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Bruce Springsteen’s 10 Greatest Concerts

The cream of the crop, the be-all and end-all of The Boss' live music supremacy

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To try and describe a live Bruce Springsteen performance with the woefully inadequate word “concert” is absolutely foolish. Throughout the years, many a writer has tried and failed to put into broader language what takes place at these sometimes two, sometimes three, and sometimes even four-hour revues, and only a very select few have succeeded. Jon Landau, the venerated ‘70s rock critic and Springsteen’s present-day manager, came perhaps the closest when he wrote after a 1974 gig in Boston, “I saw rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” That night, Springsteen made Landau feel the way he would make so many millions more feel in the years and shows that followed. “On a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.”

Fortunately for all of us, Springsteen is one of the most bootlegged musical acts of all time, and there’s hardly a note that he’s played live over the past five decades that hasn’t been somehow captured and is presently swimming out there in the vast emptiness of digital space waiting to be played. Nobody bats 1.000 of course, and there’s a vast number of gigs available that are either plainly unremarkable or, in some cases, just downright bad. But then there are also those select few, maybe 50, maybe even as low as 20 that are truly otherworldly. For our purposes, here are the absolute 10 best of those select gigs. They are the cream of the crop, the be-all and end-all of Springsteen’s live music supremacy.

10. 11/18/1975

Hammersmith Odeon, London, England

For years, decades even, this show got a bad rap mostly due to Springsteen’s own negative reaction at the time to the built-up publicity campaign surrounding his English debut. Legend has it that the singer went on a tear, physically ripping down posters around town that declared, “Finally London is ready for Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band.” As it turns out, however, the recordings of this November evening reveal a tremendous performance from Bruce and the band that begins with a chilling, near a cappella rendition of the just released “Thunder Road” as well as amazing performances of “Kitty’s Back” and “Spirit in the Night”, the latter of which finds Springsteen crawling completely offstage and losing his famously oversize beanie in the process. While the official album, mastered by Bob Clearmountain, sounds fantastic, do yourself a favor and check out the DVD assembled by Thom Zimny to really get a sense of how on it Springsteen and the E Street band were at the time, despite what they considered to be a less-than-perfect performance.
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09. 08/09/1978

The Agora Ballroom, Cleveland, OH

While some might contend that his outings supporting either The River in 1980-81 or perhaps Born in the U.S.A. in 1984-85 eclipse the 115 dates that he put together behind Darkness on the Edge of Town, most agree that Springsteen and the E Street Band were never better live than they were in 1978. In fact, a case could be made that this entire list should comprise of shows taken from that single year alone. This stop in Cleveland isn’t the best show from that vaunted run, but the band’s performance at the modest Agora Ballroom is certainly transcendent enough to merit inclusion here. Clarence Clemons, in particular, gives it his all with a truly incendiary sax performance on “Jungleland” and the cheeky inclusion of a snippet of the Village People’s “Macho Man” on “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”.
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08. 07/01/2000

Madison Square Garden, NY

Following an 11-year absence, Springsteen’s highly anticipated reunion with the E Street Band culminated in the legendary halls of New York City’s Madison Square Garden — and damn was it a doozy! By this point, the group had played nine other shows in the Knicks’ home stadium and had performed all across the world over the past 14 months. They had become a well-oiled machine by this point, and every member was intent on putting together something special across all three and a half hours they were onstage for this final curtain call. Springsteen was particularly caught up in the emotions of it all, choking up some after playing final number “Blood Brothers”. You might want to keep a Kleenex nearby yourself while listening to this one.
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07. 07/07/1978

The Roxy Theatre, Los Angeles, CA

This gig at the intimate Roxy Theater off Hollywood’s Sunset Strip sounds like the wildest party you’ve ever attended. The streets literally overflowed with zealous fans hoping to get in on the experience, even if it was through the muffled sound of the front door opening and closing. To make things even more special, Springsteen also decided to give three classics their live debut that evening: “Independence Day”, “Rave On”, and “Point Blank”. The entire madness was captured and broadcast over the radio on KMET and has become a bootleg staple for decades since.
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06. 08/20/1984

Brendan Byrne Arena, East Rutherford, NJ

footage Bruce Springsteens 10 Greatest Concerts

There’s a feeling in the air here that’s impossible to shake even three decades later: The prodigal son returned home. By 1984, Springsteen was riding high on the smash success of Born in the U.S.A. and was no longer strictly New Jersey’s own. The Boss was a global superstar, on par with the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson. Nevertheless, while those around him began to see view him in a decidedly different light and newer audiences required bigger venues and multi-night stands, Springsteen was more or less the same performer. There were a few personnel changes, specifically the exit of “Miami” Steve Van Zandt (although, he made an appearance at this show for one night only) and the introduction of Grin guitarist Nils Lofgren and Springsteen’s future wife Patti Scialfa, but that played into the expansive reach of this tour. Everything was “big,” from the Miami Horns to the backup vocals to the triple-guitar attack, down to Springsteen’s own glistening biceps.

05. 08/20/1981

Memorial Sports Arena, Los Angeles, CA

It might not be the best performance of Springsteen’s career, but this show at the Memorial Sports Arena in Los Angeles certainly qualifies as perhaps his most emotionally charged. Billed as “A Night for Vietnam Veterans”, the show begins with a poignant introduction from disabled vet Bob Muller, who also helped organize the entire thing. Springsteen then comes out to make a short, heartfelt speech of his own before he and the band launch into an extraordinary cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain”. Eventually, the entire affair turns into another one of Springsteen’s signature marathons, where he seemingly exhausts his entire catalog of songs, and then some, all for a tremendously worthy cause.
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04. 12/15/1978

Winterland, San Francisco, CA

The Winterland Ballroom was concert-promoting icon Bill Graham’s final bastion of live, indoor entertainment in the City by the Bay. By 1978, the 5,400-capacity converted roller rink had hosted nearly everyone who was anyone in rock music, from The Band to Van Morrision, the Sex Pistols to Led Zeppelin. Two weeks before it was set to close its doors, with a big blowout hosted by the Grateful Dead, Springsteen and the E Street Band rolled into town. From the beginning with “Badlands”, it’s clear that the group is white hot and feeling confident, but to open up the second half of the show with the unreleased song “The Ties That Bind” is absolutely next-level stuff.
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03. 02/05/1975

The Main Point, Bryn Mawr, PA

Imagine yourself as one of the 300 or so fortunate souls crowded into this small coffee house outside of Philadelphia to see Bruce Springsteen in the early months of 1975. You have your copies of Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle sitting on the record player at home, but you’ve heard he might play some new material tonight. Picture yourself hearing “Born to Run” or “Thunder Road”, when it was still being called “Wings for Wheels”, for the very first time in that kind of setting. This actually happened, and it was a magical moment for all those there and for the timely thousands at home or in their cars who tuned in a few hours later to hear it being broadcast over the radio. Fortunately, more than a few people pressed record on their stereo at the time, and we can still put ourselves in that moment today.
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02. 12/31/1980

Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY

In 1980, The Boss and the band made the comparatively short drive up I-95 from New Jersey to Long Island to help the native New Yorkers ring in the New Year with a bang. Clocking in at nearly four hours long, this gig stood as the longest continuous performance of Springsteen’s career for over 30 years; that is, until he finally shattered that mark in 2012. However, it’s not just the sheer length that makes the gig special; there was clearly a festive energy at hand, and the entire show was both loose and exciting. Even as the clock strikes midnight and Clarence Clemons hits the audience with a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”, the party has only really just begun, thanks to a raucous 16-minute version of “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and another half-dozen songs, including a medley of Detroit hits to follow.
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01. 09/19/1978

Capitol Theater, Passaic, NJ

The crown jewel and the undisputed heavyweight champion of Springsteen’s live shows took place 20 minutes outside of Newark, New Jersey, at Passaic’s rustic 1,800-capacity Capitol Theater. If the Darkness tour really was Springsteen’s greatest run of dates, then this gig was the moment where it all came together. Broadcast over WNEW Radio, this was the first show of a three-night stand, and the stunning recordings that have been passed down throughout the years make it clear that Springsteen and the E Street Band tore the roof off the joint.

Springsteen’s always managed to imbue a high degree of fire and brimstone into his songs, but the material here is red hot with arguably the greatest performances of “Racing in the Streets”, “Because the Night”, “Fire”, and “Thunder Road”. Despite those gasps of musical transcendence, the emotional high point of the entire affair arrived when “Professor” Roy Bittain’s 1978-only piano instrumental kicked off a volcanic rendition of “Prove It All Night”. Never before has Springsteen sounded as powerful or energized than he does in the 10 minutes of that one song.

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