A One-Way Ticket To The Promised Land
By Erik Flannigan
Those of us who like to discuss Bruce Springsteen’s touring history often focus on a show’s narrative arc. Through his setlist choices and order, what story is he telling?
Tours tied to his new studio albums often start as showcases for that particular work and its ideas, but after several months on the road song selections turn wide ranging, at times drifting far from the shore to which they were originally docked.
The Ghost of Tom Joad tour is Springsteen’s purest in terms of holding onto its vision and telling its story night after night. That the tour eventually spanned three calendar years stands as a testament to how satisfying Springsteen found solo work and the songs he was performing.
The tour launched in late 1995 and those early sets offered a heaping helping of tracks from the album. By the time he reached Akron ten months later–a point at which deviation from the norm would be underway on most tours–Springsteen was digging even deeper into this music’s wellspring.
Akron begins with a staggering debut performance that immediately validates the inclusion of the show in the Live Archive series. Springsteen had been invited to appear at a special Woody Guthrie tribute concert in Cleveland on September 29, in preparation for which he performed the folk legend’s “Tom Joad” to open the Akron set.
With command and focus, Springsteen breathes new life into Guthrie’s murder ballad about the plight of the poor heading west in the Dust Bowl era. The song is a darker, spiritual companion to Springsteen’s own “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” and the two share key words and phrases in their final verses. While the film adaption of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was a major reference for Springsteen’s “Joad” lyrics, the inspiration and influence of Guthrie’s “Tom Joad” is there too, and not just in the title track but across the album, and even as far back as Nebraska, where its style and shape inform compositions like “Johnny 99” and “Reason to Believe.”
From that unprecedented start, Springsteen moves purposefully through the weighty Joad tour set, which offers little in the way of fan service but remains unquestionable in its musical artistry. The seventh song, “Nebraska,” starts with a high-vocal musical prelude that drifts into the somber harmonica line, setting the dark scene that’s about to unfold. It’s a stark, intimate reading that ends with Springsteen subtly shifting into a character voice for the harrowing final line: “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”
The first half of the set includes “It’s the Little Things That Count” and “Red Headed Woman,” which bring welcome levity, before the fitting pairing of “Shut Out the Light” and “Born in the U.S.A.” Springsteen performs the b-side with feeling and fragility, while the A-side rides bluesy guitar slides in a swaggering reading that plays more as a cautionary tale than ever before.
A second high-vocal intro comes ahead of another Nebraska track, “Reason to Believe,” missing its original and thematically contrasting musical lilt, replaced here by a somber tone that’s chilling in spots. No one will misread the meaning of this version.
The main set heads towards conclusion on the back of five stellar performances from Joad starting with “Youngstown” (just 50 miles from Akron), “Sinaloa Cowboys,” “The Line,” the rarely performed “The New Timer” and finally a glimmer of hope from “Across The Border.”
After delivering the set’s central themes completely on his own terms, Springsteen acknowledges the Akron audience’s patience and respect with the rousing return of “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” The song dates back to his own time as a Greenwich Village troubadour and is a fitting inclusion in an evening of folk music. A sweet “This Hard Land” further rewards fan faith, and the good vibes continue on a quick rip through “No Surrender,” a song about the bonds of friendship and what matters in the face of hardship.
“I appreciate coming out here and having the room to play like this,” Springsteen says sincerely in the encore. However one feels today about the music he was performing circa 1995-97, it meant everything to Springsteen. In early 1995 he was at a crossroads, having effectively finished a solo album in the vein of “Streets of Philadelphia,” only to pivot suddenly and reconvene the E Street Band to record new music and promote Greatest Hits. But that year, Springsteen ultimately rediscovered himself as a solo artist through The Ghost of Tom Joad album and tour.
If we support the idea that he had to make Nebraska before he entered the inevitable superstar spotlight with Born in the U.S.A., Springsteen needed to write, record and perform Tom Joad songs on his own before he could reunite with the E Street Band. This Akron recording is a compelling chronicle of that journey, including one key piece of the original source material.
Addio alla tua cara mamma
Adele Springsteen 1925-2024
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