Bruce Springsteen, Passaic, NJ, September 21, 1978

Before The Jukebox Blow The Fuse

ARCHIVE RELEASE: Bruce Springsteen, Capitol Theatre, Passaic, NJ, September 21, 1978

By Erik Flannigan

Imagine that years after your favorite television series had ended (be it Seinfeld, The Sopranos, Stath Lets Flats, Twin Peaks or any other), you learned that additional episodes had been shot during the show’s best years and were about to be released in pristine quality. Would it matter that you had already watched dozens of episodes from the same season?

No, you would be thrilled that more of the show you love–a sublime artistic creation for which your fandom had become part of your self identity–was newly available. Let’s say you even had a lower-quality video tape or a pirated download of one of those lost episodes. Would it diminish your interest in an HD version of the lost show, looking even better than the original series ever did?

It’s with that framing we welcome another Darkness tour show to the Live Archive series and complete the Capitol Theatre trifecta with the release of Passaic 9/21/78. It’s the final show of a three-night stand that would be the last small-theatre residency Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band would ever play in the Northeast. Let’s not forget these shows were something of an anomaly at the time, coming after a trio of gigs at the Palladium and the statement-making, three-night stand at iconic Madison Square Garden in New York City, both just a New Jersey Transit ride away.

Bruce was already many times bigger than the Capitol Theatre capacity, but his home state of New Jersey lacked an arena-sized venue until Brendan Byrne opened in 1981. The Passaic shows were a gift to those who lived across the Hudson River and especially fans on the Shore. When Bruce asks during the 9/21 show how many folks in the house are from Asbury Park, the roar is considerable.

The first night of the Passaic run was the legendary September 19 radio broadcast which spiked sales of blank tape in the tri-state area (presumably). That show and the more relaxed second night on September 20, are both essential titles in the Live Archive series. Now, the equally enthralling final concert joins them.

Comparing or ranking masterpieces is a pointless exercise; instead we should be grateful that we can now hear all three Capitol Theatre performances in outstanding, multi-track mix quality. That being said, the three Passaic shows are distinct.

Night three strikes an appealing balance of intensity and looseness, some of which can be attributed to its proximity to Springsteen’s 29th birthday, which would take place in two days’ time. The fans want to celebrate it and Springsteen lets them: he plays to the crowd and the crowd gives it right back in what might be the most interactive Darkness tour performance to be professionally recorded.

Amidst all the hand-wringing about setlist variations in recent times, some trainspotters have pointed out that for all the adoration showered upon it, the Darkness tour largely stuck to its core set and didn’t offer a great number of changes from show to show. That ignores the fact that when there were multi-night stands like Passaic, Bruce not only made surprise additions (usually covers, see below), but in the days leading up he prepped special material for the run. At the Capitol Theatre this included the return of deep cuts like “Meeting Across The River,” “Incident on 57th Street,” “Kitty’s Back,” and even “The Fever.”

Those older songs were clearly a nod to longtime fans from the area, but the key setlist-change feature of the Darkness tour was its rock ‘n’ roll jukebox covers: the exceptionally capable E Street Band regularly performed foundational rock songs like “Rave On,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Summertime Blues.” With rollicking reverence, it’s obvious how much pleasure Springsteen got from taking each golden nugget for a ride.

September 21, 1978 was a hot day in New Jersey and the Capitol Theatre was surely warm and sticky when Springsteen kicked off the evening with Jerry Lee Lewis’ “High School Confidential.” This is one of nine performances of the song that year, and marks its first appearance in the Live Archive series.

Later in the first set, we get another Archive series debut cover, Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen,” featuring great baritone saxophone from Clarence Clemons and a spirited vocal from Springsteen that includes the fitting lyrical rewrite, “deep in the heart of Passaic.”

Preview of “Sweet Little Sixteen” – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Those are but two highlights in a sterling opening set that also includes the work-in-progress “Independence Day” and an interesting “Prove It All Night.” Max Weinberg drops the beat at the 1:07 mark, and in Jon Altschiller’s detailed mix we hear just how important Clemons’ triangle playing is to the rhythm and tone of the song’s enchanting prelude. Mix inspectors will also likely be pleased with the placement of Danny Federici’s fader throughout the show compared to other ’78 releases.

Set one ends with the perfect pairing of “Meeting Across the River” into “Jungleland.” If we needed further confirmation of Springsteen’s commitment to his performance, we get it in two signature, heightened “Jungleland” vocal lines, as he reaches to his upper range to punctuate “dress in the latest rage” and “desperate as the night moves on.”

Given how well it worked the night before, the second set opens with a very early “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” again complete with fake snowfall and Springsteen doing his best Darlene Love imitation at the end. Clemons’ fine percussion playing and some impressive flying cymbal work from Weinberg mark an excellent “Because the Night,” one of five unreleased original songs featured in the 9/21/78 set along with the aforementioned “Independence Day,” “Fire,” “Point Blank” (in a version with great glockenspiel from Federici and piano from Roy Bittan) and “The Fever.” While our familiarity with those songs means we take their inclusion for granted in a 1978 show, if five unreleased originals were to appear in 2024 sets, we’d be soiling ourselves with glee.

The second set features epics, too, including a long “Kitty’s Back,” in which Bittan turns in a solo that’s among his modern-jazziest ever, accented by more cymbal shimmering from Weinberg. Bruce eventually presents the audience with a choice between “The Fever” and “Incident on 57th Street,” but lucky them, he plays both.

“The Fever” brings another memorable vocal moment, when Springsteen goes on an epic, Van Morrisonesque run through “But I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I — I’M GONNA BE ALRIGHT” at 6:15. Brilliant. As nature intended, “Incident” flows directly into “Rosalita,” and after vamping on the Village People’s “Macho Man” following the introduction of The Big Man, this deeply satisfying second set comes to a close.

The encore is a victory lap and maintains the energy of the main set with more vocal gems like Springsteen putting an exclamation point on his first utterance of “Baby we were BORN TO RUH-UH-UH-UN.” He elects to close the three-show homecoming with the night’s fourth cover, perhaps the most beloved encore song yet to be played in Passaic, Gary U.S. Bonds’ “Quarter To Three.” Led by Clemons’ wailing saxophone, the version runs some ten minutes before Springsteen and the band finally wave goodbye.

After they leave the stage, someone (promoter John Scher perhaps?) takes to the microphone to say, “It’s been a wonderful three nights. A great way to help Bruce celebrate his birthday.” True, but the real gift of Passaic is the recordings the Record Plant Mobile Truck made of all three nights.

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