By Erik Flannigan
When the Born in the U.S.A. tour kicked off in late June 1984, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band had been off the road for more than two and a half years — or eternity, by Springsteen standards. Contrast that with their previous longest hiatus from the road, 21 months that passed between the end of the Darkness tour (January 1, 1979) and the start of the River tour (October 3, 1980). Prior to that, Bruce and the band had played a significant number of shows every year since 1972.
Not only did 1981-84 represent the longest gap between proper concerts, but the Born in the U.S.A. tour also marked the first personnel changes within the band in ten years, as Stevie Van Zandt stepped out, Nils Lofgren stepped in, and Miss Patti Scialfa expanded the E Street Band from six to seven full-time members.
The song catalog was growing, too. As a double album, The River contributed many new tracks to 1980-81 setlists, but in 1984, Bruce was again supporting two albums’ worth of new material, with one of them a true departure: the solo acoustic Nebraska.
All of which is to say that the early weeks of the 1984 tour marked a period of material change and recalibration to the established Springsteen live show. We can hear that process thrillingly in progress with the release of 8/6/84.
This concert was the second night of an unprecedented ten-show stand at the Brendan Byrne Arena in E. Rutherford, NJ. The sold-out run was strategically placed seven weeks into the tour, which gave the new line-up and material time to gel. With but two exceptions (Montreal and Saratoga Springs), all dates prior to the Jersey stand featured two or three nights in a given market.
Multi-track recordings from 1984 are limited to this Brendan Byrne run, and the Live Archive series has already released two of its finest shows, opening night (8/5/84) and closing night (8/20/84), each worthy in its own right.
What makes 8/6/84 distinct from its predecessors is that it represents what fans in 1984 referred to as the “B” or alternate set. Famous for ever-shifting setlists, when Bruce would play a second or third show in a given city in ’84, he typically changed out songs in the Nebraska mini-set and encores, as well as selected others throughout.
The setlist on 8/6/84 offers eight such changes to the opening night 8/5 setlist (nine if you count, and we should, “Do You Love Me?”). Collectively, they expand our overall perspective of the tour as represented through the Archive releases.
First up is the tour premiere of “Spirit in the Night,” a staple in 1978 that was omitted for all but three airings circa 1980-81 and resurrected here as a surefire crowd-pleaser for the New Jersey homecoming. It’s the third pre-Born to Run song to be featured in a 1984 setlist up to this point, joining “Growin’ Up” and “Rosalita.” The version is a fine one, with the Big Man’s saxophone on point.
After a bang-up “Atlantic City,” “Open All Night” makes its Archive Series debut from this tour. It offers one of most entertaining moments in these early ’84 shows thanks to Bruce’s introduction to the song, a tale of late-night driving on the NJ turnpike and racing the gas gauge needle (hovering around E) before getting pulled over by a highway patrolman. The officer seems to sympathetically recognize Springsteen, only to then drop the hammer on him with the memorable line, “Son, you’re in a lot of trouble.”
When I think of “Open All Night,” this is the arrangement permanently saved in my memory banks, and it is wonderful to have it for the first time in Archive quality. I can say the same for “Nebraska,” and while this is the version released on Live/1975-85, context is everything. This candidate for a definitive reading of the song sounds even better complete with Bruce’s prescient introduction (absent on the 1986 box set) about new technology making people feel isolated from their jobs, families, community, and government. The E Street Band provides perfect, subtle support, with Danny Federici’s glockenspiel and Roy Bittan’s Yamaha CS80 synthesizer adding disquieting, ethereal layers to the track.
“Trapped” is also the previously released version we know from the We Are the World album and Essential. Following “Nebraska” and still riding Bittan’s CS80, it comes off like the cathartic final scene of the mini-set, release coming via Clarence’s sax solo and the soaring voices that carry the chorus.
The end of the first set and start of the second stay true to the core ‘84 setlist, with “Because the Night” the next change from night one, with Bittan brilliant on piano and Patti stirring on the chorus. After a “Pink Cadillac” ride comes a flawless “Fire,” with Clemons’s rich baritone voice in full duet with Bruce’s lead vocals.
The main set comes to a close with “Racing in the Street,” a song that would evolve considerably as the tour wears on, truly coming into its own with a stunning synthesizer-backed story intro in October, November, and December ‘84 performnaces. Those elements aren’t here yet, but as Bittan carries the song through its epic conclusion, we get beautiful, fresh guitar interplay between Nils and Bruce that suggests the song is undergoing a rebirth.
As we move to the encores, Springsteen’s mood is summed up by the “whoop, whoop, whoop” vocal he drops around the 1:50 mark of “Rosalita,” perhaps a simple utterance of joy that night two of this most important 10-show stand was nearly in the books. But not before a few other highlights.
“I’m a Rocker” is a fantastic addition to any encore, and the ‘84 edition gets its due here. And yes, that’s Roy Bittan’s voice you hear loud and clear in the right channel of the chorus. Danny’s faux Farfisa sounds great, too.
But they saved the best for last. Arguably this show’s greatest contribution to the Live Archive series comes in the form of a song only performed on this tour.
Springsteen covered the Rolling Stones’ classic “Street Fighting Man” 28 times, all but one in the summer and fall of 1984 (the last was London 7/6/85). This marks the first official release of the song by Bruce and the E Street Band.
Paired brilliantly in a doubleshot with a potent “Born to Run,” “Street Fighting Man” declares, “What can a poor boy do, except to sing for a rock and roll band,” a sentiment Springsteen was likely feeling as the biggest rock star in America during an election year. “Street Fighting Man” is a call to arms, telling us the “time is right for a palace revolution” against those in power. Its inclusion in the set is a not-so-subtle suggestion of where Springsteen stood just a few months ahead of the 1984 Presidential election.
A year later, Bruce famously introduced his cover of Edwin Starr’s “War” by stating,“blind faith…in your leaders…will get you killed.” “Street Fighting Man,” first played on opening night of the tour, and “War,” debuted at the final L.A. shows in ’85, can now be viewed as thematic bookends questioning U.S. leadership, something Springsteen continues to do in 2020.
The more I listen to this performance of “Street Fighting Man,” the more electrifying it sounds. Bruce carries the way with his impassioned vocals, but the band’s contributions are integral, as Garry channels his inner Bill Wyman, Nils finnesses an intricate guitar lead, and Patti pulls the chorus up to the next level.
One song later, Bruce asks the audience, “Do You Love Me?” After hearing “Street Fighting Man” again 36 years later, in an even more important election year, the answer is: now more than ever.