Brendan Byrne Arena, East Rutherford, NJ, June 24, 1993
By Erik Flannigan
In contrast to the periods that preceded it, the Human Touch/Lucky Town era has never established the same kind of collective characterization within Bruce Springsteen’s career narrative. We, the fans, have a consensus of opinion on, say, the Darkness tour or Europe ‘81, but 1992-93 remains more unsettled.
By definition it was an aberration, in that it broke from the norm of always touring with the E Street Band. But in hindsight, the greater aberration would have been if Bruce had never toured with other musicians.
For he was hardly alone in choosing to work without his most familiar and beloved bandmates. Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Elvis Costello, each to varying degrees, changed up who they recorded and toured with more than Springsteen. And like Dylan had done many times before, the 1992-93 line-up was assembled specifically as a touring band that would have to learn both old and new songs. In fact, it was Dylan’s friend and unofficial musical adviser, the late Debbie Gold who Springsteen turned to for help finding new musicians to fill some very big shoes.
The result was a diverse, multi-generational, big-band line-up that, with its five gospel-trained back-up singers, wouldn’t have looked out of place on stage with Dylan circa 1978-81. In fact, Carol Dennis had toured (and more) with Dylan and Bobby King has recorded with him. Elsewhere, Lone Justice veteran Shane Fontayne stepped in on guitar, while session musicians Tommy Sims (bass) and Zack Alford (drums) formed the rhythm section. They were augmented by multi-instrumentalist Crystal Taliefero and familiar face Roy Bittan on piano and keyboards. Gia Ciambotti, Cleopatra Kennedy and Angel Rogers rounded out the back-up singers. This was the 11-piece new band.
We can only imagine the pressure these musicians felt at the start, with the shadow of E Street looming over them, and, to be fair, when the tour kicked off in June 1992, the cohesion of a band wasn’t there yet. An 11-night run in New Jersey later that summer (not coincidentally one more than the famed 10-night stand in 1984) was a bold statement of commitment to the new, but at times the striving was palpable.
One year later, back at Brendan Byrne Arena for a benefit concert to fight hunger and kick off a two-show wrap-up to the tour, things felt decidedly different. After touring Europe a second time and having not played a stateside show in six months, Springsteen and the his band returned with newfound ease, cohesion and quiet confidence.
The June 24, 1993 show, captured on multi-tracks by Toby Scott and newly mixed by Jon Altschiller, is a fascinating listen and offers a chance to reassess the 1992-93 band at their best. It also documents the blending of past and present, as guests from E Street and adjacent neighborhoods also share the stage on this genuinely special night.
As he had begun doing so effectively in Europe, the show starts with a strong mini-acoustic set. Bruce and Joe Ely had shared each other’s stages in Dublin a month earlier, and Ely makes his first guest appearance of the night dueting on Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home.” Springsteen then plays sharp solo acoustic versions of “Seeds,” “Adam Raised a Cain” and “This Hard Land” that point the way forward to The Ghost of Tom Joad two years on.
The rest of the first set (this was the last band tour with an intermission) serves as a fine showcase of new and old material and the strengths of the musicians. Soul and gospel flavors run rich in these versions of “Better Days,” “Leap of Faith,” “Roll of the Dice” (with its “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” Solomon Burke coda) and especially the vocal exchange with Bobby King on the in hindsight quite charming “Man’s Job.” The traditional “Satan’s Jewel Crown” is a particular high point and something clearly born from the singers’ gospel heritage. The rock edge is there, too. “Atlantic City” and “Lucky Town” pack the right punch, and though “Badlands” without a saxophone solo still takes some getting used to, it is well played.
The outstanding second set is sharper still, opening with an acoustic guitar and piano version of “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” that is worth the price of the download alone. Bruce and Roy intertwine magnificently and it is but one of many moments of Bittan’s masterful playing this night. You’ll hear keyboard and piano parts throughout the show that you’ve likely never noticed before as on many songs Roy leads the way.
Elsewhere in the second set, the strength of the gospel chorus is brought to bear powerfully in compelling arrangements of “Because the Night,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain” and “Light of Day.” Patti Scialfa joins her husband for “Brilliant Disguise” and a terrific, long version of “Human Touch.” But the heart of the set lies in the three-song sequence of “Souls of the Departed,” “Living Proof” and “Born in the U.S.A.”
“Souls of the Departed” is a sober elegy, accented with audio from newscasts about the Iraq war that make its sentiments crystal clear (similar audio augmentation of “57 Channels [And Nothing On] in the first set isn’t quite as effective). It flows straight into “Living Proof,” a song of rebirth and arguably some of Bruce’s finest writing of the period. From that point of hope and renewal, the light darkens again with a Hendrix-flavored “Star-Spangled Banner” preface and “Born in the U.S.A.,” in which Bruce emotionally pleads, in manner not heard on other tours, “I got nowhere to go. I got nowhere to go. I got nowhere to run.”
The legendary encore that would see old friends like Stevie Van Zandt, Southside Johnny, Max Weinberg, the Miami Horns and Clarence Clemons take the stage largely speaks for itself. It sounds just as fun now as it surely was then. To their credit, the new band plays songs like “Glory Days” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” capably, and the performance of Joe Ely’s “Settle for Love” is a surprise highlight. A Springsteen cover of the song wouldn’t have been out of place on High Hopes.
Beyond the undeniable fun of “It’s Been a Long Time,” “Having a Party” and “It’s All Right,” two other encore songs merit attention. Like “Does This Bus Stop,” “Thunder Road” is another Bruce and Roy showcase, this time with Bittan adding sweet organ fills to Springsteen’s acoustic strumming. Finally, if a single song captures the spirit of this era, it the spiritual dream of “My Beautiful Reward,” played here with sparse beauty.
The 1992-93 tour was a shock to the system for fans at the time. But viewed through the lens of nearly two decades of a reunited E Street Band, the expanded Wrecking Ball line-up and the Seeger Sessions Band, this particular period of musical exploration now feels kindred. Meadowlands ‘93 provides a fine snapshot of a hot, soulful summer night when Springsteen’s past and present united.