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, brucebase.wikispaces.com):
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.”
The song can be heard at the 2:21:01 mark of this video:
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.