Bruce Springsteen's night in Cleveland cemented his live legend
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series that is intended to shine a light on some loved recordings that are readily available, if not necessarily for sale.
“Boy, Bruce is gonna knock ‘em dead tonight.”
So goes the WMMS DJ in Cleveland, setting up that night’s spectacle by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Springsteen was in the thick of an American tour that saw him triumphantly towing his songs from his most recent album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and the tour would become a definitive marking point in the legend of Springsteen, the live powerhouse.
On this night, Aug. 9, 1978, in Cleveland’s Agora Ballroom, Springsteen pulled more out of his bag of tricks than usual, and the band was meeting him at every perilous height. Whenever he made the leap, the band was there to catch him and throw him higher. And thanks to the radio broadcast and the recording setup, this is one of the better-preserved documents of the era.
This was Springsteen’s last tour before the true marathons became the norm for E Street Band shows, though this night clocks in at three hours, and that’s before factoring in the bonus material from the next month that pads out disc three and an interview that takes up disc four. But the main show itself is more than enough, pacing itself in a way that almost masks the whiplash it induces on listeners.
The show opens with a wallop, a roaring cover of “Summertime Blues” and a typically energetic reading of “Badlands” that found itself at the top of most of Springsteen’s setlists around this time. Bruce was heavily invested in his new material from Darkness on the Edge of Town, and seven of its 10 songs found its way into the set that night, along with “Because the Night,” which was one of his more famous castoffs thanks to a hit rendition by Patti Smith.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to hear how the intensity was ratcheted up for the new songs, for which Springsteen had effectively sacrificed nearly three years of his recording career. In this setting, “The Promised Land” is given an extended take and “Prove It All Night” benefits from the fabled “78 Intro” that served as one of the better examples of the E Street Band as a fluid, hard rock unit. Springsteen’s lead talents get overshadowed by so much of the E Street experience, but this was an outlet for a searing solo and inspired playing, all in front of the song itself.
Even with all that playing and jamming, this was a set of songs, not noodling and syncopated, improvised workouts, and that’s what made a three-hour Springsteen set far more intense than a Grateful Dead show from the same era. Where the Dead had jazzy interludes and thrilling moments, Springsteen’s shows were a frantic sprint, song after song of anthemic roaring in search of some greater meaning, finding it by the songs climax, throwing it away and starting the race again for the next one. Listening to this stuff is enough to exhaust a listener; imagine having been there that night. Imagine having been on stage.
But all that — the ridiculous legal battle that kept him out of a studio, the work that went into playing the new songs, the need to win over every audience every night — is what began to contribute to the Springsteen legend, which raised him from just a musician with a great live reputation to the greatest live performer of his generation. And that 1978 history is documented on a number of tapes; this one just happens to be among the best available.
Not to be all “this is why cavemen painted on walls,” but truly, this is the kind of show that keeps tapers taping, that keeps collectors collecting, and that keeps bootlegs viable among the most rapid sectors of fanbases. The sound is great, importantly, and the material features one of the great American artists at a creative peak.
And it’s all there, 35 years later. That night, as predicted by the DJ, he laid waste to the lucky thousands in attendance and everyone else eavesdropping at home. For listeners today, the only catch is actually maintaining the energy to keep up with Springsteen.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org