By Erik Flannigan
One of the most thrilling times to be a sports fan is when your team is in the midst of a winning streak. They occur in all sports, but in baseball and especially basketball, winning streaks are irresistible because of the unique way they place team chemistry, a “never give up” mentality, and moments of individual brilliance against a backdrop of ever-rising stakes. Who doesn’t want to tune in to see if your team can push their streak to 17, 21, or 33 in a row?
It could be argued that the entire live performance history of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band is one long winning streak. That acknowledged, and with the benefit of hindsight and live recordings, fan consensus has coalesced around notable E Street streaks: the last two weeks of the 1977 tour with the Miami Horns; the late-’84 stretch of the Born in the U.S.A. tour.; and the final U.S. leg of Magic 2008 to name but a few.
The River tour boasts a few of its own streaks, and without question, Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve 1980 is among the best of them. A staggering run of shows throughout the Northeast culminated in a three-night stand at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. With his first chart-topping album and a Top Five single (“Hungry Heart”) in hand, Bruce and the band closed out 1980 more popular than ever.
Shows that wrapped that leg of the tour offered an intoxicating mix of musician-athletes performing at their peak, newfound confidence drawn from a long-awaited commercial breakthrough, and a continued hunger to prove it all night.
Supporting a double album of new material, that hunger was manifest in the increasing duration of the concerts and the stunning number of songs performed. In fact, until records were broken in 2012, the late-’80 River shows were the longest of Bruce’s career. Other shows and tours have their own distinct qualities, but if you are talking about a run of epic Springsteen concerts, the Thanksgiving-New Year’s ’80 streak is the reference point.
Nassau Coliseum 12/29/80 and its sister show 12/31/80 (reissued in a newly remixed and remastered edition) each stretch to 35 or more songs and live up to the legend of Bruce’s four-hour concerts by running close to that (counting the between-sets intermission). There may be other eras where the band played this well, but there is no period where they played better.
Both stunning performances are packed with delicious rarities along with some of the strongest versions of core material ever caught on multi-tracks. With a bounty of more than 70 songs between the two shows, there’s too much good stuff to cover, but here are ten things to listen for as you relive these magical nights.
1.Springsteen debuted his brilliant take on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain” three shows earlier at Madison Square Garden. It has endured as one of the band’s finest covers, popping up a few times on tours ever since. The versions performed on 12/29 and 12/31 are musically rich and heartfelt, pointing to the musical direction Bruce would explore six months hence on the band’s first proper tour of Europe.
2. Having just read Joe Klein’s biography of Woody Guthrie, Bruce covers “This Land Is Your Land” for the first time during the three-show Nassau stand, calling it an “angry song…an answer to Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America’.” With the possible exception of a one-off performance of Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” in 1978, it is the first protest song Springsteen performed in concert with the E Street Band and signals the start of his public turn toward social and political commentary.
3. The paternal pairing of “Factory” and “Independence Day” on 12/29 is not only an evocative stretch of storytelling, but could pass for a dramatic monologue at a Broadway theater.
4. One of the signature sequences of early River tour shows is Roy Bittan’s mini-suite of “The River” into “Badlands.” 1980 performances of “The River” start with an original piano prelude (echoed by Danny Federici) before Bruce’s plaintive harmonica wail starts the song formally. Shortly after “The River” ends, Bittan starts into his interpretation of Ennio Morricone’s theme from the Sergio Leone film Once Upon A Time In The West. As Bittan plays the moving piano refrain, electric guitar chords start to chime in, building energy that crescendos when the intro gives way to an explosive “Badlands.” Magnificent.
5. The River tour is the height of Stevie Van Zandt’s role as backing vocalist, at times reaching the point of co-lead vocals. He’s a marvel at these shows on expected songs like “Two Hearts” and “Prove It All Night,” but listen for him in more unexpected places like the chorus of “Thunder Road” for signs of just how into it he is at Nassau.
6. Bruce’s spirited vocal on “For You” is full of fresh intonations distinct from other renditions.
7. The earnest story that leads into “Stolen Car” on 12/29 might melt your heart; the moving performance itself will have you reaching for a tissue or three.
8. The gorgeous, stripped-down arrangement of “The Price You Pay” on 12/31 starts solo. The band joins softly in the second verse, and we’re treated to the alternate third verse found in the single-disc version of The River included in The Ties That Bind box set. As good as it gets.
9. While we’ve heard the incredible version of “Incident on 57th Street” from 12/29 before (it was released as the b-side to “War” from Live 1975/85), hearing it in context of the show is so much sweeter. “This is a song we haven’t done in a real long time,” says Bruce, as he tests out the chords on his guitar. “No, it ain’t ‘Kitty’s Back.’ I hope I remember all the words….” Roy tinkles out the first few notes, the crowd swoons in recognition of the song, Max comes with his drum intro, and the lead guitar sends us soaring. If that wasn’t enough, after nearly ten majestic minutes, it rolls straight into “Rosalita” as it does on The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle.
10. You want rarities? We got rarities. Beyond the aforementioned, the Nassau shows feature “Rendezvous,” the first-ever version of the “Hungry Heart” b-side “Held Up Without a Gun,” sublime seasonal nuggets “Merry Christmas Baby” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” plus Happy New Year covers of “In the Midnight Hour” and “Auld Lang Syne.” All that, plus 15 of the 20 songs on The River, including the under-played “Fade Away,” “Wreck on the Highway” and “The Price You Pay.”
A Final Note: Jon Altschiller’s new mix and mastering on 12/31/80 moves the listener from the 40th row to the first, proximity that reveals incredible new detail and musical power.
After electing to Plangent Process 12/29/80 for release, it was clear that 12/31/80 also deserved a Plangent-transferred new mix and mastering to match, as the version released in 2015 was not up to the same standards.
While the Plangent Processed and remixed version of 12/31/80 is being sold as a standalone release, anyone who bought the original can access the new upgraded audio for free via the “My Stash” section of the nugs.net app, which provides streaming access to all shows purchased as downloads or CDs (no subscription required). Previous buyers of New Years Eve ’80 can log in with the account credentials they used to buy the show the first time.