So, as someone who spends a great deal of their time watching Springsteen videos on YouTube (and thanks to Vevo for releasing so much lately!), I’ve seen my fair share of live performances. I’ve only managed to see Springsteen perform in the flesh three times, so the internet is an amazing way to try to catch up on concerts missed. Here, I’ve gathered seven performances which (spoiler in the title) I think are better than the studio recordings. I don’t dislike any of the album versions of these songs, I just think that the live footage is better. Here we go, then, in no particular order…
Incident on 57th Street– Barcelona, 2002
The Live in Barcelona DVD is a fantastic show, capturing the incredible tour that supported the release of The Rising. Full of fun and high-energy, feel-good rock ‘n’ roll, it is a marathon show which really illustrates how much Bruce loves what he does. I nearly picked the performance of “Ramrod” from the second half of this show, but instead I’ve gone for the brilliant “Incident on 57th Street”. Here, Bruce sings while accompanying himself on the piano and it’s this stripped back element that I love so much. The album version is fantastic, but the power of the song can get lost in the musical arrangement. There’s a lot happening on The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle. In Barcelona, Bruce shows off not only his piano playing skills but also his true vocal ability. His voice hits long, emotional notes and the echoing harmonies from the audience give the sound of the song a moving fullness. “Incident…” has always been a song I’ve paid attention to, but watching this particular performance really made me sit up and take note.
New York City Serenade– Rome, 2013
Taking another track from The Wild, The Innocent…, this one makes the list because I never really cared for the album version until I watched the 2013 performance in Rome. Again, I am eternally thankful to YouTube and Vevo for allowing me to discover these things. From the erie but beautiful piano frenzy by Roy Bittan, to the swelling majesty of the violin section, this performance is nothing short of extraordinary. Everybody is on top form and the emotion can be felt. Although I do now have an appreciation for the album version, I always come to this video when I want to listen to it. Springsteen’s voice has more conviction and the crowd’s energy can be felt in droves. A gorgeous song, set against the backdrop of a gorgeous city.
Crush On You– Tempe, 1980
The River tour had many legendary moments and the album is still one of the finest Springsteen has released, but it does have its problems. “Crush On You” is certainly a problem on that album. It should have been an outtake and the fact that it was on the record instead of a superior track like “Meet Me In The City” doesn’t do it any favours. It is a fun song, don’t get me wrong, but it isn’t really a good one. The reason this live performance is on the list is simply because the amount of fun Bruce has with the song is palpable. He is enjoying every minute of it, hamming up every line to the best of his abilities. It is infectiously hilarious and is my go-to Springsteen video when I need cheering up.
She’s the One– London, 1975
“She’s the One” is the weakest track and the otherwise sublime album Born to Run. I don’t mean that it is a weak song by any means, only that it is the weakest on the album, in my opinion. The 1975 performance of this song in London’s Hammersmith Odeon (the first ever English gig for the band) is outstanding and, like the previous entry, infectiously enjoyable. The harmonica introduction blends perfectly with the emphasized Bo Diddley beat and Steve Van Zandt and Clarence Clemons are on top form. The stop-start routine at the end of the performance is what makes this so much fun and it leaves me grinning every time.
Thundercrack– Los Angeles, 1973
A spiritual predecessor to “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”, “Thundercrack” was usually the show closer for most of ’73 and it is a sprawling rock ‘n’ roll epic written about Springsteen’s then-girlfriend. It was never officially released but a studio recording did appear on the Tracks box-set but that version is lacking somewhat, especially compared to the live footage. The vocal harmonies of the band are very impressive and the overall arrangement is similarly spectacular. Where Springsteen muddles the lyrics on the studio version, here on stage he confidently maneuvers the machine gun fire delivery and leads the band in a crazy jam that explodes into a frantic musical assault for ten minutes.
The Wish– Broadway, 2018
Similarly to the last entry, “The Wish” was released on the Tracks box-set and was usually one I skipped over. That is until I watched the Springsteen on Broadway Netflix special and truly appreciated the poignancy of this song. I still think the studio recording is missing some of the pathos found in the Broadway version, but it has deepened my respect for it nonetheless. It is a sugar-sweet declaration of admiration for his mother and it is unashamedly sappy. I nearly chose “Long Time Comin'” from this same show but I went for “The Wish” because of the beautiful piano melody being subtly played by Springsteen himself, and because of the mixed emotions I get from watching it. Before starting, Springsteen explains how is mother is several years deep into Alzheimer’s disease and his deliberate pause and melancholically contemplative expression when he sings “I’m older, but you’ll know me at a glance” is a moment that always brings me to tears. This is juxtaposed with the fact that the song is a celebration of a life well lived and a job well done, he even goes so far as to state in the lyrics “If you’re looking for a sad song, hell, I ain’t gonna play it”. The entirety of the Broadway show is a moving masterpiece but this is the moment that always stands out to me.
If I Should Fall Behind– New York, 2001
Once again, Springsteen proves that less is more. The same gentle melody is the only instrumentation that is present on the live version, except for a tear-jerking sax solo by Clarence Clemons. The themes of the song are brought to the forefront on this version and each band member singing a verse is a stroke of genius. Bruce’s powerful, soulful voice starts them off, followed by Steve Van Zandt’s gravelly crooning and Patti Scialfa’s and Nils Lofgren’s angelic vocals. Even Clarence, after his solo, gets to sing and it is as beautiful and as smooth as his sax. Finally, at the end, they all sing simultaneously, the band’s combined vocals forming the perfect companion to Bruce’s powerhouse wailing. The passion is clearer than the recording found on Lucky Town and it is on a stage surrounded by his faithful band, that Bruce best illustrates the themes of trust and the importance of community.