Any Springsteen aficionado will tell you that his official studio output only tells half the story. The Boss has been touring for over 45 years and played many thousands of shows, most of which have been meticulously logged and recorded by his fervent fanbase. Make no mistake, venturing into Springsteen live recording land is a daunting prospect, and no place for the faint-hearted. For that reason, I’ve decided to make this list to help you navigate. This isn’t supposed to be a definitive list of the best Springsteen live recordings available, because I haven’t heard them all. Instead, think of it as my personal Top 10. Like any list, it’s subjective, but hopefully it will give you a starting point.
Five or six years ago, this would’ve been a list of bootlegs. But then The Boss, or more likely one of his management team, saw a huge opportunity and started selling professionally-produced and packaged live concert recordings on a variety of formats virtually as and when they happen. This had the simultaneous effect of virtually wiping out the bootleggers overnight and creating another considerable revenue stream in one fell swoop. They are even opening up the archives and releasing classic concerts remastered and, where necessary, restored. Genius. It’s a winner for me, because now I instantly download bunches of MP3 files which cost less than £8 for over three hours of music instead of paying £60-plus for a bootleg which sounded like it had been recorded in the back of a van and took seven months to arrive by post. You can check out the existing archive of live recordings HERE.
- Brooklyn, New York, April 25th 2016
Let’s start proceedings with a show from The 2016 River tour, and I think the first I ever acquired from the (then) new-fangled Springsteen Live Archive site when it first went up. Having listened to so many sketchy boots over the years I was dubious at first, but blown away by the sound and overall production quality. During this leg of the tour, Bruce and the E Street band were playing the seminal River album (which Bruce refers to here as his ‘coming of age’ record) in its entirety from start to finish, with a few hits and deep cuts tacked onto the end. A bit predictable perhaps, even though many of the tracks are arranged differently and extended far beyond their studio limitations, and Bruce himself evidently soon got bored and started mixing things up. This show is notable for being the last with that rigid format. Oh, and a primo Prince tribute in the form of a storming version of Purple Rain.
- The Schottenstein Centre, Ohio, 31st July 2005
One from leftfield. Devils & Dust was a weird tour. The stripped-down album had a lot in common with its predecessors Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, but the tour, mostly played in intimate theatres, was something else entirely. It was virtually a one-man show, apart from a few guest appearances, with Bruce re-imagining songs from his expansive backlist and playing every instrument needed to bring them to life. Some were almost changed beyond recognition (Reason to Believe) while other interpretations veered off into experimental territory. As a spectacle, it was okay. I understand the need to shake things up from time to time. But as a document, the Devils & Dust tour is little more than a WTF side-note. When the distortion fed into the recordings that surfaced afterwards, it was sometimes difficult to tell what was deliberate and what wasn’t. Still, this effort, with its rarities in the form of Lift me Up (never played before) Cynthia, and a trio of Tunnel of Love tracks (One Step Up, When You’re Alone and Valentine’s Day) is well worth looking up.
- First Union Centre, Philadelphia, September 20th 1999
I could’ve picked any show from the Reunion tour, especially the first half, as most were epic and the setlists didn’t alter much. The E Streeters were just glad to be back, and the crowds fed off the energy. I settled on this one, released on bootleg as Backstreets of Philadelphia (Polar Bear Records) for the simple reason that I was in the crowd that night, so it has a special kind of resonance with me. It’s a long way from south Wales to Philadelphia. Plus, the Boss opened with Candy’s Room, which he doesn’t do often, if ever. In fact, the entire set was heavily reliant on material from Darkness on the Edge of Town, with five of the first dozen tracks lifted from that album, which I personally consider his best. On this tour, the newly-reformed and re-focused E Street Band were at the top of their game and they absolutely kille dit every night.
- Olympic Stadium, Helsinki, Finland, 31st July 2012. Released on Vigorous Records as The Finnish Finish
Lauded as the night ‘the myth became reality’ this show is included not only on the basis that it is Bruce’s longest gig to date (well over four hours, not including the five-track mini acoustic set he performed in the afternoon) but because the set-list fucking rocks. Kicking off with a cover of Rockin’ all Over the World, we are treated to a riotous opening section culminating with the ’78 intro version of Prove it all Night. Deep cuts like Be True, Loose Ends and Back in Your Arms also make rare appearances, sitting well alongside material from then then-current Wrecking Ball album. There was just something special about that night, which Bruce himself alludes to before We Are Alive. That’s one of the truly great things about Bruce gigs; the spontaneity. Literaly anything can happen, at any time. No disrespect to Helsinki, but if this was contrived at all, he would have undoubtedly chosen to play his longest ever show at a more prestigious venue, maybe in London, Milan or New York. That’s worthy of another tip of the hat.
- Berlin Night, 19th April 1996
The Boss didn’t tour the Nebraska album. The closest he came was performing nightly mini-acoustic sets as part of the main show on 1984-85 Born in the USA tour. Taking the stage alone must be a daunting experience, especially for an artist so accustomed to having a full backing band behind him, but Bruce rose to the occasion. Of course he did. This show, partially broadcast on the radio in some countries before being released in its entirety by famed bootleg label Crystal Cat, is perhaps the pick of the Tom Joad shows. Less experimental and more folksy than the Devils & Dust recordings, as you would expect, the setlist is dominated by tracks from the ‘solo acoustic’ albums. However, Bruce still manages to throw a few spanners in the works, as he always does, stripping down Murder Incorporated, Bobby Jean and Adam Raised a Cain, to name but a few. He also deserves some kudos for trying to speak German.
- The Spectrum, Philadelphia, September 17th 1984
This might be sacrilegious to some fans, but the Born in the USA tour is probably my least favourite. Most of his concerts are timeless. You could listen to one from 1976 and another from 2016 and have difficulty telling which is which. But the Born in the USA shows (like the album) are instantly recognisable as a product of their era. All elevated keyboards swirling around vast stadiums and tinny production values, they couldn’t be more eighties if you wedged them into a pastel-coloured tank top with shoulder pads . It doesn’t help that not much quality material emerged from that tour, with most examples being audience recordings taken on those old cassette recorders. This show, the penultimate night of a mammoth six-date residency at the Spectrum, is a rare exception. It was released on bootleg as Tramps Like Us, and then in a remixed form as Perfection At Last. It’s not quite perfect, but it’s not far off. Opener Born in the USA segueing into Out in the Streets is simply breathtaking.
- Hammersmith Odeon ‘75
And now we’re going back. Way back. The Hammersmith Odeon now goes by the less auspicious name the Eventim Apollo, but this still stands as one of Springsteen’s legendary gigs. This is the sound of a band captured just as they are hitting their stride. After a low-key Thunder Road, you can feel the bristling intensity during the intro to Tenth Avenue Freeze Out. Shows from this era were generally shorter, barely scraping the two-hour mark, because more often than not the band would play two a night. Boasting definitive versions of It’s Backstreets and Jungleland along with a killer 17-minute rendition of Kitty’s Back (featuring an improv section and a few bars of Van Morrison’s Moondance) this gig was so good it became one of the few to be granted a long-overdue official release.
- Coliseum Night (29 December 1980)
Before the pomp and extravagance of the Born in the USA tour, many would argue that Bruce & the E Street Band peaked on the 1980/81 River tour. The shows in general were more geared toward blasting out a succession of 3-minute crowd pleasers (as was the album) than the more indulgent focus of past tours. No 17-minute versions of Kitty’s Back here. Of those currently in circulation, most people would probably choose the famous NYE bootleg, recorded a couple of nights later at the same venue (these shows collectively make up a significant proportion of the Live 1975/85 box set), but a combination of the quality of recording and a slightly superior set-list takes this one for me. Over the span of a 37-song performance Bruce expertly moves the audience through the gears, from openers Night and Out in the Street to the sombre Factory and Independence Day a few songs later. It’s like being on an emotional rollercoaster.
- Washington, 26th September 2016
Despite the band missing some big hitters in Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, the second half of the River tour of 2016 is probably my favourite run of Bruce shows ever. I love the way the band sounds, and the quality of the recordings on these later sets is incredible. Listening to them is like having Bruce and the E Street Band perform in your living room. Most stateside shows kicked off with a jaw-dropping 13-minute orchestral version of New York City Serenade and generally favoured older material, mostly taken from the first two albums, giving the whole thing a glorious retro summer vibe. Some of those tracks, in particular Kitty’s Back and Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street? feature a lot of lyrics and chord changes. They must be a nightmare to play live, which would explain Bruce’s apparent reluctance to do so over the years. Why set yourself up for failure? The 34 track set list performed here also borrows heavily from Born in the USA (six tracks), and throws up the odd surprise like Because the Night, Trapped and Secret Garden. Sublime.
The one and only. Released on various bootlegs, most famously as Piece de Resistance, this is a near-perfect recording of the second in a trilogy of triumphant shows running from 19-21 September at the Capitol Theatre, New Jersey, again on the Darkness tour. For many years, this was considered the king of bootlegs. The show has recently been given the archive treatment so it’s now available in better sound quality. During my ‘research’ for this articles, I listened seven or eight Darkness shows virtually back-to-back, and apart from varying sound quality (dependent on sources) there is very little to choose between them. I very nearly went for perennial favourite Winterland recorded in San Francisco a few months later, but this one takes top spot firstly due to the near-mythical status it has deservedly earned in the intervening years, and on the strength of a scorching Incident on 57th Street, which surprisingly enough wasn’t played too often on this tour. It comes at the expense of Streets of Fire, but everything has a price. The only thing I dislike about this show is the inclusion of Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Why. WTF? It was September.
If you enjoyed reading this, you might appreciate my previous Boss blogs about my experiences following the Boss around the world and a more detailed account of my first Bruce gig.
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