By Erik Flannigan
Any longtime fan who has seen their fair share of Springsteen shows has at some point played the Time Machine game: If you could go back in time and see any Bruce concert, which would it be? A wish to witness tours and performances well before our time is a charming fantasy. More painful is taking stock of the shows you could have seen but didn’t. Yet another level is more haunting still: concerts you were supposed to attend until life got in the way.
Los Angeles 10/23/99 is my cross to bear. I was living in the Northwest at the time, which the Reunion tour wouldn’t visit until April 2000. That meant my closest chance to see the reconvened E Street Band were shows in Oakland and Los Angeles, the latter a four-night stand. A fortuitously timed work trip allowed me to catch the second night at the newly opened Staples Center on 10/18, and I was holding tickets for the final show on 10/23, for which I would fly back to LA.
On 10/22, the flu hit me hard. After much deliberation and soul searching, I conceded I was just too sick to travel, canceled my trip, and gave away my tickets.
On the morning of 10/24, I got on the Internet to check the setlist of the show the night before and realized what a terrible choice I had made, shouting the following between several choice expletives: “He played ‘Take ‘Em as They Come’?!” “Incident on 57th Street?!” “For You?” “Blinded By the Light?” “The Promise?” “SOLO PIANO?!” Motherclucker!
That nagging regret has not relented to this day, and the release of 10/23/99 confirms it is justified. The final LA ‘99 show is an outstanding Reunion tour performance, from the moment “Reverend” Clarence Clemons implores, “Brothers and Sisters, all rise” to start the show. There’s something special about Reunion sets that open with the “Meeting in the Town Tonight” preamble, and going from that straight into “Take ‘Em as They Come” is irresistible. The River outtake/Tracks highlight is one of those songs I never imagined I would hear in concert back when it was but a hissy song on a cassette I got mail order via a classified ad that ran in the back of a music magazine like Goldmine or Trouser Press.
For me, that’s one of the elements that made the Reunion tour so enthralling. The band was back together for the first time since ‘88, but they were also playing unreleased songs I never dreamed possible in a Springsteen concert. Add to that the return of songs unplayed since the ‘70s and you had the intoxicating belief that any song could find its way into a Reunion tour setlist.
The first half of the set nails the ‘99 blueprint, with the notable inclusions of an excellent “The Ties That Bind” following “Take ‘Em,” a resolute “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” and one of the best takes of “Factory” on the tour. It’s fascinating how distinct this “Adam Raised a Cain” is compared to the performance from the Chicago ‘99 archive release recorded less than a month before, putting more muscle into thick guitar where Chi-Town soared on incredible vocal dynamics.
Then there’s the humor. I’m not sure Bruce has ever been more deadpan than delivering jokes expressing his disdain for the corporate branding of LA’s state-of-the-art arena. “Good evening office supply lovers,” he says. “I’ve been searching for Mr. Staples.” On opening night of the run, he called out the building for its triple-decker skyboxes that start where upper bowl of a typical arena would be. “They don’t call ’em middle-of-the-room boxes,” he added, before invoking a line he famously uttered at The Roxy 21 years prior: “I don’t play no private parties anymore.” True to his word, despite Staples Center being the newest and biggest arena in Los Angeles, Bruce has not played another concert there to this day.
Every archive release provides an HD window to hear details otherwise lost on bootleg recordings and 10/23/99 is no exception. Though they are but a few seconds each, I love hearing Danny Federici’s organ swells at the start of “Murder Incorporated” and “Incident on 57th Street.” HD quality also shines a light on Roy Bittan’s lovely playing on the aforementioned “Factory,” not to mention Bruce and Patti’s lilting harmonies that wind down the song.
The back half of 10/23/99 is sensational. By request, we get “Incident on 57th Street.” This Wild & Innocent fan favorite returned to the set in Philadelphia on 9/25/99 for the first time since Nassau ‘80, but its appearance here is arguably even more special. Based on available setlists, Springsteen had never played the song on the west coast, let alone LA, going all the way back to 1974. For all but a lucky few, this was its Pacific Time Zone debut.
“Incident” is followed by an essentially perfect “For You,” which couldn’t be played better in ‘99 (maybe any year) than this. The pacing, the vocal intonation, the band, the spirit, Max’s cymbal work, the Big Man’s sax… all are spot on. A divine performance.
Of all the regrets I have about missing this show, “The Promise” stands as the biggest. The feeling of seeing the band leave stage and Bruce walking back to Roy’s piano by himself had to be an all-time “Holy Shit” moment for many, and I still wish I could be counted among them. Hearing the performance here made me appreciate it all the more, starting slightly tentative on piano then gaining composure. Bruce sings with a touch of weariness, taking time to let his words land and ultimately restoring one of his greatest compositions to the canon. So very special.
Bruce could do no wrong from that point forward, and he didn’t. Like “For You,” we’re gifted a remarkably timeless “Backstreets,” steeped with Bittan’s expressive piano. Setlist normalcy returns for the end of the set and the encore, delivered with high-gear intensity. “Light of Day” is extra fun, with a quick romp through “California Sun” (made famous by The Rivieras) by way of the memorable guitar riff from Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man.”
As the last show in LA, 10/23/99 is definitely a “one more song” kind of night. To the delight of every office supply lover in the building, we’re treated to “Blinded By the Light,” in only its second performance since 1976. Though arguably Bruce’s most famous song pre-Born to Run (largely because of the Manfred Mann cover), the song has a spotty performance history even back in the day. Its celebratory, playful appearance seals the night with a fitting E Street kiss goodnight.