Brendan Byrne Arena, East Rutherford, NJ, August 20, 1984
By Erik Flannigan
Nearly three years ago, Bruce Springsteen’s archival download series delivered a previously un-bootlegged gem: Brendan Byrne Arena, August 5, 1984, the first high-quality Born in the U.S.A. tour soundboard from multi-tracks and opening night of the ten-show New Jersey homecoming run. Now, the stunning complement arrives, August 20, 1984, final night of the Brendan Byrne stand.
Featuring memorable guest appearances by Stevie Van Zandt and the Miami Horns, 8/20/84 is justifiably regarded as one of the best shows of the tour and earns a place on the short list of Bruce’s most celebrated shows of all time as much because of what it represented as the music performed. To understand why requires a bit of mental time travel.
For Springsteen fans, the wait between the final show of the River tour in September 1981 and the start of the Born In The U.S.A. tour in June 1984 felt like eternity. In 1982, we got Nebraska, though no tour, as well as Van Zandt’s Men Without Women, released that October. Stevie’s solo debut planted the seed that his future in the E Street Band was in doubt. With his second album, Voice of America (released but a month before Born in the U.S.A.), the question was answered; soon thereafter Nils Lofgren was announced as his replacement.
Today,18 years beyond the Reunion tour and Stevie’s full return to the band, one can forget how devastating his departure felt back then. Springsteen bid him an emotional farewell in song with “Bobby Jean,” as well as in the album credits to Born In The U.S.A. where he wrote, “Buon viaggio, mio fratello, Little Steven,” which translates roughly to, “Have a good trip, my brother.” Kleenex, please.
All of which leads us to the Meadowlands, summer 1984. Nils had earned his stripes over the tour’s first several weeks, gracefully and capably stepping into Stevie’s shoes Born in the U.S.A. occupied the No. 1 slot on the Billboard Top 200 album chart for the entire month of July. And Bruce and the band were rolling into New Jersey for an unprecedented ten shows. In a career of peaks, the summer of ‘84 was one of the highest.
The previously released first night, August 5, is an excellent show in its own right. But as Bruce acknowledges to start August 20, “Well, tonight’s the night.” He knew it. The audience knew it, too. From there, an alchemy of anticipation, occasion and celebration combine to yield an inspirational performance that showcases the best of the Born In The U.S.A. tour arena era, plus singular moments that still resonate to this day.
The first set, heard here in a muscular, guitar-forward mix from multi-tracks by Jon Altschiller, plays out with the confidence of a new line-up hitting its stride (like Nils, Patti was but a few weeks into the band as well). The powerful, electric version of Atlantic City” might well be definitive, with Max’s gut-punch kick drum leading the way. Also from Nebraska comes “Highway Patrolman”; listen for a rare turn on harmonica by Clarence Clemons. We also gain two BIUSA album tracks not featured on 8/5/84, “I’m Goin’ Down” and “Darlington County” (“Cover Me,” in the second set, is a third), plus two other set changes for the regulars: “Spirit In The Night,” setting a proper Jersey backdrop to the evening, and a powerful “Darkness On The Edge Of Town.” “I know a lot of you guys been here for more than one night,” Bruce concedes later in the show, “almost everybody.”
Springsteen begins the second set with a crowd-pleasing trio of “Hungry Heart,” “Dancing in the Dark” and “Cadillac Ranch” before dropping his first surprise of the evening. I can only imagine the anticipation people felt as microphone stands were set up behind Roy Bittan. It is genuinely thrilling to hear the Miami Horns (appearing with Bruce first time since 1977) once again blast the opening refrain of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” From that delirious high point, we slide to one of the tour’s poignant highlights, the solo acoustic “No Surrender.”
As evidenced by that transition, the show’s pacing–faithful to the core tour setlist, but brilliantly sprinkled with gems–is part of its charm. One senses both the confidence the band had gained playing new album songs over ten nights for hometown fans and Bruce’s desire to make it a night all of them would never forget by closing a very important loop.
The remainder of the second set finishes as strong as the first, with classic stories teeing up “Pink Cadillac” and “Growin’ Up,” along with a charged “Prove It All Night” before wrapping with “Rosalita.” The encore opens in fine fashion with “Jungleland” and then, the moment arrives. “Tonight’s a special night. Little Steven is gonna come up and play with us tonight.” As captured on tape, those words are met with a roar of pure audience elation.
Springsteen’s song choices for the occasion are spot-on. From his own canon, it could only be “Two Hearts,” performed for the first time on the tour. You can hear Stevie’s guitar join the mix as the song takes a few extra bars before locking in. When the pair share the mic at the start of the second verse, the cheer from the crowd bleeds through behind them. But “Two Hearts” merely set the table.
What follows is one of the best live moments in Springsteen’s entire career. The decision to cover “Drift Away” (written by Mentor Williams and made famous by Dobie Gray) is a masterstroke. “[We] learned something special for you tonight,” Bruce says, and shortly thereafter the song’s stately horn line begins and magic fills the arena.
Williams’ heartfelt lyrics, about seeking solace in music when you feel vulnerable, have always struck a chord, which is part of the song’s inherent greatness. Yet in the context of this night, with Van Zandt rejoining Springsteen on stage for the first time since leaving the band, “Drift Away” feels purpose written for these blood brothers, as they trade fitting line after fitting line.
Bruce takes the first verse, Stevie the second (the last line of which is particularly apropos, “Countin’ on you, to see me through”), and they share a memorable bridge:
And when my mind is free, just a melody can soothe me
Listen Brucie. When I’m feelin’ blue, guitars comin’ through to soothe me
Thanks for the joy, the 20 years you’ve given me/ I believe in your song/ Rhythm and the rhyme and the harmony/ You help me along, making me strong
The emotion in their voices unmistakable. The arrangement then moves compellingly to the song’s denouement, as Bruce brings the band down and lets voices carry an extended chorus. The Big Man’s rich baritone, Patti’s harmonies, even La Bamba’s piercing falsetto all join in to bring the song to magnificent conclusion. The bond described in “Bobby Jean” comes full circle with this performance of “Drift Away.”
After Van Zandt exits, the encore rolls on in high spirits, and the horns come back one last time to enliven “Detroit Medley” and “Twist and Shout – Do You Love Me,” closing out an unforgettable night of rebirth and reunion. Reliving it in high-quality audio today is what the archival download series is all about.