My favorite 20 Springsteen surprises, over the years (with videos)


Bruce Springsteen, with drummer Max Weinberg, at the Prudential Center in Newark in 2012.

I’ve argued previously that even though Bruce Springsteen has decided to perform his double album, The River, in its entirety on every show of his current tour, that doesn’t mean he should be considered an oldies act. And I think the generally positive reviews that the tour has generated supports that view.

Still, there’s no question that performing the 20 River songs, night after night (along with standard opener “Meet Me in the City,” the requisite “Born to Run” and so on) limits the ability of The Boss to include as many surprises as he usually does on a tour. Sure, he performed David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” and The Eagles’ “Take It Easy” — in tribute to the late Bowie and the late Glenn Frey — at the first and second shows of the tour. But since then, when there have been surprises, they’ve pretty much been minor ones.

And so … it seemed like the perfect time to take a look back on 20 of the most surprising Springsteen concert moments I’ve witnessed since I first saw him perform, in 1985. Just to be clear: I’m not saying these are his biggest surprises ever. Just the biggest surprises I’ve been lucky enough to see.

What are your big Springsteen surprises? Please let me know in the comments section below. If there are enough responses — of surprises that are different from mine — I’ll do a followup post. (March 24 Update: I’ve done that post, here).

Here they are, in chronological order, with videos, whenever possible. Dates and performances have been confirmed with the help of the invaluable resource,

Nov. 12, 1988: Springsteen takes the stage at a John Prine concert at the Tarrytown Music Hall in Tarrytown, N.Y., to sing and play guitar on the encore, Prine’s folky “Paradise,” with Prine and Garry Fish (Prine’s guitar tech and tour manager, who would often join him for this song). During the ’80s, of course, Springsteen would often make unbilled appearances at other people’s shows. But it rarely happened outside of New Jersey.

June 24, 1993: During a concert with The Other Band at the Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, Clarence Clemons walks out during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out,” when Springsteen sings the “When the change was made uptown/And the Big Man joined the band” line, and starts playing.

Nov. 8, 1996: Springsteen’s acoustic show at the gymnasium of the Saint Rose of Lima School in Freehold — which he attended as a child in the ’50s and ’60s — ends with his first performance of the autobiographical “In Freehold.”

Dec. 3, 2001: George Harrison died on Nov. 29, 2001 and, to honor him at the first of five holiday benefit concerts Springsteen presented at Convention Hall in Asbury Park that year, he opens with covers of Harrison’s “Something” and “My Sweet Lord” (later in the show, Bobby Bandiera performed a solo “Here Comes the Sun”).

Dec. 7, 2001: The two Bruces — Springsteen and Hornsby — sing Hot Chocolate’s 1975 hit, “You Sexy Thing,” at the fourth benefit show (and the final one, too, on Dec. 8), with Hornsby on accordion.

July 26, 2002: In a warm-up show for The Rising Tour at Convention Hall in Asbury Park, Clarence Clemons plays a bagpipe introduction to “Into the Fire.” The intro was dropped, though the song remained in the setlist for most of the tour.

March 7, 2003: The Beatles performed at Atlantic City’s Convention Hall in 1964. To honor them, when Springsteen played in the building (now named Boardwalk Hall) in 2003, he surprised everyone with a Beatles non-single he had never played with the E Street Band before (and hasn’t played since): “Tell Me Why.”

July 21, 2003: Original E Street Band drummer Vini Lopez joins the band for “Spirit in the Night” — his first appearance with the group since 1974 — at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford.

Oct. 4, 2003: Last show of The Rising Tour, at Shea Stadium. Springsteen and The E Street Band back Bob Dylan, introduced by Springsteen as “my great friend and inspiration,” on “Highway 61 Revisited.”

Nov. 1, 2003: At a Light of Day benefit concert at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, Springsteen joins Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers for their set, with Michael J. Fox playing guitar and singing on the song “Light of Day.” (Fox had performed the song in the 1987 movie of that name.)

Oct. 13, 2004: Springsteen sings Pearl Jam’s “Better Man” with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder at a Vote for Change Tour concert at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford. “Bruce asked me to do this song, and since he’s the Boss and I’m the employee, here it is,” Vedder says.

Oct. 13, 2004: Same show: “Racing in the Street,” with Jackson Browne.

May 19, 2005: Springsteen had performed Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” at his four previous shows, so I knew it was coming. Still, I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing when Springsteen, accompanying himself on pump organ on his solo acoustic Devils & Dust Tour, closed his show at the Continental Airlines Arena with this long, hypnotic cover.

Nov. 21, 2005: I’ve heard lots of obscure songs at Springsteen shows over the years. But nothing so obscure, perhaps, as “Song for Orphans” in 2005, at the Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton. It had only been performed once before in concert, more than 30 years previously, and had never been recorded.

May 7, 2008: At a benefit for the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, at the theater itself, Springsteen and the E Street Band plays not just one album in its entirety, but two: Darkness on the Edge of Town, and then Born to Run. They had never done a full album before, and have never done two in one night, since.

Sept. 30, 2009: At the start of the first of five shows at the soon-to-be-demolished Giants Stadium, Springsteen debuted a song, “Wrecking Ball,” that seemed to be written especially for the occasion, but became the title track of his 2012 album and has continued to be featured often at shows.

Oct. 30, 2009: Springsteen and the E Street Band appeared at the first of two “25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Concerts” at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 29, 2009, but Springsteen returned on the second night to guest with U2. Patti Smith joined them to sing “Because the Night” — which she co-wrote with Springsteen — as a duet with him, with Roy Bittan on piano.

Nov. 7, 2009: It had been announced ahead of time that this show, at Madison Square Garden, would feature The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle in its entirety. The surprise, though, was Elvis Costello, joining the band for an encore performance of the Jackie Wilson hit, “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.”

May 2, 2012: Levon Helm of The Band died on April 19, 2012. Springsteen didn’t say anything about him at his first four shows afterwards, but at the fifth, in response to a fan sign reading “Play 1 for Levon,” he came up with a moving rendition of the Band song, “The Weight,” at the Prudential Center in Newark.

Sept. 21, 2012: Amazing opening song at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford: A one-time-only performance of the punk-like “Living on the Edge of the World,” recorded in 1979 but unreleased until its appearance on the 1998 boxed set Tracks. Parts of the song were recycled in “Open All Night,” on the 1982 Nebraska album.


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Charlie Pi March 20, 2016 - 9:25 pm


I enjoy reading your Springsteen articles and comments.

I misconstrued this at first as a list of the best surprises and then I noticed they were your favorite one’s, so of course it’s personal.

Two of the biggest for me….

Opening the show with Incident On 57th Street at the First Union Center on the closing night of the 6 night run in Philly on the Reunion Tour. First time the song had been pulled out in almost 20 years.

Oh, and since we’re still in Philly….The Price You Pay.

The 10th Avenue moment in ’93 at CAA was the loudest crowd I have ever heard at a Springsteen show, and may be at the top of my surprise list.

Rose March 20, 2016 - 10:34 pm

My first & biggest Springsteen surprise was November 11, 2010 at Woody’s Roadside Tavern when Bruce showed up to play with TIMEPIECE.

Second was April 2, 2011 when Bruce showed up for Nicky Addio’s show at the Wonder Bar honoring the Westside music of Asbury Park, NJ. Here’s the playlist of my videos.

Third was July 17, 2011 when Bruce showed up at the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park to sing & play with The Sensational Soul Cruisers. Here’s the playlist of my videos.

elle lamb March 20, 2016 - 10:49 pm

Milwaukee 1980, at the end of Crush on You, Bruce said, “Let’s play Midnight Hour”. The band went right into it like they had been rehearsing it all week.

Joe March 21, 2016 - 10:19 am

Boy, having seen over 50 shows there have been a lot of surprises. I’ve seen several of your’s Jay, so will leave them out. I tend to lean towards the unusual opener or encore, and it would take me hours to really dive into this, but here are a few:

8-25-78 New Haven Coliseum: Seeing him open with “Good Rockin Tonight”
11-7-27-80 MSG: Seeing him open with “Born to Run”
9-7-84 Hartford Civic Center: Playing “Rave On” in the Encore (Buddy Holly’s BD)
8-1-99 Brenden Byrn Arena: Seeing him open with “Backstreets”
5-8-00 Hartford Civic Center: Opening with “Roulette” and “Honky Tonk Woman” intro to Darlington County
7-1-00 MSG: “Lost in the Flood”
12-13-2002 Pepsi Arena Albany: Final Encore “Around and Around”
8-31-2003 Giants Stadium: Opening with “Cynthia”, killer “Kitty” on first encore
9-22-12 Meadowlands Arena: Just the fact that they went on after the thunderstorm delay was a surprise!
5-13-14 Times Union Arena Albany: Seeing him Open with “Don’t Change”
5-18-14 Mohegan Sun Arena: “Santa Claus” (to the delight of my Daughters) and “Seven Angles”
2-8-16 Times Union Arena Albany: “Detroit Medely” in the Encores

Probably can list a dozen others, but this was fun!


Andrew March 21, 2016 - 10:44 am

I have been a Springsteen fan ever since I discovered Rock n’ Roll as a young teenager in the early 1980s. As long as I had been a fan, I never had the opportunity to see him live until my 40s and after I had moved to Europe. My wife bought me tickets to his July 31, 2012 show in Helsinki, Finland as a birthday present. Much to my surprise my first Springsteen show turned out to be the longest show of his career, exceeding four hours. I am taking my kids to see him in Denmark this summer and very much looking forward to it.

Don Weisman March 21, 2016 - 4:09 pm

I think the greatest Bruce surprise performance that I have seen was in April 1977, the so called “Chicken Scratch” tour, when Bruce and the E Streeters stepped in to help support Southside Johnny who had been hospitalized with strep throat. Johnny had four shows scheduled over two nights at the then Carlton Theater in Red Bank, NJ (now the Count Basie Theater). The shows were going to have to be cancelled because of Johnny’s illness, but instead radio and newspaper announcements were made that the shows would go on with the Asbury All-Stars (I still have the hand-painted poster promoting the show that appeared on an easel in the lobby of the theater thanks to a friend who worked there then) standing in for Johnny. The first night it was a mystery as to who the Asbury All-Stars were. But by night two (I had a ticket for the second show that night) word had spread that the night before Bruce and his band had joined forces with the Jukes. The theater vibe was electric before the show started. I had a third row center ticket and when the theater lighting went dark the energy level exploded. The stage lights mistakenly flashed on for a second and imprinted in my memory was the image of all the members of both bands, with Bruce and Steve Van Zandt stage front. The crowd erupted even more. The lights went black again for a few seconds and then came up again as the combined bands launched into the Jukes song “This Time Is For Real.” Steven, who managed the Jukes back in that period and either wrote or co-wrote many of the band’s songs with Bruce) took lead vocals, with Bruce singing the songs that he had written (i.e. The Fever). They went through virtually the entirety of the Jukes’ then two album library, with a mini set in the middle when Ronnie Spector joined them to sing several of the Ronnettes’ hits capped off by a duet with Bruce on his song “You Mean So Much To Me (Baby)” which Johnny and Ronnie had recorded together on the Jukes first album. After coming out for encores and ending with the Jukes show topper, Sam Cooke’s “We’re Having a Party,” the audience lights came up and the roadies started shutting off the amps, usually a sign that the show had ended. It was well after midnight, but a about a third of the crowd remained and moved to the front of the orchestra section of the theater chanting for more. After what seemed 15 minutes of chanting, the roadies came back onto the stage and began turning on the music amps again. The energy in the crowd erupted when Bruce and the E Street Band, accompanied by the Jukes horn section, emerged again on stage and launched into another full set of their own songs, ending finally with the Jackie Wilson classic “Higher and Higher.” Bruce was in the middle of his legal issues with former manager Mike Appel during that period and wasn’t able to record, and played publicly only sporadically, so you could feel the pent up energy that he and the band were releasing. I remember finally leaving the theater at about 2:30 a.m., ears ringing, soaked in sweat, exhausted and thinking to myself “I’ve never seen anything like that before, but I want to do that again.” That was what I consider my first E Street Band show (I’d seen Bruce a number of times pop up on stage with other bands at the Stone Pony and the Fast Lane in Asbury Park, but not with his band of brothers backing him. I was converted that night and have been an avid follower ever since.

Clyde August 16, 2016 - 9:22 pm

I was at the early show that night. After the main show ended, we got an encore of Bruce and the E Street Band doing Thunder Road. I met Bruce in the mid-80s and told him I was at that show. He said, “Oh yeah. That was a classic.”

Matt Milius March 22, 2016 - 1:34 am

Ive been fortunate to see so many amazing things when it comes to Bruce, but one night at Cheers in Long Branch my friend Sal and I were there to see Bobby Bandiera and Bruce came in. We said Hi, then left him alone. There weren’t many people at all there and we were sitting at the bar and Bruce and Patti’s Dad were at a booth. Bruce comes walking by my bar stool and I said “Hey Bruce, are you taking off?”, he says, “No, im gonna give Bobby a hand!” so he hops up there with Bobby and they to Mustang Sally and Lucille. Just two songs but that was a big surprise and alot of fun! Ive been fortunate enough to have so many amazing Bruce nights , but that particular one was so much fun!

Dave Drum March 22, 2016 - 11:18 am

My most memorable Springsteen moment came in June of 1981 at The Old Waldorf in San Francisco when Bruce crawled across the top of the table right next to me to join Gary U.S. Bonds on stage. There were only about 300 people at the show, and many of us had bought tickets in the hope that Springsteen would make a surprise appearance. The Boss didn’t disappoint as teamed up with Bonds for several songs including Quarter to Three, Jolé Blon and This Little Girl. Having seen Bruce and the band on the first River Tour just a few months earlier, it was an incredible thrill to be a mere five feet away on this unforgettable night.

Dave March 24, 2016 - 4:49 pm

I was at a Sting show at Madison Square Garden in 1988. The Amnesty tour had been announced but hadn’t started yet. Sting came out for the last encore, where he had always played an acoustic “Message in a Bottle.” Instead, he said, “I want to play a song written by a friend of mine,” and started singing “The River.” Midway through the first verse, Bruce walked out. I think the audience lost their collective minds at once. What a moment.

Also, a few years back April 2008, the Tampa show right after Danny passed away, when they opened with “Backstreets” and the crowd was sobbing from the get go.

Mark March 27, 2016 - 11:58 pm

The first time Tom Morello came out and played Ghost of Tom Joad in Anaheim/2008. So unexpected. So powerful.

The night he called out “Midnight Hour” in Milwaukee 10/14/80 while improvising at the end of Crush on You. Half the band couldn’t believe it. Sorry, no video.


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