charlie Allen Martin on drums, Robyn Robins on keyboards and Alto Reed on sax) certainly hold their own on the extended workouts occasionally given to them in the live setting. But it’s their willingness to step back, provide space and let the ache in Seger’s vocal tell the story that distinguishes them more than anything else.

Seger’s everyman persona is boosted by the honesty he shows in admitting to his influences. Cover versions of Tina Turner and Van Morrison make clear his debt to rhythm and blues and soul. And chasing the fast-talking “Get Out of Denver” with a Chuck Berry medley for the final encore demonstrates both Seger’s facility with the style and his genuine admiration for rock’s first songwriter of note.

The Detroit audience would have been able to tell, if they listened closely enough, how much Seger was able to identify with their secret dreams and thwarted desires on songs like “U.M.C (Upper Middle Class)” and “Lookin’ Back.” And if they just wanted to rock out and forget everything else, there was “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” and “Katmandu” to scream along to. Seger even displayed his Midwestern good sense during the recorded concert by handling a rowdy crowd near the stage with a firm, unwavering touch.

Always Outnumbered

Yet for all of the bandleader’s ability to mirror his audience in his songs, the moment that stands out the most on Live Bullet is where Seger admits to the utter isolation only a touring rock star could know. It’s “Turn the Page,” of course, a song released on a solo record years earlier to little impact. The studio version was tentative, but the Silver Bullet Band finds a slow, sweaty groove on the live take. Reed’s noirish sax solo produces shivers, and Seger’s octave change in the closing moments is cathartic brilliance. There has been many a lament about the road in the annals of rock. You’d have a hard time arguing against that version of that song as the best.

It’s telling that Seger’s next live release, 1981’s Nine Tonight, was culled from performances not just at Cobo Hall but also at the Boston Garden. By then, he had slipped his regional bonds and, to borrow a line from Berry, was airborne. But Live Bullet is the better record because you can hear the hunger in the singer’s voice as he strives to get to the acme. If you’re looking for a way to understand the beginnings of the Bob Seger phenomenon, it’s as good a place to start as any.

 

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