Bruce Springsteen fans are rejoicing over the release of the new deluxe box set for The River because it includes long rumored professional footage of the band playing live in Tempe in 1980. Although much mainstream discussion of the show focuses on Springsteen’s comments regarding the election of Ronald Reagan the night before, Tempe was definitely also a great show. But there were other great shows on the River tour that shouldn’t be overlooked.
In honor of the launch of the River tour in 2016, here’s a selection of other shows worth checking out. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, just a small sampling of shows for people whose appetites were whetted by the Tempe footage and are otherwise not pursuing audience recordings of archival Springsteen shows.1
10-25-80 : Portland, Oregon
This is an incredibly high energy show with loud and enthusiastic crowd. The band open with “Prove It All Night” (most of the shows were opening with “Born To Run,” which is already a pretty insane way to open a concert). Bruce plays “On Top of Old Smokey” in reference to nearby Mount St. Helens, which erupted in May 1980. Fun recording.
10-31-80 : Los Angeles, California
Many fans know that Bruce is one of those people who has a special love for Halloween. Here, he puts that enthusiasm in action on stage: he’s carried onstage by his roadies (dressed as ghouls and goblin types) in a coffin, which he emerged from, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins style, and led the band into Johnny Fuller’s “Haunted House.” That would be enough to recommend just about any show.
12-31-80 : Nassau Coliseum, NY
“Ready to send out 1980?” Bruce asks, before the band kicks into “Night” (before continuing into “Prove It All Night” and then “Spirit In The Night”. “In The Midnight Hour” is played at, well, you guessed it. There are legendary shows that are over-rated, and then there are legendary shows that are legendary for a reason; this is one of the latter. It’s a THIRTY EIGHT SONG SET, one of the longest shows Bruce had ever played.2 You can officially purchase this show due to the magic of the Springsteen Live Archive project!
5-8-81: Stockholm, Sweden
This was the first time the band had toured Europe (as opposed to previously disastrous outings in the UK on the Born To Run tour). The audiences were enthusiastic, and the experience of traveling abroad for a bunch of guys who had never left the States was revelatory. This show in Sweden was one of a pair, with night two generally regarded as the best of this particular European run. It would help cement Bruce’s relationship with Scandinavia—they produce special all-Springsteen magazines when he plays there—which continues until today.
12-9-80 : Philadelphia, PA
This show took place the night after John Lennon died. The band was onstage the previous night, but were spared the news until they came offstage. Understandably, Lennon’s death hit the band hard. Several E Street Band members felt they shouldn’t play the next night. Fred Schruers was on the tour for Rolling Stone, and he wrote:
The band took the stage, most of them wearing black. Springsteen went to the mike. “If it wasn’t for John Lennon,” he said, “a lot of us would be in some place much different tonight. It’s a hard world that makes you live with a lot of things that are unlivable. And it’s hard to come out here and play tonight, but there’s nothing else to do.”
I’ve seen people digging firebreaks to save their homes, and I’ve seen some desperate fist fights, and, God knows, I’ve seen hundreds of rock & roll shows, but I have never seen a human being exert himself the way Springsteen did that night in Philly. His delivery of the last verse of “Darkness on the Edge of Town” was raw with a mixture of anger, grief and determination. I’ll remember “Promised Land” for the way the silhouettes in the top tier of the 18,500-seat arena were standing, striking the air with their fists. The crowd sang the refrain of “Thunder Road” so hard you could feel your sternum hum. “I’ve heard these songs a million fucking times,” Miami would say the next day, “and it was like I never heard ’em before. I’ve watched him write, months and months of digging, but last night was a weird feeling – like you were in exactly the same place he was when he wrote them.”
The official Springsteen Live Archive project really needs to release this show.
8-20-81 : Los Angeles
This show, first in a run of six at the Sports Arena, was a benefit concert held for the Vietnam Veterans of America. This was inspired by Bruce reading Ron Kovic’s “Born On The Fourth Of July” and then running into him in Los Angeles. Ron took him to meet some Vietnam vets and Bruce promised his support.
At this show, disabled vets are seated on and around the stage, and their proximity and presence absolutely impacted what would be a stunning performance from Springsteen and the E Street band. Another show that the Live Archive project needs to release.