Manhattan has always been a muse for Bruce Springsteen.
The fire escapes of “Incident on 57th Street,” the transistor blasts of “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” the darkness, dust and redemption of “The Rising” — all testify to the inspiration New York City has offered to Springsteen through the decades. And his history as a live performer is rich with milestones at New York venues.
In the winter of 1973, at Max’s Kansas City, off Union Square, a Billboard reviewer praised Springsteen’s energy and “incisive” lyrics. At The Bottom Line in Greenwich Village, a five-night, 10-show residency in August 1975 preceded the release of Born to Run. Six nights at the Palladium on 14th Street in the late fall of October and November of 1976 were followed by three dates at that theater in September 1978 (a brief retreat to a smaller hall in the midst of Springsteen’s first arena tour). And a show at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem in March 2012 opened the Wrecking Ball tour and was carried live on Sirius XM’s E Street Radio.
But Madison Square Garden outranks all New York City venues in Springsteen lore, for the number of times it has hosted The Boss, both on his own tours and as part of benefit concerts. The first time he took the famous stage may have been less memorable; he opened at MSG for Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Chicago in June 1974. But other nights burn bright in the memories of fans.
As Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band return to MSG on Saturday (April 1) as part of his 2023 international tour, here’s a look at his 10 greatest moments at The Garden.
1. “Summertime Blues” (1978)
The hottest show on the road in the summer of 1978 came to New York from Aug. 21 to 23 as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band made their debut as headliners at Madison Square Garden. Less than three months after the release of Darkness On The Edge of Town, Springsteen was playing his first arena tour, opening most shows with that album’s lead track “Badlands.” But not that first night at The Garden. “Well, I’m a-gonna raise a fuss/ I’m a-gonna raise a holler! About workin’ all summer/ just-a trying to earn a dollar!” shouted Springsteen, opening with Eddie Cochran’s 1958 hit “Summertime Blues.”
After the show’s intermission — yes, an intermission — the band returned with the instrumental “Paradise by the `C,’” a showcase for the Big Man on sax, Clarence Clemons. Dave Marsh later wrote in his biography Born To Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story about Springsteen’s reluctance to move from theaters to larger venues: “Certainly, by playing sports arenas so successfully, Springsteen proved that he could have both quality and quantity; in fact, he got a clearer, more powerful sound in Madison Square Garden than many acts have at the Palladium or the Bottom Line.”
2. “Rave On” (1979)
Springsteen shared a bill with Bonnie Raitt (as the opening act) at the Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge the night of May 9, 1974, for an audience that included his future manager, Jon Landau. By 1979, Raitt had joined with Jackson Browne, Graham Nash and others to form Musicians United For Safe Energy (M.U.S.E.) to protest the use of nuclear power and stage five No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden in September of that year.
Springsteen joined the lineup on Sept. 21 and Sept. 22 for a relatively short but intense sets that concluded, the first night, with Mitch Ryder’s “Detroit Medley” and Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” and, the second night, with Gary U.S. Bonds’ “Quarter To Three.” In September 2021, Springsteen released The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts, a film of those Garden performances, edited by his longtime collaborator and filmmaker Thom Zimny from the original 16 millimeter film, with sound powerfully remixed by Bob Clearmountain.
3. “Who’ll Stop The Rain” (1980)
In December of 1980, music fans worldwide were in mourning. The night of Dec. 8, John Lennon had been murdered outside his home, The Dakota apartment building on Manhattan’s Central Park West. After two shows in November at The Garden, Springsteen returned to MSG on Dec. 18 and 19, showcasing that year’s The River, what he later called his “coming of age record.” The first night included Springsteen’s first live cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop The Rain.” And for all the somber tone of songs from The River — ”Stolen Car,” “Drive All Night,” “The Price You’ll Pay”– Bruce also offered the joyousness of his first top five Billboard Hot 100 hit, “Hungry Heart.” In 2015, the Springsteen fan publication and website Backstreets posted a previously unheard audio clip of a John Lennon interview recorded for the RKO Radio Networks in which Lennon praised “Hungry Heart” as “a great record.” The interview, according to Backstreets, was recorded the afternoon of Dec. 8, 1980.
4. “Tunnel of Love” (1988)
For a meeting across the river with his fans during the massively successful Born in the U.S.A. arena tour of 1984, Springsteen played 10 shows at what was then known as the Brendan Byrne Arena in the New Jersey Meadowlands — and none at The Garden. But on the first leg of his 1988 arena tour to support the reflective Tunnel of Love album, Springsteen and the E Street Band sold out five nights at MSG between May 16 and May 23 — each opening with the set piece of a carnival ticket-taker onstage. Among the highlights of the closing night at The Garden were performances of “Be True,” a brilliant B-side from the River sessions, and a segue of “Light of Day” and Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild.”
5. “Lonesome Valley” (1993)
Kristen Ann Carr, the beloved daughter of Barbara Carr and Dave Marsh, died on Jan. 3, 1993 of sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. A senior majoring in journalism at New York University, she was 21 years old. On June 26, 1993, the closing night of his 1992-1993 world tour, Springsteen and his band staged a benefit at The Garden to help launch the Kristen Ann Carr Fund, joined onstage by guests Joe Ely and Sananda Maitreya, then known as Terence Trent D’Arby. Ely and Springsteen opened the show with the gospel song “Lonesome Valley” and Maitreya sang with Bruce on “Many Rivers to Cross.” Thirty years later, the Kristen Ann Carr Fund continues to support research into sarcoma, underwrites the education of young physicians and seeks ways to improve the quality of life of cancer patients.
6. “American Skin (41 Shots)” (2000)
Amadou Diallo was a 23-year West African immigrant coming home to his apartment in the Bronx, just after midnight on Feb. 4, 1999, when he was approached by four New York City police officers, searching for a rape suspect. He reached for his wallet. The officers later said they believed he was going for a gun—and fired 41 shots, killing him in the vestibule of his building. All four officers were later acquitted in the shooting. On a reunion tour, Springsteen and the E Street Band played an unprecedented 10 nights at Madison Square Garden between June 12 and July 1. His song “American Skin (41 Shots)” was an emotional center of the shows. The HBO special Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band: Live In New York City was filmed during these shows, which also introduced the anthemic “Land of Hope and Dreams.”
7. “The Rising” (2001)
Jon Pareles in the New York Times first reported the story, describing how, a few days after Sept 11, 2001, Springsteen was pulling out of a beach parking lot in the Jersey Shore town of Sea Bright “when a fan rode by,” Pareles wrote. “The man rolled down his window, shouted, ‘We need you!’ and drove on.” Springsteen responded to the unimaginable loss of 9/11 with The Rising, and the third night of the tour showcasing that album brought the E Street Band to The Garden on Aug. 12, 2002, their first New York City show following the World Trade Center attacks. Songs from The Rising — ”Lonesome Day,” “Empty Sky,” “Into The Fire” — alternated with blistering versions of older tracks, “Prove It All Night,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “The Promised Land.”
8. “This Land Is Your Land” (2009)
In the summer of 1969, when Bruce Springsteen was still dreaming of a record deal, the folk music icon Pete Seeger saw a different dream come true. Living in Beacon, N.Y., overlooking the then-polluted Hudson River, Seeger envisioned a community-supported sailing sloop that would inspire people to come out on the river — and help save it. Built in Maine and christened the Clearwater, Seeger’s sloop sailed into New York Harbor for the first time on Aug. 1, 1969.
Flash forward to May 3, 2009 at Madison Square Garden where Springsteen joined an all-star cast — John Mellencamp, Tom Morello, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson, Richie Havens, Roger McGuinn, Ani DiFranco, Taj Mahal, Ben Harper, Dave Matthews and more — to celebrate Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday and raise money for the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, which sails on to this day, one of the nation’s oldest activist organizations with its roots in music. Opening the show in acoustic duet with Morello on “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” Springsteen and the ensemble serenaded Seeger with “Happy Birthday” and “This Land Is Your Land.”
9. “Fortunate Son” (2009)
The 25th anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was celebrated with two concerts at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 29 and 30, 2009 — and Springsteen was the life of the party, as captured by the HBO special filmed at the event. He sang “Fortunate Son” and “Proud Mary” with John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Soul Man” with Sam Moore, and “Da Doo Ron Ron” with Darlene Love, all on the first night. He and Roy Bittan returned the second night to join U2 for “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
10. “Land of Hope and Dreams” (2012)
Springsteen and the E Street Band returned to Madison Square Garden throughout the 2000s: for the home-spun Seeger Sessions Band shows on June 22, 2006; the Magic Tour on Oct. 17 and 18, 2007; the Working on a Dream Tour on Nov. 7-8, 2009; and the Wrecking Ball World Tour on April 6 and April 9, 2012. Springsteen’s Garden performance on The River Tour in 2016 marked the most recent time he and the E Street Band played The Garden until now — and remarkably, that show took place almost exactly seven years ago, on March 28, 2016.
Of all those nights, however, one that cannot be overlooked was not planned — until Hurricane Sandy slammed into New York on Oct. 29 and 30, 2012. Billed as 12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief, the show was an all-star concert like few others, carried on scores of television, radio and web outlets and featuring (among others) The Rolling Stones, The Who, Billy Joel, Eric Clapton, Bon Jovi, Alicia Keys and Eddie Vedder. Who could play the opening slot on such a bill but Bruce Springsteen? It was a four-song set that began with the perfect song: “Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine/and all this darkness past,” sang Springsteen. “Well, big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams/ Oh, meet me in the land of hope and dreams.”
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