Since first seeing Bruce Springsteen perform in concert in 1985, I have seen him perform … I don’t know how many times, but definitely more than 100, maybe somewhere around 200. Most of the concerts have been excellent; even at his worst, he’s still better than virtually anyone else.
That said, I have to report that the upcoming concert film “The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts” rocks harder than any concert of his I have seen in person.
Some fans will maintain that he and the E Street Band were better at certain other shows. At that may be true: Who can really say? But it’s hard to see any fan failing to recognize the stunning greatness of these sets (Springsteen actually appeared at two “No Nukes” shows, on Sept. 21 and 22 of ’79, at Madison Square Garden in New York; performances from the two nights are condensed into one 13-song set here).
These were not just brilliant performances, but ones that were professionally filmed (for the 1980 “No Nukes” movie, which ended up using only three Springsteen songs) and are now being presented to the public, edited from the original film by longtime Springsteen collaborator Thom Zimny and with pristine remixed audio by Bob Clearmountain. (The film will be available for digital download on Nov. 16 and digital rental on Nov. 23, with physical formats, including DVD, CD, Blu-ray and vinyl, available on Nov. 19; visit brucespringsteen.lnk.to/NoNukes).
A little background: Springsteen, of course, had released Darkness on the Edge of Town in 1978, but his Darkness on the Edge of Town Tour ended on Jan. 1, 1979. Except for a handful of surprise nightclub appearances, at which he would join someone for a song or, at most, a few, he hadn’t done any concert performing since Jan. 1.
The No Nukes concerts, which raised money for the Musicians United for Safe Energy organization, were all-star affairs, featuring appearances by Crosby, Stills & Nash, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, The Doobie Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and others, over five nights. Springsteen had performed at the Garden before, but he hadn’t appeared at any big, multi-artist events like this one, at this point in his career.
Plus, he had an important, deeply personal new song — “The River,” destined to be the title track of his 1980 double album — to debut at these shows. And he was about to turn 30 (on Sept. 23).
“I’m officially over the fucking hill … can’t trust myself anymore,” he said at one point during the Sept. 22 show, referring to the old counterculture saying that you can’t trust anyone over 30.
To sum up: He had a lot on his mind at these shows, and something to prove. And he — and bandmates Clarence Clemons, Steven Van Zandt, Max Weinberg, Roy Bittan, Danny Federici and Garry Tallent — performed with a kind of pent-up energy that’s a marvel to experience (along with their usual sharp musicianship and scruffy charisma).
The action-packed setlists were the same, for their first 1o songs, on both nights. Three lean, hard-edged songs from Darkness (“Prove It All Night,” “Badlands,” “The Promised Land”). Then “The River” and another song that would up on the River album, the crowd-pleasing, good time-y “Sherry Darling.” Then four masterpieces from Springsteen’s recent past: “Thunder Road,” “Jungleland,” “Rosalita” and “Born to Run.” And then “Stay,” the Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs oldie that Springsteen had never performed before, but that had been introduced to rock fans by Browne on his 1977 Running on Empty album.
Springsteen brought out Browne and Browne’s frequent collaborator Rosemary Butler to sing on “Stay,” the first night, and Browne, Butler and Petty on the second. The version with Petty is included on this set, and it’s great to see him, Springsteen and Browne, still so young, beaming at the rare opportunity to perform together. What a moment.
After “Stay,” Springsteen closed with manic oldies on both nights, with “Detroit Medley” and Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” at Show 1, and Gary U.S. Bonds’ “Quarter to Three,” at Show 2. All three songs are included in the set, and it’s exhausting just to watch Springsteen and the band race through them (with a little clowning around sprinkled in, too).
Springsteen reportedly said, last month, that his planned 2022 tour with the E Street Band will represent an opportunity “to see the band at its peak.” It was a rare instance of bad timing on The Boss’ part, to say that with “The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts” coming out so soon.
For the film makes a convincing argument that the band’s peak was 42 years ago, on Sept. 21-22, 1979. Two nights of rock ‘n’ roll perfection.
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