By Erik Flannigan
Three decades on, one can underestimate the significance of the Ghost of Tom Joad tour. Fans had been talking about the prospect of a solo acoustic tour since Nebraska, a dream reinforced by the Bridge School appearance in 1986 and the sublime sets Springsteen turned in at the Christic Institute concerts in 1990. (The Bridge and Christic shows are available for download as part of the live archive series.) But it would be another five years for Bruce to go it alone for real, starting his first solo tour in December 1995 and continuing well into 1997.
Not only was he playing on sans band, but he was performing in theaters the size of which he hadn’t seen since the Darkness tour. The period is also notable for the debuts of several original songs (e.g. “It’s the Little Things That Count” and “There Will Never Be Any Other for Me But You”) in a set that grew more exploratory in assaying Bruce’s back catalog as the tour carried on.
Then came a series of remarkable hometown bookings. In November 1996, Bruce played his old high school, St. Rose of Lima, in Freehold, NJ (also available in the live download series). Later that month, a three-show stand at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, which was not only the namesake of his debut album, but the city whose clubs had served as a finishing school for the young musician and his future bandmates. Based on available information, Springsteen had not played Freehold in the E Street Band era, and he hadn’t done a proper concert in Asbury Park since sometime in 1973.
Given the so-called trilogy of recent projects looking back at his life (the book Born to Run, Springsteen on Broadway and Western Stars), one could suggest the November 1996 Shore shows were the first steps in literally revisiting his history.
Armed with that awareness, the first thing Bruce says as he takes the Paramount Theatre stage is, “Greetings, from Asbury Park.” We’re treated to three tracks from the album: a shambolic “Blinded By the Light,” plus lively takes of “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” and “Growin’ Up.”
“What the hell was I thinking about when I wrote all that stuff?” he asks with a hearty laugh as he wraps the trio. One likeable hallmark of the Joad tour is an unmistakable streak of humor, darker in tone and language, that seemed to intentionally contrast with a more earnest persona that had become the de facto depiction of our hero.
When someone shouts for “Mary Queen of Arkansas,” Bruce’s candor is priceless. “No. I ain’t gonna be playing that tonight. I tried to play that at home a few nights ago, and I couldn’t figure out what it’s about.”
The top of the show is appealingly loose but turns more meaningful with a distinctive reading of “Independence Day.” The song’s only tour performance is lightly Joad-ified and resolute, as the protagonist tells the tale with wistful distance and perspective. The 12-string “Darkness on the Edge of Town” is captivating as always, and “Johnny 99” is excellent — it, too, carries a tinge of reflection.
All four Shore shows featured supplemental musicians, and this night showcased the critical contributors: Danny Federici, Patti Scialfa and Soozie Tyrell. Phantom Dan sneaks on stage appropriately in a rare outing for “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” while Soozie and Patti bring one of those aforementioned deep cuts to life in an exquisite version of the criminally underplayed “When You’re Alone” from Tunnel of Love. The deceptively simple rumination on the loss of love remains as poignant as ever.
Staying in the hidden gems lane, all three contribute to one of Springsteen’s songwriting masterpieces, the “Born in the U.S.A.” b-side “Shut Out the Light.” Introduced as a song he wrote shortly after Nebraska, “Shut Out the Light” pulls another narrative thread on returning Vietnam veterans and the war they brought home with them. Bruce recalls the draft board in Asbury Park in the late ’60s and acknowledges his luck in getting out (a story told in greater detail in his autobiography) as he introduces a song about someone who wasn’t as lucky.
The homestretch of the set sticks to the established and powerful Joad-tour core, including “Born in the U.S.A.,” “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” and “Sinaloa Cowboys.” But Bruce makes one fascinating and to some degree unlikely inclusion, placing “Racing in the Street” between “The Line” and “Across the Border.” Not unlike the earlier performance of “Independence Day,” “Racing” carries subtle notes of retrospection and world weariness as it rides Soozie Tyrell’s melancholy violin. It’s not a long rendition like it would be in the hands of the E Street Band, but composed, potent, and unique to this tour.
Every live version of “Across the Border” and the story which precedes it truly capture the heart of Tom Joad. Bruce movingly recounts seeing John Ford’s movie Grapes of Wrath and the moments in the film that so deeply affected him, calling out specific scenes and camera framing with a director’s eye and quoting key lines of dialogue that form a sort of outline for the questions Bruce explores on the album and tour.
For the encore, the mood turns upbeat, starting with “Working on the Highway” and continuing with a fine “This Hard Land,” again featuring Danny Federici on accordion. Of course Danny returns two songs later as well for Bruce’s ultimate boardwalk homage, “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” introduced with a sweet remembrance of the music scene and players that were there from the beginning. What comes in between is the tour debut of “Rosalita,” in a highly uncommon acoustic arrangement that makes up in liveliness what it lacks in musicality.
We end with the powerfully reimagined “The Promised Land.” While “Dream Baby Dream” was more of a pure mantra in the same set position on the Devils & Dust tour, “The Promised Land” a la Joad is a hymnal, too. Bruce’s acoustic guitar thump serves as the rhythm track propelling a reinterpretation that transports the song from exaltation to something more humanistic.
In the two nights that followed, Springsteen was joined by more guests and debuted a host of other rarities as the tone shifted ever more festive. But at his first show in Asbury Park in more than 30 years, recognition of a return to the place of origin is a compelling presence in nearly every song.