There’s a Party Going On, You’re Missing It Little Boy
By Erik Flannigan
While his Born to Run book and Springsteen on Broadway performance served as overt autobiographical projects, Bruce Springsteen’s 1996 homecoming shows in Freehold and Asbury Park were equally if not more confessional.
Sprouting from seeds planted at 1990’s Christic Institute benefit concerts (available in the Live Archive series), Bruce’s return-to-the-Shore shows break the fourth wall and at times seek to provoke the audience by intentionally revealing parts of himself that didn’t necessarily comport with the image of rock’s everyman superstar.
Coming home—not just to New Jersey, but the very towns where his music, band, and lifelong friendships were born—is an act of making peace with one’s past. As Springsteen writes in “When You’re Alone,” performed so poignantly here, “I left and swore I’d never look back,” only to be sent “crawling like a baby back home.”
Bruce has been a storyteller since the early days, spinning yarns about Ducky Slattery and the magical meeting of Scooter and the Big Man. But that became part of the mythmaking.
Back in Asbury Park for the first time in decades, he’s in a different sort of dialogue with the audience—not exactly a two-way street (though he does respond to audience shouts on a few occasions), but consciously revealing his truths and gauging response. Case in point: As he makes unambiguously clear introducing “Red Headed Woman,” Springsteen was (and hopefully remains) America’s foremost advocate for cunnilingus.
For all that’s been said over the years about how he became the musician that he is, the story he tells ahead of “Across the Border,” drawing a parallel between the pop music his mother played on the radio and The Grapes of Wrath might be the most instructive. He eloquently connects the roots of the two key themes of his formative work: the yearning to escape one’s circumstances and the desire for human connection.
Both themes are in full display on Asbury Park 11/26/96, the final night of four Shore shows and the closing night in AP. The November 24 performance was previously released in the Live Archive series, where Bruce was joined by Danny Federici, Patti Scialfa, and Soozie Tyrell. That trio returns for the last show, joined by several figures from those seminal Shore years including Stevie Van Zandt, Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez, Richard Blackwell (who played percussion on The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle), and the late, great Big Danny Gallagher, on whose living room floor Bruce wrote “a lot of my early work.”
The show immediately acknowledges those early days as Springsteen is accompanied by Federici on “For You” to open, followed by a solo turn of “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the CIty.” There’s nothing retro about the performances, which sound vibrant and in the moment, with Bruce in fine, strong voice. For “Saint,” his strumming adopts the low acoustic sound from the Joad tour arrangement of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” which propels the song to the rafters. On that point, the same can be said of the entire performance, which practically bursts from the stage to the audience. In contrast, Springsteen’s next solo outing, the 2005 tour in support of Devils & Dust, can be categorized as more of a lean-in experience, brilliant as it was.
“Atlantic City” gets a passionate if traditional reading. Curious that the song wasn’t part of the original Joad setlists, but it became a staple starting with the European shows in the spring of 1996. The brilliant “Straight Time” was part of the Joad tour core, but curiously it has been played only once since, in Copenhagen 2005.
Scialfa and Tyrell first take the stage for “Tougher Than The Rest,” played only in Freehold and Asbury in a rare acoustic arrangement. “Darkness” is assayed at a blistering pace, and the urgency felt in so many of the night’s performances rings true as Bruce sings, “lives on the line where dreams are found and lost.”
There’s a washboard quality in the rhythmic strumming intro to “Johnny 99” as Bruce blasts harmonica to what sounds like the riff of U2’s “Desire.” It’s another pacey rendition, and Bruce’s heighted Joad voice shifts wildly from high to low, hard to soft, demanding the audience engage.
Next, the first of those old friends, as Richard Blackwell takes the stage on congas for a one-off performance of “All That Heaven Will Allow,” dormant since the last night of the Tunnel tour. Bruce brings out Blackwell with a story about randomly running into him in the woods a long way from the Shore—near the Esalen Institute in Big Sur—after driving cross-country in late 1969. Blackwell is then joined by Tyrell on violin for the comforting return of “All That Heaven Will Allow.”
With Federici rejoining on accordion, Tyrell and Springsteen revisit “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” and again Springsteen’s singing is spirited and invigorating, even contemporizing the Wild & Innocent classic.
The aforementioned cunnilingus advocacy precedes “Red Headed Woman,” though perhaps stumping would be a better word choice. Bruce makes a rare foray into political impressions, doing his take on Senator Bob Dole by way of positing the theory that Dole could have won the 1996 Presidential election if only he’d said, “This is Bob Dole. Bob Dole stands for a strong America; prosperity in every home. Bob Dole stands for cunnilingus.”
“Two Hearts” arrives just in time to turn off the steam, as Patti and Soozie join for this calmer expression of love, teeing up one of the night’s true highlights. “When You’re Alone” was released on Tunnel of Love in 1987, but never appeared in a Tunnel of Love Express Tour set. Springsteen finally debuted the song live at the 1993 tour’s Count Basie Theatre warm-up before its more formal resurrection for these 1996 Shore shows, tour-premiering in Freehold.
Why these shows? Bruce gives “When You’re Alone” no meaningful introduction, but the second-verse lyrics are highly apropos of the occasion. In this stripped-down arrangement, Bruce carries a lot of the original melody in his vocals, enhanced by Patti’s rich harmonies, and the result is special. One of only 12 performances ever, this is the last “When You’re Alone” until 2005.
Former single-mates “Shut Out the Light” and “Born in the U.S.A.” are paired masterfully, with the B-side played first, featuring sympathetic support from Danny, Soozie, and especially Patti on vocals. The 1984 title track always merits reappreciation in its original acoustic form.
The NJ shows deviated significantly from the baseline Joad set, but the end of the 11/24/96 show reverts to form for “Sinaloa Cowboys,” “The Line” and “Across the Border.” As they were night after night, each of the three is brilliantly realized, and the addition of “Racing In the Street” between the final two is both a fascinating and fitting addition. Bruce reads “Racing” not unlike a Joad song (that influence can be felt on some of the 1973 songs as well), and the shifted telling makes for an engrossing rendition.
To the encore, and wonderful moments of Bruce seeing and celebrating the local friends who helped get him there. It starts with Stevie Van Zandt, who joins all prior guests and shares lead vocals with Bruce on his own classic “I Don’t Want to Go Home” in its only tour appearance and a unique acoustic arrangement. “Spirit in the Night” is suddenly an ode to the spirit on this night, with Lopez and Gallagher joining the fray on backing vocals.
A shambolic “Rosalita” ensues, where the spirit of the performance is again what matters most, and a video would do more justice to see the joy on the faces of these reunited Shore brothers (and sisters).
Danny and Bruce handle a joyous “This Hard Land” on their own, but not before reminding the audience that the show is a benefit for the Asbury Park Fire Department and the Women’s Center of Monmouth County. The evening closes with “4th of July Asbury Park (Sandy),” Bruce’s beloved ode to the city, the culture, and the people who brought him to John Hammond’s office and eventually MetLife Stadium.
“I got a chance the other night to just watch my kids running around the theater,” Bruce says in his intro to “Sandy,” “bringing the whole thing sort of full circle.” The same can be said for his own return to Asbury Park in 1996 for one of the most heartwarming shows on the Joad tour.