In the wake of the Three Mile Island accident two things happened in the Springsteen universe.
The first immediate result was his writing of ‘Roulette’ which, while it would be the first song recorded during The River sessions, would languish in b-side status until appearing later on both Tracks and The Ties That Bind. It’s a belter.
The second was the formation of MUSE – Musicians United for Safe Energy and the organising of five ‘No Nukes’ concerts at Madison Square Garden. Not yet particularly active or even vocal when it came to politics, Bruce wasn’t among the founding members. Nor did he attend press conferences or issue a statement on nuclear energy. He did, though, agree to perform at two of the shows and for those shows to be filmed and recorded.
I’m adding this historical context for a reason. The Bruce Springsteen of 1979 was not the Springsteen today – or even of six years later following Born In The USA – in terms of status but he was very much a rising star with both Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge of Town behind him and live shows that were already becoming the stuff of legend.
This is Springsteen before the stadium era. Before, even, The River and ‘Hungry Heart’ – in fact Bruce and The E Street Band weren’t on the road at the time, they’d spent most of the year working on an album called The Ties That Bind that Springsteen was to throw away in favour of going for the double with The River (though you wouldn’t know it from the performances captured on those evenings). Nonetheless, tickets to Bruce’s headlining nights sold out within an hour.
One final piece of context is that the full The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts recording arrived at the end of 2021. A timely reminder of the power of Springsteen and the E Street Band when any plans for touring had been on hold for two years, forty two years after the event.
Given that it arrives so long after the fact and in an era where so many entire concerts are available from Springsteen – not to mention his already extant six official*- you’d be forgiven for questioning whether this was needed. I’m here to say it is, it’s an essential piece in the canon
This isn’t so much a review because, let’s face it, I’m late in the game here and this one has already hit the high notes with the critics. This is more.. personal reflections after a good month or so of repeated listens.
One of the things that springs to mind when it comes to Springsteen’s shows these days has got to be their marathon length. Granted 1979 Bruce didn’t have quite the staying power but his shows were already clocking pretty long times. The idea, then, of condensing a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band show into just ninety minutes can’t have been an easy order – hell, I reckon it must’ve been easier planning the 12 minute half-time show than making the choice for the No Nukes setlist.**
The timing restraints are kinda felt at times. Prove It All Night, for example, is shorn of its then-customary elongated intro and Born To Run particularly feels squeezed for time – it barrels past in less time than the album version*** – and there are moments where the need to keep songs tighter than a duck’s arse and keeping a proverbial eye on the time means Springsteen seems a little out of breath as the shorter-than-usual arrangements give him less opportunity to catch a breather between bars.
But these are more observances than faults because, frankly, there aren’t any to be found after repeated listens because the overall sensation is of a joyous celebration of Bruce Springsteen – and the E Street Band – being captured at full gallop on their early peak. Even a condensed blast of this power-house operating at such peak performance is better than so many others.
And while Born To Run may be sprinted through, Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) gets to stretch its legs out over 12 glorious minutes complete with band introductions.
There’s a strange delight in hearing Springsteen – who’d celebrate his birthday the night following these shows – refer to himself as ‘over the fucking hill’ and that, turning the age of 30 meant he could no trust himself anymore (especially as this now reach us with Bruce in his 70s and still delivering) after delivering both the one-two-three punch of Prove It, Badlands, The Promised Land and then-new song The River.
It’s an added delight to hear The River rolled out for the first time and not have the first few blows on the harmonica not greeted by the rapturous applause they’d soon be greeted with forever out.
The setlist is pretty unimpeachable too. While, with an hour and half only to play with you could lean to wanting, say, an Adam Raised A Cain or Candy’s Room or even a 10th Avenue Freeze Out in place of the three covers that end the show but Bruce was already throwing his Detroit Medley and Quarter to Three into his sets and using them to work the crowd up into a final frenzy and in the context of making an impact and bringing the audience to its knees – they do a brilliant job.
The whole album is a blast to listen to. Peak Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band will never disappoint and while there are plenty of single-show recordings out there, you’d be hard pushed to match this in terms of quality.
*as in bearing the Colombia logo vs Nuggs or whatever it is these days.
**both nights featured identical setlists save the inclusion of ‘Rave On’
***a chunk of the credited 4:59 is dedicated to applause.