By Erik Flannigan
It is hard to believe we are fast approaching 20 years since the Reunion tour commenced and the recommitment of Bruce Springsteen, the E Street Band and their many fans was validated night after night across the stages of Europe and the United States.
The archival download series has already given us perhaps the most famous show of the tour, closing night at Madison Square Garden in July 2000, a masterful performance that was appropriately conscious of its place as the culmination of the 132 concerts that came before it. Now, we get a markedly different slice of the Reunion tour and how sweet it is.
Taking nothing away from great shows in E. Rutherford, Philly, Boston and other cities which preceded it or memorable stands in Los Angeles and Oakland to follow, Chicago ‘99 is a barn burner. It actually gains potency from our collective and relative unfamiliarity with the performance and as a result feels deliciously fresh.
It was the last night of three in Chicago as well as the final show of the first U.S. leg of the tour. On the cusp of a two-week break, the mood is buoyant and at times downright joyous. You can hear how excited these musicians are to be playing together again and the confidence they are feeling at this point of the tour is reflected in an adventurous setlist.
To start (and apologies in advance for the language, but it feels wholly appropriate to convey the sentiment), Bruce Springsteen sings the shit out of this show. There are vocal highlights in both expected and unexpected places, many the kind of heightened, upper-range reaches that signal when Bruce is in the zone.
During the last minute of “The Promised Land,” it comes in the form of a sweet, unexpected, soaring “Weeeee-oooo.” At the end of a hard-hitting “Adam Raised a Cain,” it’s a shrieking stretch of vocal improvisation loaded with emotion. In “Thunder Road,” “your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet” rises to a gorgeous high register. And the coup de grace is “Youngstown,” when Springsteen holds the final note of “the fiery furnaces of hellllllllll” a full ten seconds. Time it yourself!
Chicago also presents the opportunity to reassess the altered arrangements Bruce and the band explored in ‘99. At the time, subtle changes to familiar songs may have thrown a few people off a bit, as they were coming in with expectations of how things “used to sound.” Listening now, the explorations prove fascinating.
Played but 15 times on the Reunion tour, “Independence Day” has a distinctly different feel and begins with a lovely guitar and pedal steel intro. Similarly, Bruce bends the first verse and chorus of “She’s The One” (performed only 16 times circa 1999-2000) in unexpected directions before the band arrives with stirring force.
Jon Altschiller’s vivid mix captures band interplay and subtle work from every E Streeter, much of which you may have never noticed before, with the apex coming in the form of “New York City Serenade.” This piano-driven epic had gone unplayed since 1975 before making its momentous return during the Continental Airlines Arena run a month earlier, its first of five appearances on the tour.
“New York City Serenade” is arguably the most challenging piece of music in the Springsteen canon, full of twists, turns and musical nuance. Chicago offers a bravura performance, enriched by the contributions of the band (extra nod to Roy Bittan) and Bruce’s fearless lead vocal. It is by turns majestic, enthralling, even astonishing for 1999, with no strings attached as in more recent performances.
“Serenade” is joined by two other special rarities. The show opens with a fierce “Take ‘Em As They Come,” one of Springsteen’s underappreciated rockers. Mercifully liberated from the vault in 1998 on Tracks (the song is also included on 2015’s The Ties That Bind box set), The River outtake gets a rare outing (it has only been performed ten times) with the band fully locked and loaded. To be fair, they are a bit less so on the likable Born in the U.S.A. era b-side “Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart,” which ends with Bruce chuckling “we gotta practice that one,” though it is still wonderful to hear.
Noteworthy as those rare tracks are, Chicago ‘99 pays dividends song after song, be it common or uncommon to a setlist. It is one of those nights where the versions run long (even “Ramrod” goes seven minutes), the crowd response is huge and the band plays hot. Case in point: Danny’s organ and Clarence’s solo in “She’s the One,” plus the Big Man nailing the final note of “Bobby Jean”; a mini cover “Boom Boom” worked seamlessly into “Light of Day”; Nils and Stevie shining on all types of stringed instruments; Garry and Max electrifying “Atlantic City” and pushing the pace all night; Patti taking her solo turns with aplomb during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “If I Should Fall Behind.” As it did every night on Reunion, the latter song brings the spirit of the band’s rebirth to life in poignant fashion.
As for Springsteen himself, he sounds like he is enjoying every single minute.
More than 20,000 people saw this show in person and have known ever since what a great performance they witnessed. As for the rest of us: Chicago ‘99, we didn’t know what we were missing.