I’m old enough to remember the day in November 1986 when Bruce Springsteen fans stood in line to buy the just-released Live 1975-85, a mammoth five-LP boxed set that debuted on the charts at No. 1. (The collection was also available in the then-new CD format, and for the unenlightened, on cassettes and 8-tracks.)
For years, virtually everyone who’d seen the Boss in concert had lamented the lack of an official live recording, and now—a full 13 years after his first album had appeared—it was finally here. True, its 40 tracks had been pieced together from an assortment of shows; and if you bought the LP version, you had to interrupt the three-and-a-half-hour concert nine times to change or turn over the record. But at least the package offered some sort of recorded evidence of Springsteen’s shows, which, for my money, were—and are—the most exciting in the history of rock. And I say that after having attended gigs by such concert greats as the Stones, the Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and the Doors.
Other concert releases followed Live 1975-85, including the Chimes of Freedom EP in 1988, MTV Plugged in 1993, Live in New York City in 2001, and an EP from the Magic tour in 2008. The 2001 New York show was also made available on video, as were several London gigs and concerts from Dublin and Barcelona.
So things got better over the last few decades, but it’s only in the last two years that the floodgates have opened. Last December, Springsteen issued The Ties That Bind, an expanded version of his River album that came bundled with a DVD or Blu-ray that delivered the bulk of one of his best concerts ever, from Arizona in 1980. (Trust me; I was in the audience.) Meanwhile, a European label released The Complete 1978 Radio Broadcasts, a 15-CD boxed set of remastered classic concerts from the Roxy in West Hollywood, the Agora Ballroom in Cleveland, the Fox Theater in Atlanta, Capitol Theater in New Jersey, and Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Most if not all of this material had already been available on bootlegs, but these remasters sounded terrific. Moreover, the music is insanely good—and so is the price, which was briefly as low as about 20 bucks on Amazon. (It’s still going for less than $60, or about $4 per disc, reportedly because European law considers radio broadcasts to be in the public domain.)
Meanwhile, back in the States, Springsteen has apparently had enough of bootlegs that net him nothing while giving the fans generally inferior sound quality. He has begun issuing soundboard recordings of virtually all his current concerts plus many from the vaults via a website called live.brucespringsteen.net. So far, the site lists one show each from 1975, 1978, 1984, 1988, 1990, 2005, 2012, and 2013; two from 1980; 30 from 2014; and a whopping 66 (and counting) from 2016. You can order them on CD or download them in MP3, lossless, or HD formats. (You probably don’t need the HD, but if you have the hard-disk space and a good stereo, I do suggest that you opt for lossless audio files, which sound notably better than the MP3s.)
I’ve listened to six of these shows so far, and can enthusiastically recommend them all. Here’s a look at each:
Upper Darby, Pennsylvania (Dec. 31, 1975). DJ Ed Sciaky introduces this New Year’s Eve show, noting that “’75 was a great year for Bruce and the band,” and indeed it was. In August, Springsteen released the career-making Born to Run and wowed the critics with a legendary five-night stand at New York’s Bottom Line. Two months later, he simultaneously made the covers of both Time and Newsweek, and two months after that, he ended the year with this terrific Tower Theatre concert, which includes the title cut and six other songs from Born to Run, most notably a slowed-down “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” Also here are highlights from the two earlier albums and quite a few oldies covers—not just the often-heard “Detroit Medley,” “Quarter to Three,” and “Twist and Shout” but Harold Dorman’s “Mountain of Love,” a long, magnificent reading of Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo,” and a rendition of the Animals’ “It’s My Life” that begins with a monologue about Springsteen’s father.
Los Angeles (April 23, 1988). This date on the Tunnel of Love tour opens with a hypnotic eight-minute version of that album’s title track. In addition to such other highlights from that CD as “Two Faces,” “Tougher Than the Rest,” and “Brilliant Disguise,” the 32-song set includes an acoustic “Born to Run,” a cover of the Sonics’ “Have Love, Will Travel,” staples from Born in the U.S.A. and The River, and numerous non-album tracks like “Be True,” “Seeds,” “Part Man, Part Monkey,” “Roulette,” “Spare Parts,” and “Light of Day.” Roy Orbison celebrated his birthday by attending this concert and, while Springsteen doesn’t attempt an Orbison cover, he does talk about what songs like “Pretty Woman” meant to him, and he leads the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday.”
Los Angeles (Nov. 16–17, 1990). Don’t expect typical Springsteen performances in these benefit shows for the Christic Institute: the two solo solo sets here begin with him asking the audience to please be as quiet during the songs as possible and to not clap along because it could “mix me up.” What follows on the 35-track program is anything but mixed up. Accompanying himself on guitar, piano, and harmonica, Springsteen premieres some new songs and offers terrific rearrangements of old classics that shine more light on the lyrics than do the familiar band versions. At the end of each set, Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt join the Boss for stirring performances of his “Across the Borderline” and rollicking readings of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.”
Perth, Australia (Feb. 7, 2014). Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici are gone, but the reconstituted E Street Band still packs a punch on this 29-track concert, which draws material from throughout Springsteen’s now-large catalog. Songs like “Hungry Heart,” “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” “Dancing in the Dark,” and “Out in the Street” all garner strong readings but the highlight for me is a gorgeous acoustic version of the too-rarely performed “Girls in Their Summer Clothes.”
Albany, New York (June 13, 2014). In addition to some concert staples, this show features a ton of surprises: there are covers of INXS’s “Don’t Change,” the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me,” the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” and Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right.” (How’s that for variety?) Also here are such rarely heard originals as “Seaside Bar Song,” “Kingdom of Days,” and the moving “The Wall,” which was inspired by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and long-ago bandmates who died in the war.
Brooklyn, New York (April 25, 2016). In terms of audio quality, this is the best of the bunch (and I’m told that all the 2016 shows deliver similarly pristine sound). The program is fine, too: after opening with “Meet Me in the City,” the infectious River-era outtake, Springsteen and the E Street Band offer the current tour’s last full performance of that album, delivering every song from this landmark record in the order it appeared on disc. And when they finish with that, they’re still 15 songs from the end of the show, which also embraces such classics as “Bobby Jean,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” “Badlands,” and “Prove It All Night,” not to mention a revelatory reading of “Purple Rain” by Prince, who died just four days before this show.
Clearly, it’s way too late to complain about a dearth of good Springsteen concert material on disc.
Jeff Burger’s books include Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, and Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, which is due out Nov. 1, 2016. His website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades' worth of music reviews and commentary.