Maximum R&B


Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
First Direct Arena, Leeds, England, July 24, 2013

By Erik Flannigan

Looking back today, as Springsteen winds down over a year of solo shows in a 975-person theater, the 2012-13 Wrecking Ball tour stands in stark relief. Far from going it alone, Bruce augmented the first E Street Band tour of the post-Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici era with a horn section, back-up singers, and a percussionist for his biggest on-stage line-up since Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom. It was a band built for stadiums, and many did it play, including two runs through Europe in consecutive years.

But upon his return to the United Kingdom in the summer of 2013, it is said Springsteen himself requested that he and the band christen the newly constructed First Direct Arena (also known as Leeds Arena). The 13,000-seater is configured so all seats face the stage, and it boasts superior acoustics because it wasn’t designed for basketball or hockey like most arenas. “This is a great room,” Springsteen tells the Leeds faithful. “You play anything in here, it’s gonna sound good.”

Moving his biggest band indoors from stadiums and in doing so becoming the first artist to play the state-of-the-art “super amphitheatre” would prove to be a tasty recipe for a memorable performance. Leeds 2013 is not only chock full of treats, but it captures Bruce and the band at their road-tested yet relaxed best.

Bruce fires the special-setlist flare right from the start, opening the show with a rare and potent “Roulette.” It’s the first shot in a staggering top of the show that continues with “My Love Will Not Let You Down” into “No Surrender.” With the final note of “No Surrender” still sustaining, the set slides down gorgeously into “Something in the Night,” a performance that reinforces the song’s beauty and majesty. The same can be said for “American Skin (41 Shots),” a tale as relevant, a crescendo as cathartic today as ever. Perhaps it is going too far to call both songs underappreciated, but the pairing here reinforces their stature in Bruce’s songwriting canon.

The mood lightens through “The Promised Land” and “Hungry Heart,” leading to a trio of tour premieres, the kind of sequence many fans dream of, where it feels like anything can (and will) happen. It commences with the delightful “Local Hero” from Lucky Town, a song rarely performed with the E Street Band and arranged here (in its only Wrecking Ball tour appearance) as a best of both worlds, matching E Street muscle with backing vocals a la the 1992-93 tour courtesy of the E Street Choir.

Turns out fans aren’t the only ones who appreciate rare tracks. “Steve always complains that we don’t play anything off this record,” Bruce admits, introducing “Gotta Get That Feeling.” “This is an outtake from Darkness on the Edge of Town…for Steve Van Zandt.” As Springsteen counts the song in, he is interrupted by a spontaneous chant of “Steven! Steven!” as the crowd voices their support for the man and his request. A Stone Pony benefit set and the 2010 promo shoot at the Carousel in Asbury Park notwithstanding, this is the only tour performance of “Gotta Get That Feeling” to date, and the expanded band does it justice, with horns soaring and Steve’s harmony vocals pure soulfire.

Surprises continue, as Bruce heeds a sign suggestion from a traveling Spanish fan for Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” arranged on the fly and performed with exuberance and fearlessness earned through months and months of successful rounds of “stump the band.”

“We’re gonna try one more crazy request,” Bruce says, extending the controlled chaos. “‘Thundercrack’…was written to be our first showstopper. This used to end our set when we [would] play for crowds who didn’t know us at all.” After name-checking some of the acts they once opened for (among them Black Oak Arkansas, Sha Na Na, Mountain, and Aerosmith) and warning the audience the middle of the song could prove tricky, Bruce and the band confidently crush “Thundercrack” in its only 2013 outing.

While Leeds boasts ample rarities, Wrecking Ball material gets its due as well, with robust versions of the title track, “Death to My Hometown,” “Shackled and Drawn” (aided by a fine gospel-tinged solo from Cindy Mizelle), “Land of Hope and Dreams,” and “This Depression.” Making its last appearance to date this night (and one of just seven performances ever), “This Depression” impresses through its admirable lyrical candor, gripping arrangement, and affecting musicality. It’s a performance that should win over a few converts, and the coupling with “Because the Night” is another slice of Leeds’ setlist genius.

To the encore, and Springsteen has one more trick up his sleeve, bringing “Secret Garden” back to the set for the first time in 13 years, moody, measured, and matrimonial. Credit Jake Clemons for doing right by his uncle with a poignant sax solo to bring the song to conclusion. Sublime.

A marvelous night in Leeds concludes with a scarce Wrecking Ball tour airing for “If I Should Fall Behind” followed by “Thunder Road,” both performed solo acoustic. Towards the end of “Thunder Road,” Bruce invites the audience to join him in singing, “La da, da, da, da,” which they do in full voice, giving back generously to the performer who gave so much to them all night long.

Leeds may be the fourth archival release from the Wrecking Ball tour, but it stands strongly among those peers on the strength of its distinctive setlist, stellar performance and the sense of Springsteen’s personal motivation to showcase his expanded band in this optimal indoor venue.

We’re Gonna Play Until the Sun Goes Down


Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Olympiastadion, Helsinki, Finland, June 16, 2003

By Erik Flannigan

Come on up for the rising. At long last, the first live archive release from the Rising tour is here: Helsinki, Finland, June 16, 2003.

What took so long? Let’s address that right off the bat.

The detailed answer is quite technical in nature, but in a nutshell, Rising tour recordings were made on what was then a state-of-the-art DSD (Direct Stream Digital) system, the first to offer high-resolution audio in an easily transportable, multi-track recording unit. But 15 years later, the proprietary nature of the software and hardware elements in that system have caused what might best be described as forward-compatibility issues, making it challenging to restore the original recording files. Helsinki is the first successful result of ongoing efforts over the last several years to address the problems.

Listening to the show now, one would never know how difficult it was to recover the multi-track recordings, as Jon Altschiller’s crystalline mix shines brilliantly and brings out fine details in the lush arrangements of the Rising material featured. Helsinki is a Rising showcase, offering nine songs from the album performed with gravitas befitting much of the subject matter.

While but one tour removed, the spirit captured in Helsinki is quite distinct from that of Chicago ‘99 released last month. The playing is equally accomplished, but there is more narrative unfolding, more stories being told in a very intentional manner. It makes the contrast between heavier material like “You’re Missing” and “Into the Fire” and that of lighter fare like “Mary’s Place” stark, with the night’s high-spirited songs offering release and relief, recognition that there is light beyond the darkness. Different tour, different mission.

Exemplary of this solemn and bold approach is “Into the Fire,” which opens with Patti Scialfa’s haunting vocalization and Springsteen’s most direct lyrical reference to 9/11. When the band kicks in majestically before the second verse, we can only marvel at the sympathetic support. Nils’ pedal steel bends expressively throughout, and while she has performed with the E Street Band ever since, Soozie Tyrell’s contributions have never felt more vital. She’s the musical lynchpin of the song, and she pulls significant melodic weight all night long. Even “Dancing in the Dark,” performed in what is otherwise its purest form since the 1984-85 tour, deftly downplays synthesizer in favor of Tyrell’s violin carrying the melody.

It seems apropos that nine Rising songs are paired with seven from Born in the U.S.A. Sure, this is Bruce and the band’s first-ever show in Finland, so drawing from their most popular album makes sense. Yet the incorporation of so many tracks from both records also suggests that their characters and stories are intertwined, that the people who inhabit “My Hometown,” “No Surrender,” and “Glory Days” went on to experience what unfolds across The Rising later in their lives. Hearing so much from both chapters of that narrative makes Helsinki powerful.

Powerful is a word that stays top of mind listening to the full 25-song set, which by Springsteen standards is as focused and straightforward as any I can recall — with the exception of a delightfully shambolic “Ramrod,” which rolls on for more than 12 minutes including an extended piano solo by Roy Bittan.

The evening’s catharsis peaks with “My City of Ruins,” its gospel-tinged musical cleansing perfectly positioned as a restorative in the encore and the ideal segue to the life-affirming “Land of Hope and Dreams.” A potent pairing.

On its debut, the Helsinki audience impresses, singing along and responding passionately, as evidenced by the call and response at the end of “My Hometown.” The same can be said of the band, performing with utter confidence and control.

As for Springsteen himself, he sets the tone for the night at the start with his bluesy, solo-acoustic “Born in the U.S.A.,” a version that is impassioned and world-weary all at the same time. Informed by that prelude, there’s a sense of purpose to this performance, a commitment to telling stories that reflect some of our darkest and lightest moments. And that is the essence of the Rising tour.

Listen To Your Junk Man


Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
United Center
Chicago, IL, September 30, 1999

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.

The Business Of The Unexpected: Roxy ’78


Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
The Roxy, West Hollywood, CA, July 7, 1978

By Erik Flannigan

Imagine yourself at the Fabulous Forum in Los Angeles on Wednesday, July 5, 1978. Bruce Springsteen is playing his first headlining arena show in the area, a culmination of his growing popularity. During the intermission between sets, a rumor swirls that a special show is happening on Friday night at the Roxy in West Hollywood and tickets are going on sale tomorrow morning. With a capacity under 500, seeing Bruce and the E Street Band at the tiny club will be the toughest ticket in town. What do you do? Leaving early means missing the rest of the Forum show when the rumor may not be true. But if you stay, do you miss the chance to see a once-in-a-lifetime intimate performance? A true Sophie’s Choice.

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band 7/7/78 The Roxy, Hollwyood, CA

Perhaps a few did leave before the encores; others rushed straight from the Forum to the Roxy to join the growing queue because the rumor turned out to be true. A small item in Thursday’s LA Times confirmed tickets were going on sale for Bruce’s “first club appearance in nearly three years.” The faith of those who braved the overnight line was likely rewarded as eyewitness reports suggest as many as 1,000 people were waiting when the Roxy box office opened at noon.

“It was like the Beatles when we announced the Roxy,” says Paul Rappaport, Columbia’s west coast promo guy at the time and organizer of the show on behalf of the label. After it quickly sold out, “hundreds of kids showed up in the KMET lobby and at the CBS Records lobby in Century City looking for tickets,” he adds.

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band 7/7/78 The Roxy, Hollwyood, CA

Why KMET? Because the silver lining in the Roxy announcement for those who couldn’t attend was that it would be broadcast live on the radio, the first of five such transmissions on the Darkness tour that helped cement Springsteen’s peerless reputation as a live performer.

Each one --The Roxy, The Agora, Passaic, Atlanta and Winterland -- has its merit. They are compelling shows one and all. But the circumstances surrounding the event and the remarkable, risk-taking performance make the Roxy stand apart.

Rappaport recalls a phone conversation with Jon Landau where they discussed how difficult it was to create breakthrough buzz in LA even given a sold-out Forum show. “It is such a big town and there’s a lot going on, so it is hard to get attention,” he told Landau. The manager in turn suggested the idea of a live broadcast on KMET.

The FM rock radio powerhouse had grown more popular than the biggest Top 40 station in the city. “It’s like that scene in Back to the Future where the guy takes two electrical cords, shoves them together and sparks fly,” Rappaport says. “That’s what happens when you marry the greatest thing in rock ‘n’ roll to the greatest amplifier in Los Angeles…. I told Landau it would be amazing.”

The catch was there were only a few of days to pull it off, including buying out the band already booked to play the Roxy that night, getting Ma Bell to lay special high-fidelity phone lines at the venue to send audio to the radio station, as well as procuring a remote-recording truck to handle the mix and--as we’re fortunate enough to hear today--preserve the concert on multi-track tapes.

Springsteen starts the set by acknowledging the ticket challenges, which he owns with humility, a tenor that then gives away to something akin to a coiled snake. “We’re gonna do some rock ‘n’ roll for ya. A WELL, A WELL, A WELL THE LITTLE THINGS THAT YOU SAY AND DO, MAKE ME ALWAYS WANT TO BE WITH YOU HOO HOO.” Inspired by the recently released biopic, Springsteen opens the set with a thrilling surprise, the band’s stupefyingly tight take of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On.” With it, the breakneck pace for the Roxy is established, never to be vanquished.

How fast? If your digital playback device had a pitch control, you’d probably check the setting during “Candy’s Room,” jet-fueled by Max Weinberg. Every song in the first set teems with confidence and conviction, none more so than the sequence of “Candy’s Room” into a flawless “For You,” followed by the next of the night’s shockers, “Point Blank.” It’s a bold debut for the future River track, stunningly performed with early lyric and arrangement variants.

The caliber of performances in the first set carries on in the second, which opens in high spirits with more unreleased tunes, the instrumental band spotlight “Paradise By The ‘C’” and “Fire.” While the setlist serves as a showcase for Darkness tracks and the Roxy versions are uniformly brilliant, when people suggest the ‘78 radio broadcasts drove thousands of new converts, it is because they captured both the music and the magic.

As the set moves to “Growin’ Up” and its delightful “goddamn guitar” story, enchantment turns irresistible. “Growin’ Up” flows into a scintillating “Saint In The City” and the E Street Band crushes it. The new mix by Jon Altschiller makes Springsteen and Van Zandt’s guitars sabre sharp.

If somehow that weren’t enough to convince, we get “Backstreets,” in a version many cite as one of the very best. The mid-song “Sad Eyes” passage (edited on Live 1975-85) is intact here, restoring this masterpiece to its full grandeur. From the charm of “Growin’ Up” through the emotional catharsis of “Backstreets,” religious conversion is complete.

“In the middle of the show, I stepped out because I needed fresh air,” Rappaport recalls. “It was one of the greatest scenes I have ever witnessed in rock: A couple hundred kids with their ears pressed to the wall outside the Roxy; all of the Sunset Strip listening to this broadcast, car after car, windows down, people singing along. It blew my mind.”

There would be more mind blowing to come. Bruce opens the encore with yet another new song, premiering “Independence Day” on solo piano, a monumental moment. Neither “Point Blank” nor “Independence Day” would be played again until September, which makes it all the more astounding that Springsteen chose to debut them in the broadcast. In fact, over the course of the night he performs five unreleased originals, two of them for the very first time, plus another four unreleased cover songs, two them also live premieres.

All this knowing full well--as he proclaims at the top of the second set--that bootleggers and thousands of fans listening at home would indeed be rolling their tapes. When the stakes couldn’t be higher, Springsteen went all in.

“One of the things I had to do,” Rappaport explains, “was tell the sales branch that I guarantee there will be a bootleg. But we had to do it….It’s one of the greatest live recordings of all time.”

When asked about the audacity of debuting brand-new songs, Rappaport replies, “Bruce understood the platform he had. I think he wanted to play those songs because he was always trying to do something different. He didn’t want to repeat himself. I have never seen a guy work harder than him, ever. ”

Rappaport then recounts a tale told to him by Columbia’s then head of sales, who had seen Springsteen backstage at a big show debating doing another encore when it seemed like he had already given the people all they could want and then some. When asked why we was even considering one more song, Springsteen replied, “I’m in the business of the unexpected.”

With the Roxy, the unexpected was broadcast all over town, and via tapes and bootlegs, ultimately to fans the world over.

The encore rolls on after the sublime “Independence Day” and Bruce and the band push the show as hard as she will go. “Born to Run,” “Because the Night” (which was already a hit for Patti Smith), Eddie Floyd’s “Raise Your Hand” and finally, after 12 minutes of cheering, “Twist and Shout.”

From the band to the audience in the club, from the kids outside the venue to the listeners all over Southern California listening on KMET, anyone who experienced the Roxy performance would concur with Rappaport’s final assessment: “I witnessed rock ‘n’ roll history.”

Down The River We Ride


Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Madison Square Garden, New York, NY, November 9, 2009

By Erik Flannigan

Sometime in the early 2000s, playing full albums in sequence, in concert came in vogue. For the final leg of the 2009 Working On A Dream tour, Bruce Springsteen got in on the fun, announcing that for the band’s five-show stand at Giants Stadium, they would revisit a classic album each night, drawn from Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in the U.S.A., after test-driving the concept with BTR at a show in Chicago.

For fans, there’s a lot to like about a full-album performance. Hearing those songs in that order hearkens back to how many of us fell in love with the music in the first place, playing the albums over and over until we memorized every note and nuance. For Bruce and the band, it was something novel and different, too, shifting the approach to both the songs and sequencing within a concert dynamic. Case in point, “Badlands” and “Thunder Road” had evolved into key tracks used to wind down or close sets; in a full-album context they reverted to their roles as the starting point of the narrative.

In a run of a dozen or so shows starting at Giants Stadium, Springsteen rotated the three albums into his sets, one each night. In truth, many of the songs were in regular rotation anyway (acknowledging outliers like “Meeting Across the River” and “Streets of Fire”), so the new experience was hearing the songs in order, presented as a whole.

But when it was announced that Springsteen would return to Madison Square Garden and feature one-off, full-album performances of The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle and The River, stakes were raised. Considerably.

Both albums contain songs that were not part of the regular or even extended concert repertoire, plus a few that had barely made a set list in decades. The River is also a 20-song double album, so to perform it meant devoting nearly two hours of the show to that material alone. An ambitious prospect, and one that made this an unmissable night, because The River is just as much THE album that got many of us into Springsteen as Born to Run, Darkness and BIUSA are.

The River performance at MSG holds its own today as much as it did in 2009, even given the 2016 River tour first leg which saw the album essayed every night. When Bruce and the band hit the road in January 2016 to start the new River tour in Pittsburgh, they were rehearsed and ready. In November 2009, a better operative word might be game. Firing in peak tour form, they were game to perform their most ambitious studio work as a special, one-time event. “It’s too long to do it again,” Bruce quipped at the time.

For those lucky enough to be there (myself included), the result was a marvelous, in-the-moment experience for band and audience, as rarely played songs like “Crush On You,” “Stolen Car,” “Wreck On The Highway” “Fade Away,” “I Wanna Marry You” and “The Price You Pay” roared back to life, fulfilling long-held fan desires and restating the case for The River’s place in the core canon.

It seems contradictory to feel heightened anticipation for a set where you know what 20 songs are about to be played, but there was an undeniable air of expectancy in the building as Springsteen took the stage for the opener, “Wrecking Ball,” which served to remind us Bruce had history with the building. Indeed, MSG was the site of four epic performances on the original River tour in 1980.

“We’re gonna get right to work now,” Bruce then declared, explaining The River’s place as a transitional record, moving into adult themes later explored on Nebraska and Tunnel Of Love. He also said it was also a conscious attempt to balance the dark with the light, or what Springsteen called, “the music that made our live shows so much fun and enjoyable.”

From there we were off, galloping through both ends of the emotional spectrum with equal aplomb. Stalwarts like “The Ties That Bind” and “Out In the Street” felt freshened by renewed context, while Bruce made a delightful meal out of “Crush On You,” “a hidden masterpiece” only played once since 1980. The charm of mid-tempo romantic gems like “Fade Away” and “I Wanna Marry You” resonated and left one wondering why they lay dormant for so long.

Part of the answer is the absence of Stevie Van Zandt from the two major tours that followed the album. His imprint on The River cannot be understated. Heard in the robust, up-close mix by Jon Altschiller, Van Zandt’s guitar playing (which on this night included 12-string electric) and vocals (backing harmonies and shared leads) are essential to this body of work.

For many, “Stolen Car” was the moment they had been waiting for. With Max Weinberg, Garry Tallent, Charlie Giordano and Roy Bittan in particular providing a gorgeous accompaniment, Springsteen played one of his greatest and saddest songs with heart-wrenching austerity.

The River’s high contrast is truly brought to bear in the sequence of “Stolen Car” into the hydraulic pounding of “Ramrod” followed by the exhilarating declaration of “The Price You Pay,” the latter another high point in the show. For its final act, The River winds down through the slow rising crescendo of devotion pledged in “Drive All Night” and, lastly, the stark humanity of “Wreck on the Highway.” On the 2016 tour, “Wreck” was given a more lush and full-bodied arrangement, ending the album sequence on a different note. The 2009 edition retains more of the somber majesty of the original and serves as a plaintive coda to the overall River story.

When Bruce gathered “the guys that recorded the record” and shouted out their missing comrade, Danny Federici, everyone in the room, be it on stage or off, recognized that this reading of The River was a audacious achievement. Nine years on, it still is.

It’s One Hell Of A Town

Bruce Springsteen
St. Rose of Lima Gymnasium, Freehold, NJ, November 8, 1996

By Erik Flannigan

Even for a career marked by legendary performances, Springsteen’s 1996 return to his hometown of Freehold, NJ stands out as extraordinary. Held in the gymnasium of St. Rose of Lima, the Catholic parochial school Bruce attended growing up, the one-off benefit concert might be the sweetest “prodigal son returns” narrative in rock concert history.

In hindsight, a deeply personal Springsteen solo performance at an intimate venue sounds not dissimilar to his current run on Broadway. Shows like the Christic Institute in 1990 (released as part of the live download series), Freehold 1996 and the Doubletake benefit in Somerville, MA 2003 are antecedents to Bruce On Broadway, juxtaposing Springsteen storytelling at its most personal with special setlists.

What makes Freehold particularly heightened is that Springsteen isn’t playing to his fans per se, he is playing to the people in his hometown (tickets were strictly limited to Freehold residents only), family and relatives and some of the very Sisters and Fathers who oversaw St. Rose of Lima then and now. One might say Bruce was throwing his own acoustic confessional at the scene of the crime.

“I wouldn’t have believed it myself if I wasn’t standing here, right under the cross,” Springsteen admits at the top of the show, “What can I say? Myself, I’ve been excommunicated with the divorce and all, but it’s still great to be here. I told my buddy Steve, ‘I’m playing Friday night.’ ‘Where?’ ‘At my Catholic school.’ And he says, ‘Oh. Revenge!’ I said, ‘No. Well. Maybe just a little bit’.”

With that spirit established, Springsteen begins to masterfully weave together his core Joad tour set and songs for the occasion into a poignant, heartfelt and frequently hilarious performance that runs the gamut from tender recollections of his mother coming home from work to tender advocacy for the relationship benefits of cunnilingus.

The latter was something Bruce included during his intro to “Red Headed Woman” throughout the tour, but given the setting, the subject is even more amusingly unsettling. Can you sing about cunnilingus while standing inside your Catholic school? “I talked to Father McCarron,” Bruce assures. “He said, ‘I’m not sure.’ “I took that as a yes….The Pope says, ‘I can’t, but you go right ahead’.”

The many comedic moments of Freehold shine, and so too the songs. Joad material like “Straight Time,” “Highway 29,” and the title track are in peak tour form, as is the four-pack of “Sinaloa Cowboys,” “The Line,” “Balboa Park” and “Across The Border.” Tour standouts “Adam Raised a Cain,” “Johnny 99” and “Born in the U.S.A.” also hit home with something a little extra this night.

“When You’re Alone” from Tunnel of Love is played for only the second time ever (and one of but 12 public performances) in a pure, beautiful arrangement featuring Soozie Tyrell on violin and Patti Scialfa on backing vocals. It is one of an impressive nine tour premieres in Freehold, some specially chosen like “The River” and “Racing In The Street” (both featuring Tyrell), some audibles, as Bruce tears up the set list mid-show for “Open All Night” and “Used Cars” in their only Joad-tour performances; the same goes for “My Hometown.”

The combination of musical highlights and humorous candor in such a setting makes Freehold one for the ages. So how do you end such a transcendent night? With the world premiere of the song of the same name, “Freehold,” an autobiographical narrative that literally sums up Bruce’s history with his hometown, name-checking many of the places, spaces, events and people that influenced him in those formative years. It even delivers one final uproarious nod to “revenge” in the delightfully contradictory couplet: “Well I got a good Catholic education here in Freehold / Led to an awful lot of masturbation here in Freehold.”

Until a release of Bruce On Broadway, Freehold ‘96 might be the closest substitute, the night Springsteen returned triumphantly to his hometown on his own terms.

Any Given Wednesday: Bruce Springsteen Devils & Dust Tour 8/3/05


Van Andel Arena, Grand Rapids, MI

August 3, 2005

By Erik Flannigan

 

There’s one clear common thread connecting the rock artists whose live recordings are most highly collected. From the Grateful Dead to Phish to Pearl Jam to Bruce Springsteen, when these artists play live, every show is distinct. The setlists they perform change night after night to collectively encompass not only the widest possible swath of their own catalogs, but through covers, the music of other songwriters, too.

That’s admirable in its own right, and it makes seeing multiple nights on a tour all the more rewarding as a fan. But even if one were to see but a single concert by the aforementioned musicians, playing something fresh and different creates palpable presence. Each singular performance benefits from an artist consciously choosing to be in the moment.

I have often said, and nearly as frequently experienced, that part of the seductive appeal of seeing Bruce Springsteen in concert is never knowing what song you might get to hear. This has been true for most of his career, but since the Reunion tour, it is more like an official tenent of his platform. For stretches of the Magic, Working on a Dream and Wrecking Ball tours, audience sign requests and other attempts to “stump the band” evolved to become overt centerpieces of the show.

For me, Springsteen’s ultimate high-wire act in this regard was the 2005 Devils & Dust tour. A solo show, without the collective safety net of the E Street Band, found Springsteen at his most spontaneous and fearless, not merely adding unusual songs to set lists, but often performing them in a one-of-a-kind manner. In fact, over the course of the tour’s 72 shows, Bruce assayed a whopping 139 different songs, 42 of which were played but once or twice. One could say the tour’s unspoken motto was: I do not play these songs often. I have not played them on this instrument. I may not play them this way again.

Case in point, the sublime version of “Tunnel of Love” that opens Grand Rapids. “I’m gonna start with something I haven’t played before,” says Bruce, just before his hands come down on the electric piano and the marvelously muted, swirling chords that only that instrument can make pour forth. Past a tentative first few notes, the confidence in his own playing swells, and the clarion vocal and wistful keyboard begin to interplay, as one lingers and punctuates the other right up to the last 12 resonant chords that end the song so beautifully. We didn’t hear “Tunnel of Love” live, we witnessed a new “Tunnel of Love” being born.

It doesn’t get any more magical than that, and yet, he has never played the song solo again.

What Grand Rapids captures so effectively is Springsteen’s version of this magical alchemy, that on any given Wednesday–not in New Jersey or Los Angeles, not in Milan or Gothenburg, but in his one and only concert ever in Grand Rapids–an unrepeatable performance could be created. And through the magic of the live download series, those of us who weren’t sitting at Van Andel Arena get to hear what what those lucky folks experienced.

While only three days separate Grand Rapids from Columbus, the other archive release from the Devils & Dust tour, to the points above the two shows are as distinct as they are kindred. Around a spine of songs from the album (including a rare outing for one of its least performed tracks, “Black Cowboys”) Springsteen puts his keyboard playing to the fore and the song selections are inspired. The choice of electric piano reinterprets “Sherry Darling,” now as much a melancholy remembrance as a summer party song, and the instrument applies a dreamlike filter to “Nothing Man,” bringing even deeper intimacy to its narrative.

Sequencing “I Wish I Were Blind” on piano to follow suggests an earlier chapter from the life of the same narrator; recontextualized, songs that never felt connected suddenly feel part of a whole. Staying with piano, Bruce delivers a fine rendition of “Racing in the Street,” his playing as majestic as the song warrants, especially the long outro. Later in the night, his final performance on piano, “Jesus Was an Only Son,” is another highlight, set up with a wonderful story of his family and sung with conviction and tenderness.

There are surprises on guitar as well, as Springsteen resurrects “Part Man, Part Monkey,” the amusing evolution tale from the Tunnel of Love tour. That album’s “Ain’t Got You” is delivered in fine form in the encore, as is the tour premiere of “(It’s Hard to Be A) Saint in the City,” sounding as fresh as the John Hammond audition.

Across the night Bruce is chatty, personable, occasionally profane and quite funny, revealing himself as much through his looseness as he does on Broadway with his marvelously crafted storytelling. That in-the-moment candor, a set filled with outstanding performances and an audio mix even more up-close than Columbus makes Grand Rapids a thrillingly unexpected gem.

It’s Just Me and You Tonight


Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Capitol Theater, Passaic, New Jersey, September 20, 1978

By Erik Flannigan

It was a homecoming when Bruce and the E Street Band returned to the Capitol Theater for a three-night run in September 1978. The Passaic shows were the band’s first New Jersey appearances on the Darkness tour, coming at the end of a run that saw Springsteen play 22 shows in 32 nights, nine of which took place within the 14-mile radius encompassing Madison Square Garden (three sold-out nights), the Palladium (another three sold-out nights) and the Capitol Theater. If you’re looking for the heart of the Darkness tour, look no further than the Passaic stand.

To mark the occasion, a special marquee was commissioned for the theater, and, most famously, it was decided that opening night at the Capitol, September 19th, would be broadcast live on FM stations from Maine to Virginia including WNEW-FM in New York City. The Passaic broadcast was a culmination of much of the success that had been earned on the Darkness tour, and, thanks to tapes and bootlegs of the broadcast, it was helped seal the legend of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band live in concert.

But the next night the pressure was off, and that’s what makes the Capitol Theater, September 20, 1978 such an exceptional performance and an essential addition to the archival download series. “It’s just me and you tonight,” says Bruce before launching into the show-opening cover of “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” If night one in Passaic was playing to Bruce’s entire east-coast fanbase listening on the radio, night two was playing for himself and many of his longtime Jersey fans.

What follows is an electric, 22-song performance that delivers much of the core ‘78 tour set along with special selections for those stalwart local supporters, including a long, band-showcasing “Kitty’s Back”; the galvanizing cover of the Animals’ “It’s My Life” (frequently played at 1976-77 shows but uncommon in ‘78); and a very rare live coupling a la the album of “Incident on 57th Street” into “Rosalita” which justifiably brings the house down. Smashing stuff.

As great as those special additions are, Darkness on the Edge of Town material is performed here at its peak, so the versions of “Badlands,” “The Promised Land,” “Prove It All Night” (with its long instrumental intro), “Candy’s Room” and the title track capture Bruce and the band at the height of their powers, augmented by the album outtakes “Fire” and “Because the Night” in equally fine form. If you’re looking for “Racing in the Street,” Bruce subs “It’s My Life” in its place, seemingly to honor an audience request you can make out clearly in the recording.

Add in future River songs “Independence Day” and “Point Blank” and there is no denying the intensity of the September 20 performance and the total commitment of the musicians. Even on tape, you can feel it as much as you hear it.

Yet the magic of a Springsteen concert is the balance of darkness and light. Here, with only 102 shopping days left until Christmas, the playfulness comes as Bruce performs “Santa Claus is Coming To Town” for the first time since 1975. Likewise, the encore is pure release, first firing a turbo-charged “Born to Run,” followed by an ebullient “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out,” “Detroit Medley” and finally, what else but “Twist and Shout.” As the latter comes to an end, a sweat-drenched Springsteen takes off his coat, throws it over his shoulder and shouts triumphantly, “I’m goin’ home!” He was already there.

Line recordings of the September 20 show have circulated for many years, initially in mono (pulled from an in-house video recording) and later in stereo from soundboard tapes. For the first time, this release comes from multi-track reels captured by the Record Plant’s mobile recording unit and mixed by Bob Clearmountain, after restoration by Jamie Howarth at Plangent Processes.

Compared to even the best of the bootlegs, Clearmountain’s mix is next level, fixing instrumental and vocal balance, while adding dimensionality, depth and a polish that this sparkling performance fully deserves. The Darkness tour has never sounded better than this.

Brothers and Sisters Don’t You Cry, There’ll Be Better Times By and By


Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, New Orleans, LA
April 30, 2006

By Erik Flannigan

Some things are meant to be. That Bruce Springsteen’s immersion into roots music, The Seeger Sessions, was released just six days before he and the band of the same name appeared at the first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival post-Hurricane Katrina had to be an act of benevolent fate. Rarely has the subject matter and style of a particular set of music felt so apropos to a moment.

Often it is the confluence of occasion and performance that distinguishes a great show from an all-timer and on those grounds, Jazz Fest 2006 has come to be considered one for the ages. “This…felt even above and beyond Springsteen’s high performance standards,” wrote LA Times critic Randy Lewis in his contemporary review, “a concert infused with the shout-out jubilation of an unfettered hootenanny.”

Reverent reflections on Bruce’s Jazz Fest performance have continued ever since. “I am not alone in ranking that show as quite likely the best, and certainly most emotional, musical experience of my life,” wrote New Orleans Times-Picyune critic Keith Spera in 2012.

Spera’s opinion is shared by none other than Springsteen himself, who wrote in Born to Run, “There was one show in America that stood out as not only one of the finest but one of the most meaningful of my work life: New Orleans.”

With such heady endorsements, Jazz Fest 2006 fully merits inclusion as the latest release in the archival download series. For those not lucky enough to witness the show in person, the official recording also represents a fresh opportunity to re-experience the performance, previously only available via audience recording.

The sound here, mixed from multi-tracks by Jon Altschiller, is full-bodied and warm, with a wide-stereo mix that gives space to all 20 or so players and singers on stage, and just the right amount of crowd response to capture the full bilateral experience.

“Alright, this is our first gig, let’s hope it goes well,” Bruce says at the top, summing up a spirit that’s equal parts purpose and looseness.

The former comes from being in New Orleans, post Katrina, a subject Bruce addresses head-on, notably in his intro to “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?,” reflecting on the devastation he witnessed while touring the city the day before the show and calling out the failure of government officials, from then President Bush on down, to address the situation. He goes so far as to dedicate the song to “President Bystander.”

The looseness is there by design in the very act of assembling and bringing this seemingly unwieldy number of accomplished players to the stage to play timeless folk and protest music (save for a few reworkings of Bruce’s own songs) for the first time on the road, as Jazz Fest also doubled as opening night of the Seeger Sessions tour.

The result is a Springsteen performance that’s fully in the moment and delightfully off the cuff. One minute he’s solemnly addressing the difficult times many in the Jazz Fest audience were experiencing, the next he’s mocking his own inability to tune a guitar or having an amusing wardrobe malfunction with his belt.

The music follows the same recipe for catharsis. “We Shall Overcome” is majestic and poignant, “Eyes On the Prize” elegiac and “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” triumphant, each brilliantly arranged to showcase the capabilities of the band. Elsewhere singalong songs like “Buffalo Gals” and “Pay Me My Money Down” offer rollicking fun and feel right at home on the Jazz Fest stage. As Springsteen himself wrote in Born to Run: “I finally had a band that I felt would contextually fit Jazz Fest and might be able to pull the weight of that position.”

Of the Seeger-ized originals played here, “Open All Night,” reimagined as a big-band rave-up, is the standout, but another of Bruce’s own compositions, written with this kind of band already in mind, provided the night’s emotional crescendo.

“This is a song I originally wrote for my adopted hometown, Asbury Park,” Springsteen says introducing “My City of Ruins.” “Parts of it look a lot like parts of New Orleans right now….so I wanna sing this and dedicate it to the people and the city of New Orleans tonight.”

The fitting question the song asks, “How will I begin again?”, and the empowering answer, “Come on, rise up,” struck a deep chord with many in attendance. Wrote Spera in his original Times-Picyune review, “Thousands lifted their hands to the sky. I wept, my wife wept. And we were not alone.”

Throughout the set, lyric after lyric from the Seeger Sessions material feels penned for the New Orleans audience. “What happened to you poor folks just ain’t fair,” Springsteen declares in “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?,” while “O Mary Don’t You Weep” prophesies, “Brothers and sisters don’t you cry, there’ll be good times by and by.” Hearing such words of acknowledgement and hope sung out in such a musically engaging performance translates wonderfully in the Jazz Fest 2006 recording.

Perhaps the LA Times’ Randy Lewis summed it up best: “One concert, of course, cannot even begin to undo such monumental destruction as Katrina left, but Springsteen seemed to understand that even a moment of renewal can make a huge difference.” Amen to that.

The Tunnel of Love Is Open To Everyone


Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Stockholm Stadion, Stockholm, Sweden, July 3, 1988

By Erik Flannigan

Tracing Bruce Springsteen’s career arc from cult artist to superstar, theater to arena headliner, there’s a case to be made that a series of radio broadcasts on the 1978 Darkness On the Edge of Town tour played a significant role. The five home-recorded, fan-traded and oft-bootlegged concerts from The Roxy, The Agora, The Capitol Theater, The Fox and Winterland captured and ultimately spread the magic of Bruce and the E Street Band’s live show, and seemingly converted thousands to fill arenas two years later on the River tour.

Despite that rich history, there were no live broadcasts from the River tour, the Born in the U.S.A. tour or the U.S. leg of the Tunnel of Love tour. Which is why in 1988, after ten years of radio silence, the announcement that a portion of Springsteen’s July 3rd show in Stockholm would be broadcast live via satellite to the U.S. and the world was huge news for fans.

Like many among us, I tuned in that Fourth of July weekend and heard a potent 90-minute first set that wrapped with Bruce announcing plans to join the Amnesty International tour before wrapping the broadcast portion with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Chimes Of Freedom” (later released on the EP of the same name). It was the first of hundreds of listens to follow.

Conveniently apportioned to fill a 90-minute cassette tape, the Stockholm broadcast joined the five ‘78 b-casts as the most played live Springsteen recordings most of us had. There was just one problem: as great as those 14 songs were, 20 other songs were played in Stockholm after the satellite feed came down, and short of a crummy audience tape, few of us have had a chance to hear the full show, until now.

Happily, this complete, multi-track recording validates what we all presumed: the Stockholm show was one of the best on the Tunnel tour, offering a passionate, hyper-focused first-set and–freed from the pressure of a global listening audience–a rollicking, playful second set and encore. Looking for a sign of Springsteen’s mood after the transmission ended? How about the inclusion of Gary U.S. Bonds’ ultimate party track “Quarter to Three” for the first time since 1981.

Fondness for the familiar first set is richly deserved. It starts with Bruce inviting the audience in the stadium and at home to come aboard with a wonderful “Tunnel of Love,” now followed by a horn-blasting “Boom Boom’ (with its unabashed sentiment of “I need you right now” replacing “Be True,” performed in this slot for most of the US leg). The brazen John Lee Hooker cover forms a bond of emancipation with what follows, “Adam Raised a Cain,” again propelled by the five-piece Horns of Love. Bruce hadn’t toured with a horn section since ‘77 and their presence is a critical component in the distinct sound and theatrics of ‘88 shows.

Because the broadcast was limited to 90 minutes, the first set showcased key Tunnel tracks, including a majestic “Tougher Than the Rest,” “Spare Parts,” “Brilliant Disguise” and “All That Heaven Will Allow.” Bruce also featured two killer non-album tracks: “Roulette,” unforgivably left off The River, but resuscitated to sound an alarm on the Tunnel tour; and “Seeds,” another take on the plight of working-class Americans and this time they’re pissed.

Perhaps the surprise highlight of the first set is “Born in the U.S.A.” Separated from its namesake tour and attendant misinterpretations, the song’s deep-seated anger is rekindled. Listen to Bruce’s shrieks of angst before Max’s drum crescendo, echoed later his own impassioned guitar solo. The story has grown more personal, too, as Springsteen adds new flashback lyrics after the final verse: “I just want your arms around me/I see the fire from the sky/I need your arms around me.” A stunning performance.

Set two is a totally different animal, but no less satisfying. I have often wondered how a seemingly long-forgotten song returns to the set, and there is no better example of this than the sudden reappearance of the instrumental “Paradise By the ‘C’” which opens the second set, after premiering four nights earlier in Rotterdam. What prompted its resurrection, after going unplayed since the Darkness tour? Sure, it suits the horns, but then again, there was no horn section in ‘78.

Regardless, it is a welcome showcase for Clarence and the Horns of Love, and sets the tone for a highly entertaining second set that milks the expanded band lineup and staging dynamics for all they are worth on songs like “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” (which begins with a long, bit of musical teasing and showmanship often referred to as “Don’t You Touch That Thing”), “I’m A Coward” (Springsteen’s comic rewrite of Gino Washington’s ‘60s original) and a chock full o’ horns encore sequence of “Sweet Soul Music,” “Raise Your Hand,” the aforementioned “Quarter to Three,” and the inevitable last song for a show this joyous, “Twist and Shout.”

There are a few serious moments in the back half, among them the fine ‘88 arrangement of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” into “She’s the One,” the first “Downbound Train” of the tour, and an unflinchingly earnest reading of Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Interestingly, Stockholm ‘88 has a connection to Springsteen on Broadway in that the solo acoustic version of “Born to Run” that Bruce is currently performing was first played in that arrangement on the Tunnel tour, a fine take of which is captured here.

Stockholm ‘88 has always been a fan-favorite because of the simulcast. Now restored to full length and remixed from the master tapes, it rightly joins Springsteen’s other legendary radio broadcasts as one of the best concert recordings of his career and a great representation of the Tunnel of Love tour’s European edition.

Blood Brothers Reunited: MSG 7/1/2000


Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band

Madison Square Garden, New York City, July 1, 2000

By Erik Flannigan

Given the hundreds of shows performed since 2000, today one can overlook how momentous the Reunion tour was for fans who had been hoping, waiting and questioning for more than decade if Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band would ever hit the road again.

Eleven years had passed since the last full tour supporting Tunnel of Love and then Amnesty International in 1988. There was a smattering band activity around the release of Greatest Hits in 1995 (for which they recorded a few new songs), but it would take four more years for Bruce to officially summon the E Streeters back (including, for the first time since 1981, Steve Van Zandt) following the release of Tracks.

Even those directly involved would likely concede a tentativeness at the start of the tour in April 1999 and fans felt it, too. Was the Reunion tour a one-off or was the E Street Band back for good? Was it a nostalgic celebration of the past or the beginning of a new chapter?

By the start of the unforgettable ten-night, tour-closing stand at Madison Square Garden in June and July 2000, those questions had been answered. The bond between Bruce and the E Street Band was not only restored, but their status as an on-going concern now felt undeniable. On top of that, over the course of the MSG run, Springsteen performed several brand-new songs that pointed the way forward while changing up setlists to include welcome rarities from the past, playing with a supreme confidence earned through over a year of touring.

All of which raised the stakes for the tour’s final performance on July 1. The show wasn’t merely the culmination of the MSG run or the Reunion tour, but of the spiritual rebirth of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band itself. As such, expectations for the night were sky high, boosted even higher by the outstanding sets at MSG which led up to it. What would Springsteen do for such a special night? Could he top the brilliance of shows 8 and 9 just days before? In the end, he didn’t have to.

The July 1 show stands as a powerful, majestic performance sprinkled with moments of transcendence. Rather than deviate far from script on the last night, Springsteen stuck to the core songs that formed the spine of Reunion tour set: “My Love Won’t Let You Down” and “Murder Incorporated,” the superb Born in the U.S.A. outtakes mercifully liberated on Tracks; “Two Hearts,” Steve Van Zandt’s spotlight number, to which Bruce appropriately adds a few bars of Marvin Gaye & Kim Weston’s “It Takes Two”; “Youngtown,” recast from its acoustic roots into an electrified, Nils Lofgren-powered furnace blast; “Born In the U.S.A.,” which went the other direction, from electric to acoustic, while still packing a wallop; “The River,” more pensive and lonesome than ever; and supercharged crowd-pleasers “Badlands,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “Light of Day.” This is the material upon which the Reunion tour was built.

To these Springsteen added new songs, opening the show with the urgent rocker “Code of Silence” and bringing “Further On Up The Road” to the encore, where it joined “Land Of Hope And Dreams,” the Reunion tour theme song, which debuted all the way back at the tour rehearsals and was played at every show. But the new song generating the most heat was “American Skin (41 Shots),” written about the shooting of Amadou Diallo the year prior. You can read about the controversy it stoked during the MSG run elsewhere, but suffice it to say that this beautifully arranged and lyrically poetic song is as relevant today as it was at the time of this moving performance.

Of course, there were songs for the occasion, too. In celebration of the band, “E Street Shuffle” is perfectly appropriate, as is Bruce’s solo piano performance of “The Promise” to start the encore, another one of the great, lost songs restored to performance on the Reunion tour. And one can only stand in awe at the ballsy inclusion of “Lost In the Flood,” the musically complex epic not played since the Darkness tour until this night and absolutely nailed by the band, especially pianist Roy Bittan.

The peak of the aforementioned transcendence came at the end of the night, when, for the first time on the tour, Springsteen performed “Blood Brothers,” one of the new songs he recorded for Greatest Hits and something fans thought might be played every show before the tour had started. The sentiment of “Blood Brothers” reflects that spirit of rebirth between Bruce and the band, and on this night, he added a newly penned final verse that appended a touching coda to the entire performance. It was a sublime musical moment and a real-time catharsis for Bruce, the band and the fans, signaling that those lyrics, this night and the entire tour had reformed the bonds between them all.

“I was hoping that our tour would be the rebirth and the renewal of our band and of our commitment to serve you,” Springsteen said, introducing “Land of Hope and Dreams.” “I hope we’ve done that well this year and we´ll continue to try and do so….”

While parts of this show, along with some songs from June 29, were culled for the two-CD set Live In New York City released in March 2001, hearing the July 1 show from beginning to end, as it happened, with all key songs restored is a new and wholly rewarding experience.

Bruce Springsteen: You Can’t Sit Down — The Other Great Shows of the Darkness Tour


Hurricane Relief: Houston, Texas, 12/8/78
A Benefit for MusiCares® Hurricane Relief Fund

By Erik Flannigan

It is nearly impossible to find a Springsteen fan who doesn’t revere the Darkness tour. Those who witnessed one of its 111 shows in person speak of it in language typically reserved for religious conversion. Happily for the the rest of us, either born or converted after January 1, 1979, the palpable sense that Bruce and the E Street Band were laying it all on the line every-single-night is remarkably well preserved in the live recordings, from the official download of the Agora in Cleveland, August 9, 1978, on through the various audience tapes, radio broadcasts and soundboards in circulation among fans ever since.

Our insatiable appetite for the Darkness tour and a truly worthy cause make the audio release of Houston, December 8, 1978 most welcome. Many will be familiar with the show from its inclusion as the live DVD in the 2010 Darkness box set, but this download marks its first release in a more user friendly, audio-only edition. And the show warrants re-appreciation.

A big source of that deep and widely held love of the ‘78 tour stems from the fact that five incredible concerts were broadcast on the radio regionally: The Roxy in Los Angeles, the aforementioned Agora in Cleveland, the Capitol Theater in Passaic, the Fox Theater in Atlanta and Winterland in San Francisco. Hundreds of thousands of fans have been listening to recordings and bootlegs of the ‘78 broadcasts for nearly 40 years, to the point where they are as familiar with those performances as they are with the Darkness album itself. Myself, maybe more so.

Justifiably, all five are held in extremely high regard as some of the best shows Bruce and the band ever played. The Houston show was never available as anything but an incomplete, mediocre audience recording until the DVD. As such, it lacks the kind of decades-long familiarity that makes the five radio-broadcast shows so legendary.

But Houston stands strong on its own merits as a fantastic and vital show representative of the tour’s final leg and boasts an outstanding setlist and performance to match. The city has had a long relationship with Springsteen, as one of the first markets outside of the east coast where he found a following before Born to Run. Bruce is well aware of that history during the show, name-checking Liberty Hall, site of a mini band residency in March 1974, before a scorching “Saint in the City,” and adding the unreleased early burner “The Fever” to the second set.

Those are but two of the highlights in a 27-song setlist packed with them. A look back to ‘74 is complemented by a peek into the future as Springsteen plays what at the time were three unreleased songs from his next album, The River, opening the second set with “The Ties That Bind,” after playing “Independence Day” in the first, and adding an unsettling “Point Blank” later in the show.

If you’re counting, that’s four unreleased songs so far, to which he adds the Darkness outtakes “Fire” and “Because the Night,” for a total of six, seven if you count the snippet of “Preachers Daughter” in the mesmerizing intro to a long “She’s the One” that also contains an unusual mid-song breakdown often referred to as “I Get Mad.”

From the album Darkness we draw another seven tracks to the set, notably “Prove It All Night” with its long, piano-and-guitar intro, a scorching “Streets of Fire” and a fine “Candy’s Room.” The bounty continues with cover songs, first “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town,” as the season demands, and an encore which pays homage to Mitch Ryder with the “Detroit Medley,” Philly’s own Dovells with “You Can’t Sit Down,” and Springsteen hero Gary U.S. Bonds for the show-closing “Quarter to Three.”

You’ve watched the Houston show before. But have you listened? This release gives us all a chance to do so again with fresh ears and revel at Bruce and the E Street Band at the peak of their powers in 1978.

Bruce Springsteen Going It Alone: The Ghost of Tom Joad Revisited


Belfast, Northern Ireland, 3/19/96

Bruce Springsteen. Solo Acoustic Tour.

By Erik Flannigan

Some fans dreamt about that phrase for the better part of two decades, even as they cherished the many band tours therein. Back in 1971-72, before there was an E Street Band, Springsteen dabbled as an acoustic singer-songwriter, gigging around Greenwich Village at tiny venues like Max’s Kansas City. So the solo performer had always been there, it just took some time to resurface.

The first sign came in 1986, when Bruce played Neil Young’s annual Bridge School benefit concert. While he was augmented for much of the show by Nils Lofgren and Danny Federici, the second song of the set was the powerful Nebraska-era arrangement of “Born In The U.S.A.,” and that singular performance showed the power Bruce could harness alone on stage.

Four years later in 1990, Springsteen gave two solo acoustic concerts in Los Angeles to benefit the Christic Institute (both of these truly astonishing sets were released in 2016 as part of the live download series). In hindsight, the Christic shows planted the seeds for the solo Joad tour five years later, blending fresh arrangements of familiar songs, material originally recorded solo and brand new music.

The March 19, 1996 Belfast show at King’s Hall was Bruce’s first ever in Northern Ireland and its recording captures the spirit and soul of the Joad tour brilliantly. We’re around 50 shows in at this point, with Springsteen performing at the most intimate venues he had played since Europe ‘81 and setting the tone that this was no arena concert.

“Just about all the music tonight is real quiet,” Bruce tells his Belfast audience as he did each night of the tour. “So I really need your help in getting that kind of silence.” And if someone fails to heed his simple request? “Politely, with a smile on your face, ask them to…shut the fuck up,” he suggests.

His hilarious admonishment reflects two of the most appealing elements of the Joad tour: first, the return of Springsteen as storyteller, a hallmark in the early years but less so in the ‘80s and ‘90s; second, a new level of candor from the artist that seemed squarely aimed at chipping away the myth and re-introducing us to Springsteen the man.

Some twenty years on, the Joad album and supporting tour performances play like a singular body of work, presented as much on Bruce’s own terms as any phase in his career, the exception being Joad’s kindred spirit, Nebraska. His artistic control is palpable as the Belfast show unfolds, eschewing beloved setlist staples in favor of nine beautifully rendered songs from Joad, many prefaced by self-deprecating stories or contextual background on his narrative subjects.

To the Joad material Bruce adds three at-the-time-unreleased songs played back to back: “The Wish,” a nostalgic ode to his mother’s love and support, introduced in humorous, unflinching language that might cause Adele to plug her ears; “The Little Things,” a chance encounter/hook-up tale, the intro to which challenges our notion of what is and what isn’t autobiographical in Bruce’s yarn-spinning; and “Brothers Under The Bridge,” a stunning addition to Springsteen’s canon of Vietnam Veterans songs, performed with understated, elegiac beauty all the way through its haunting final verse. “Brothers Under The Bridge” is a highlight of the show and stands with his finest songwriting on the subject or otherwise.

A riveting acoustic “Born In The U.S.A.” follows and continues the Vets narrative, and if that wasn’t sobering enough, “Reason to Believe” receives its most bleak reading ever, in a relentless, falsetto-dipped arrangement that pulls no punches, a far cry from the rave-up version heard on recent tours. Also rearranged to stunning effect are “Darkness On The Edge Of Town,” played with urgency and passion on 12-string acoustic, and “Bobby Jean,” recast as a mid-60s Bob Dylan number.

Like most shows on the tour, the main Belfast set closes with a four-song arc of Joad songs “set on the border between California and Mexico” exploring, as Bruce cites, what Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes described as something “more like a scar, than a border.” These tale and characters, observed and imagined during the years Springsteen lived in Los Angeles, form a kind of dark and dusty novella about what happens to those who dare to cross borders, both literal and figurative. The arc ends with “Across the Border,” a reflection on the inextinguishable hope that drives the dreams of those searching for a better life elsewhere.

Springsteen would open his musical aperture later in the tour at magical shows like the homecoming gigs in Freehold and Asbury Park. But Belfast, with its compelling contrast of stark music and challenging narratives offset by Bruce’s often funny, always candid storytelling, presents the Joad tour in pure form.