wild flag
what i watched last week

the promise: houston ‘78

Watching this full-length concert from the 1978 Bruce Springsteen tour is something like seeing replays of the Giants’ triumph in the World Series. Yes, I can say, it really happened. The Houston concert was always going to be the first thing I played once the six-disc box set arrived, and I’ve listened to enough 1978 bootlegs over the years to know what I was getting. Yet there was still a bit of concern … since I’ve always said the Darkness tour was Bruce’s best (we saw him three times in ‘78), I felt like my reputation, or at least the reputation of my memory, was at stake. What if it wasn’t all that, after all?

I needn’t have worried. This is a terrific show, adequate in the video, a bit better than adequate in the audio, and superb in the performance, which occurred just one week before we saw him at Winterland. It’s great to hear classic Bruce songs before they became warhorses … every song is still fresh, although they do take “Born to Run” at a remarkably fast speed. The astonishing energy Bruce put out in those days is well-represented … there’s a tendency to forget what he was like in his 20s, because even in his 60s, he has plenty of energy on stage, but it’s a more focused energy, physically, while on Houston ‘78 he is all over the stage, into the crowd, jumping on the speakers, rarely staying still. For three hours, no less. I finally have an official document of the 1978 tour that I can show to anyone who wants to know what it was like, and that’s a big deal to me, since I count those shows as the best concerts of my life.

Clarence is in especially good form. His playing is strong … there is none of the fear that often accompanies his more recent work, when you never know if he’s up to the physicality of the music (his heart is always into it). He also spends a lot of time running around; he really was Bruce’s primary playmate in those years onstage (and my friend Rosalie will find plenty of evidence to support her theories about the relationship between the two).

The set list is a clear reminder of how far we have come, how unadventurous we as an audience are in 2010, and how willing Bruce is to cater to our desires. The Working on a Dream tour was the first that felt more like a nostalgia act than the act of a still-vital artist … he rarely played more than one song from the new album, and the highlights of the shows were when he played requests. The shows were always professional, and Bruce is having a lot of fun, but they aren’t challenging the audience. But in 1978, the challenges were all over the place. Three of the first five songs are from the new album. The sixth song, “Independence Day,” was at that time unreleased (it turned up on The River). It took until the tenth song before he played anything from Born to Run.

What came after the break was even more illuminating. (In those days, he’d split the show into two sets plus encores.) He bursts out of the blocks for the second set with another unknown song that would end up on The River, then followed with “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” Three of the next four songs were at that time unrecorded by Bruce (they had all been given to others, and two were sizable hits: “The Fever,” “Fire,” and “Because the Night”). Then he played a third River song we didn’t know. This is what I mean by challenging your audience. And, of course, one reason he could do this is because we liked it … we weren’t a bunch of geezers wanting to relive the past, yet.

The encores are typical for the time: “Born to Run” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” sandwiched between the Detroit Medley, “You Can’t Sit Down,” and “Quarter to Three.” I loved the oldies he would play during encores, and missed them when, in later tours, he quit playing them, noting that by that point, he had his own oldies.

Houston ‘78 is vital when seen today. It stands on its own. But it also serves not just to massage the memories of those who were there, but offers a great example of what once was to those who weren’t there. There are some excellent live Bruce videos out there … Barcelona has a great crowd, the Seeger Sessions is infectious, and all of the later ones have great audio, video, and musicianship. But Houston ‘78, despite the sound and picture limitations, now stands as the best available document of live Bruce.

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