Bruce Springsteen's Most Memorable NYC Concerts
Photo by Joel Bernstein
No one needs to be reminded that Bruce Springsteen is from New Jersey, but his affinity for and strong ties to New York City are undeniable, and many major moments of his career took place within the five boroughs. He auditioned for John Hammond here back in 1972, leading to his recording contract with Columbia Records. Bruce wrote songs about and influenced by the city (“Meeting Across The River” and its companion “Jungleland,” “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street,” “Incident on 57th Street,” among many others). The song “New York City Serenade,” the saga of Billy and Diamond Jackie, remains one of Springsteen’s grandest epics. And, of course, 2002’s The Rising would emerge from Springsteen’s experience of 9/11, telling the stories of the city, its heroes, and its survivors in songs like “Lonesome Day,” “Into The Fire,” and of course, the title track.
Springsteen finalized the core lineup of the E Street Band in a Manhattan rehearsal studio, via a classified ad in the “Musicians Wanted” section of the Voice back in 1974 (“Drummer and pianist wanted…All must sing”) which resulted in the recruitment of Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan. Bruce recorded (or finished recording, in the case of Born To Run) the records that would be his biggest successes here (Darkness On The Edge of Town, The River, and Born In The U.S.A.), and the city as background seeps into all of them. And like every struggling musician in the area, he worked his way up through the city’s venues as his career progressed, moving from clubs and theaters to arenas and stadiums.
In honor of the release of The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, the box set celebrating the double-album’s 35th anniversary out on December 4, here’s a list of Bruce Springsteen’s most notable NYC concerts.* Springsteen's 2016: The River Tour will kick off in Pittsburgh on January 16 and stop by Madison Square Garden January 24-27.
*(As a courtesy reminder: this is a list of events that took place in the five boroughs of New York City. Neither Nassau Coliseum nor any venue at the Meadowlands meets that criteria.)
July 18, 1973 | Max's Kansas City
Surprisingly, Springsteen played Max’s Kansas City a fair amount in 1972 and 1973, both solo and with his band, beginning as an opener before slowly morphing into a headline slot as the crowds began to grow. For this particular booking, Bruce was headlining a five-night stand, and his supporting act was none other than the Wailers, featuring both Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, touring the U.S. for the first time. (Fans who sat in the front row of the gig report feeling no pain after the opening act had performed.) The Springsteen set featured a newly-expanded band with the addition of keyboardist David Sancious (who later went on to work with Peter Gabriel, among others), which allowed Bruce to play guitar on songs that previously required piano. The July 18 show was reviewed for the Voice by critic Lorraine O’Brady, in which she notes that the Springsteen and his band looked tired (they had been recording their second album for the past two weeks) and that the performances were inconsistent. However, the review was rejected, and never published by the paper: “The editor wasn’t sure that either act would ever make it.”
August 3, 1974 | Schaefer Music Festival: Wollman Rink, Central Park
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band were a substitute for headliner Boz Scaggs, as part of a triple bill along with Anne Murray (known at the time for her hit single, “Snowbird”) billed second, and acoustic duo Brewer & Shipley in the opening slot. Anne Murray’s managers vigorously objected to Springsteen taking precedence over Murray on the grounds that she was “more commercially successful” (which was not an untrue statement). Springsteen’s manager agreed to move to the middle spot, as long as Bruce could perform his full 80-minute set.
(You can probably guess what happened next.)
Halfway through Springsteen’s performance, Anne Murray’s managers realized they’d made a serious tactical error, and attempted to coerce manager Mike Appel into ending Springsteen’s set early. This did not happen, and Robert Christgau’s Voice review of the evening (which began, “The evening was professional at both ends and inspired in the middle”) would also report, “But it was Springsteen’s night, probably the biggest of his life, a standing ovation from a full house of 5,000,” and that at least a quarter of the audience had left by the time Anne Murray took the stage. This would be the last time Bruce Springsteen ever opened for another artist (with the exception of multi-artist benefit shows).
August 13-17, 1975 | The Bottom Line
Springsteen and the E Street band would perform a now-historic five-night, ten-show (two shows per night) run here during the Born To Run Tour, just a week or so before the album’s release on August 25. The Bottom Line, located on the corner of W. 4th and Mercer Streets in Greenwich Village, was the type of place where rising stars played multi-night stands. The entire run sold out in three-and-a-half days, an insane accomplishment when you consider that you could only buy tickets by physically going to the box office (or by mail!)
The shows also functioned as a showcase, with the label pulling 1,000 tickets out of the 3,000 total available in order to invite journalists, record store owners, and label employees to come down and check out the circus. This was it; Springsteen knew it, and Columbia knew it, so they finally put their formidable promotional force behind their artist after his first two albums basically flopped (at least in the eyes of the label).
After dismissing Springsteen as over-hyped and refusing to play him for two years, WNEW (then New York’s pre-eminent FM station) broadcast the August 15 early show, bringing the gospel to the masses in the Tri-State area, and simulcasting to the Springsteen stronghold in Philadelphia on WMMR (and later, to bootleggers everywhere). Songs from the upcoming album were featured alongside the best of the material from the first two records and a rotation of unforgettable covers: changing the Crystal’s “Then He Kissed Me” into “Then She Kissed Me,” containing all the tension and wonder of the original; “E Street Shuffle” veering into Sam Cooke’s “Having A Party,” the unofficial Jersey Shore anthem; and an utterly joyous version of Jackie DeShannon’s “When You Walk In The Room.” Bruce told stories and bad jokes, danced on the tables, rubbed butts with Clarence Clemons, and lived up to his hard-earned reputation. Dave Herman, the morning drive DJ from WNEW, went on air the day after seeing a show and publicly apologized for dismissing him. "The band cruised through them shows like the finest machine there was,” Springsteen told Rolling Stone in 1975. “There's nothin' — nothin' — in the world to get you playing better than a gig like that. The band walked out of the Bottom Line twice as good as when they walked in."
November 4, 1976 | The Palladium
The next logical step up from the Bottom Line, the Palladium on 14th Street (now a NYU dormitory) was where bands played if they were too large for the clubs, but too small for Madison Square Garden. Springsteen and the E Street Band (along with the four-piece Miami Horns) would appear at the Palladium on what’s informally known as “The Lawsuit Tour,” when he was suing his former manager, Mike Appel, for control of his career. Bruce was legally enjoined from recording, or accessing any of the money paid to him by his record label, so the only way the band could make money was to go on the road.
It’s a crazy six-night run: Gary “U.S.” Bonds guests on the band’s cover of his “Quarter To Three,” a staple of the live shows, on 10/29; Patti Smith shows up in the encore on 10/30; and on the last night, Bruce is introduced by legendary 60’s DJ Murray the K (who often introduced shows at the venue back when it was the Academy of Music), and none other than Ronnie Spector shows up to sing three of her biggest hits (“Baby, I Love You,” “Walking In The Rain,” and “Be My Baby”). And lawsuit or not, there are new songs performed (“Something In The Night,” “The Promise”). The last night would also feature what is likely the definitive performance of the Animals’ “It’s My Life,” complete with the dark, intense story about Bruce and his father.
August 23, 1978 | Madison Square Garden
This would be Springsteen’s first headlining appearance at the Garden, a sold-out three night run on the Darkness On The Edge of Town Tour in the summer of 1978. Unlike most artists who visit the Garden stage as an opener, Springsteen’s refusal to open for other artists (after disastrous experiences doing so) meant he’d only been there once before, as an opener for Chicago in 1973, before he’d put his policy into effect. All three nights were triumphant, high-energy affairs with now-classic Darkness-era setlists, following a similar pattern: open with a golden oldie (say, “Summertime Blues,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight” or “High School Confidential”), and then slam into “Badlands” from the new record. Other highlights included steamy versions of “She’s The One,” complete with now-traditional intros of “Not Fade Away” into “Gloria” (which is the definition of "pure sex"), and stunning performances of “Backstreets” and “Racing In The Street.”
As befit the victorious atmosphere surrounding the shows, old friends and family were in attendance, most notably mom Adele coming out onstage during a raucous ten-minute version of “Quarter To Three” to tell her son (after already insisting, “That’s all there is, New York, there ain’t no more!”) that he had to play another encore: “This is my mother,” Bruce announces, as the Garden applauds. “But Ma, I’m tired — but Ma, I can't — I should have never flown you from California! Ah, shit!” He took the E Street Band through one more verse and sax solo before declaring, “I’M JUST A PRISONER...of rock and roll!” and bringing the thing to a joyous close.
September 21, 1979 | No Nukes: Madison Square Garden
Formally known as “The MUSE Concerts For A Non Nuclear Future,” Springsteen and E Street would perform at two out of the five nights of this star-studded benefit to raise awareness of the dangers of nuclear energy. MUSE (Musicians United For Safe Energy) was formed by a coalition of artists after the Three Mile Island disaster. Springsteen didn’t offer any public statements regarding his involvement, relaying to the media via manager Jon Landau that “the music was enough.”
What was definitely enough was the high-octane volume of his performances that night. Wisely, the organizers put Bruce last so as to avoid an obvious exodus; on the other hand, all of the other artists on the bill would have to deal with the casualties of being “Broooce!”-d all night, thinking the crowd’s chants for Springsteen were actually boos. (Tom Petty, also on the bill, would be quoted later as saying, “What’s the difference?”) The band had been off the road since the end of the Darkness tour in January, and were in the studio getting ready to record what would become The River; the title track would make its live debut both nights, part of a twelve-song setlist that was crafted to showcase the E Street Band at its best. Footage of “The River” from this night (along with "Thunder Road” and “Quarter To Three” from the next night) would make it to the theatrical movie made from the week of concerts, further extending the legend of E Street due to the impeccable strength of the performances.
May 23, 1988 | Madison Square Garden
The Tunnel of Love Express Tour set up for a five-night stand at MSG to end the U.S. leg of it before the band headed to Europe. The E Street Band was accompanied this time out by the Horns of Love, a five-piece horn section, and the ensemble was a finely-oiled machine operating on rocket fuel by the time they arrived in NYC. The shows on this tour followed for a fairly tight setlist, including fantastic renditions of Tunnel of Love's material, as well as highlights from Born In The U.S.A. (a tour that didn’t come to NYC proper) and other selections from the earlier records. This MSG performance also included a poignant acoustic rendition of “Born To Run,” but at this point, the sets didn’t feature the variety of the early years, so not too many surprises were delivered in the Garden run.
The exceptions would be well-chosen covers of some golden oldies from Bruce’s sweet spots: Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” fellow Jersey boy Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” and on the last two nights, Bruce ended the show with a gorgeous, soulful version of Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops.” Those paying attention might have also noted the steamy duets between Bruce and backup singer Patti Scialfa on songs like “Tougher Than The Rest.” Two weeks later, Bruce and Patti will be caught canoodling on a balcony in Rome by observant paparazzi, and it would then be revealed to the world that Springsteen and wife Julianne Phillips had separated at the beginning of May.
June 26, 1993 | Kristen Ann Carr Fund Benefit: Madison Square Garden
Springsteen headlines this special concert, set up to benefit the research fund named for the daughter of co-manager Barbara Carr and journalist Dave Marsh after Kristen’s death from sarcoma at the age of 19. This would be the first show Bruce would play in New York City since parting ways with the E Street Band, and the last show of the tour supporting his Human Touch and Lucky Town albums. Unsurprisingly, the audience was packed with Springsteen die-hards expecting the parade of special guests (specifically former E Street Band members Steve Van Zandt and Clarence Clemons) who had shown up just two nights earlier at another benefit concert in New Jersey. The loud and negative reaction of some of the members of the audience to the appearance of Terence Trent D’arby — specifically included on the bill as he was Kristen Carr’s favorite artist — would require that Springsteen specifically admonish the audience: “Need I remind some of you rude motherfuckers that everybody onstage is my guest?” Springsteen would perform an eclectic and deliberately chosen set of originals and covers with his post-E Street Band ensemble (along with guests D’arby and Joe Ely), but his mood was visibly off after D’arby’s unfortunate reception.
June 12, 2000 : Madison Square Garden
Springsteen got the E Street band back together in the Spring of 1999, and toured the U.S. and Europe before bringing the reunion tour to NYC for its finale, an astonishing ten-night stand in June of 2000. At the time, Bruce hadn’t made any statements about the future of the band, so there was enormous anticipation surrounding this run of shows: would this be the last time fans would see the E Street Band? (The last three shows of the run would be professionally filmed by Springsteen and turned into the Live In New York City DVD.)
Additionally, the band rolled into town amidst enormous controversy: at a show in Atlanta a week earlier, Springsteen debuted a new song called “American Skin (41 Shots),” which was inspired by the 1999 Amadou Diallo shooting. Diallo was an unarmed African immigrant who was killed when stopped by plainclothes police in the Bronx on suspicion that he resembled the perpetrator of crimes they were investigating. The officers fired 41 shots when Diallo reached for his wallet.
“Though the song was critical,” Springsteen wrote later, “It was not ‘anti-police' as some thought.” But that didn’t stop the president of the policeman’s union, Mayor Giuliani, and the Police Commissioner from releasing statements against Bruce. And that was restrained compared to the leader of the Fraternal Order of Police, who was quoted calling Springsteen both a “floating fag” and a “dirtbag” for criticizing the NYPD. (Keep in mind that unless any of these people had access to audience bootleg tapes from Atlanta, no one attacking Springsteen or the song had actually heard it yet.) The New York Post chimed in with headlines like “10TH AVENUE COP-OUT,” and some members of the audience displayed their disapproval during the concert by turning their backs to the stage or holding both middle fingers up in the air during the song, as well as during “Code of Silence,” another new song in a similar theme, which also debuted the first night of the stand.
August 29, 2002 | Hayden Planetarium
For the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards, the band set up on the steps of the Hayden Planetarium, and after an introduction by James Gandolfini, they performed “The Rising” for the broadcast. But in a quintessentially Springsteen-like move, Bruce follows it with a ten-song, 75-minute concert for the fans who are there, despite (or maybe because of) a driving rainstorm. The set list included Rising mainstay “Waiting On A Sunny Day.” Sure, it was a chance to professionally record a show to use it for something else, but it would have been totally understandable to call the whole thing off after the on-air requirement had been satisfied. Fans described it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that you might have seen at a lot of Springsteen shows, but chances are you wouldn’t ever have the chance to stand outside in the middle of New York City on a hot summer night while watching Bruce and E Street play with the noise and lights of the city around them.
October 4, 2003 | Shea Stadium
Springsteen finishes up the Rising tour with a trio of shows out at Shea Stadium. As befitting a tour finale, a whole series of songs that hadn’t been played all tour came out, like “Man’s Job” from Human Touch, River-era outtake “Roulette,” “Back In Your Arms” from the Blood Brothers sessions, and the great live staple “Light of Day.” Various friends and associates get dragged onstage, ranging from Sony Music executive Don Ienner to producer Brendan O’Brien to then-Mets pitcher Al Leiter. But nothing would beat the surprise on the third night, where out of nowhere, Springsteen would step to the mic and announce, “‘I’d like to bring out someone who’s been a great inspiration to me, my friend—Bob Dylan!” The E Street Band and Bob would play what was quite possibly the worst version of “Highway 61 Revisited” that has ever been performed, with Dylan’s contribution pretty much inaudible, but the entire stadium went bananas for the moment and it almost didn’t matter.
Finally, just like he did at the last night of the Reunion tour at MSG, Springsteen would once again break out “Blood Brothers” — the song he wrote about getting the E Street Band back together — as the last number of the night and the tour, and the dirt from the infield suddenly made the place very dusty, judging by the amount of people (including the ones onstage) wiping their eyes at that particular moment.
October 29, 2009 | Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th ANNIVERSARY: Madison Square Garden
Springsteen and the E Street Band were one of a number of inducted acts who performed at the first night of this two-night commemoration of 25 years of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The show is taped for broadcast, and runs very late; Bruce and the band didn't take the stage until almost midnight, kicked off with “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” and then proceeded to play their entire set as planned, with all of their special invited guests. Sam Moore performed “Hold On, I’m Coming” and “Soul Man;” Tom Morello came out for “Ghost of Tom Joad” and “London Calling” (with the latter dedicated to Joe Strummer); Darlene Love joined for “A Fine, Fine Boy” and “Da Doo Ron Ron;” John Fogerty played “Fortunate Son,” “Proud Mary,” and stuck around for “Pretty Woman.” (There’s also a ten-minute “Jungleland” thrown in there for good measure.) Just when you thought it was over and people were heading towards the exits, Billy Joel walked out to play three of his songs with the band (“You May Be Right,” “Only The Good Die Young” and “New York State of Mind”), and stuck around for “Born To Run.” But wait, there’s more: all of the guests, along with Jackson Browne and Peter Wolf, came out for Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher & Higher,” bringing the proceedings to an end at about 1:30 a.m.
November 8, 2009 | Madison Square Garden
This concert at the Garden would be the only concert ever to showcase 1980’s The River played from start to finish in its entirety. While Springsteen had already set the precedent by announcing other full album shows for Born To Run, Darkness On The Edge of Town and Born In The U.S.A., this set of two MSG shows was already sold out when the announcement was made that they would feature The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle on one night and The River on the second. (Ticket scalpers throughout the region said a secret thanks as prices instantly went through the roof on the secondary market.)
“Tonight we’ve got something never before performed…just this one time! It’s too long to do it again!” was how Bruce introduced the album segment of the show. Some efforts were stronger than others, but most of it was wonderful. You had the hip-shakin’ good time music of “Crush On You,” “Ramrod” and “I’m A Rocker,” and the wrist-slitting, hard-drinkin’ songs like “Stolen Car,” “Fade Away” and “Point Blank.” And every one of the 18,000+ people in the joint were standing on their feet, singing along to “Hungry Heart,” just like old times.
March 9, 2012 : Apollo Theater
Springsteen opens the 2012 Wrecking Ball tour with this show marking the tenth anniversary of SiriusXM Satellite Radio, open to contest winners and guests only, broadcast live on the station’s Springsteen-only E Street Radio channel. This was the first show by the band since the death of E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, and the first time Bruce would perform with the band at the storied venue. (He first appeared at the Apollo with Elvis Costello at a taping of Costello’s “Spectacle” series in 2009.) “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” the song that tells the story of the E Street Band, was transformed into a moving tribute to Clemons. A new number, a medley of classic Motown songs (Wilson Pickett’s “634-5789” and the Temptations’ “The Way You Do The Things You Do”), was introduced into the setlist, during which Springsteen climbed up the boxes at the side of the stage and up onto the front of the balcony.
April 10, 2014 | Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction, Barclays Center
The E Street Band were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and received the “Award for Musical Excellence” fully fifteen years after Bruce Springsteen was inducted as a solo artist. Bruce himself inducts his bandmates — including former members Vini Lopez (drums) and David Sancious (keyboards) — with a candid, heartfelt, fifteen-minute speech: “I told a story with the E Street Band that was, and is, bigger than I ever could have told on my own.” Each inductee then came to the podium to accept their statute and say a few words, except that with ten members (or family members, in the case of the late Danny Federici or Clarence Clemons, whose widow played an iPhone recording of the Big Man for the entire arena), that took longer than the HOF would have liked, and the teleprompter kept flashing “WRAP IT UP.” (Patti Scialfa would note in her speech that they were instructed to limit their speeches to 30 seconds. That did not happen.) Then, Springsteen and the band — including Sancious and Lopez — would perform three songs, one of which was the fifteen-minute “Kitty’s Back.” Unlike similar events in the past, the E Street Band were slotted into the middle of the evening, with the inductions for Hall & Oates, Kiss and Nirvana still to come. For the rest of the evening, other inductees and presenters would make derisive comments about how long the E Street section of the show was, and there was a pervasive rumor that the traditional end-of-evening jam session featuring all performers was called off because the E Street Band section went longer than scheduled. (History certainly repeats itself.)
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