New from the Springsteen archive: May 18th, 1997 – Nice, FR – Palais Des Congrès Acropolis

A year and a half later, the newest instalment in Springsteen’s Live Archive Series follows on fittingly from its two previous tour releases. In the first Springsteen concert release from 1997, the dust of celebratory atmosphere we can hear in the Freehold and Asbury Park homecomings has settled, and for Springsteen it’s back to business in his third of four nights across France. Having played Lyon and Montpellier, here Bruce moves to the Palais Des Congrès Acropolis in Nice for a captivating twenty-five song set that brings us several Archive Series firsts, as well as a few fantastic versions of songs previously featured in the three Joad releases from 1996.

In contrast to Freehold and Asbury Park opening with apt renditions of “The River” and “Blinded By The Light”, tonight opens with a song that instead draws comparison to Belfast and, consequently, the tour’s core setlist. Of course, it’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, and it’s a performance played with just a little less intensity than the Belfast rendition and studio track. With the highlight being Bruce walking away from the mic at 4:42 to stress the words he’s singing, there isn’t much hope to this performance, but there is some and it’s reflected in the eager audience who do eventually take heed of Bruce’s post-song wishes, although his request spoken in French here does seem to get lost in translation at the start of “Straight Time”.
Followed by “Atlantic City” and the tempestuous twofer of “Straight Time” and “Highway 29”, Joad‘s themes of struggle, despair and decline for the disenfranchised man are rife within the show. Bruce’s voice reverberates throughout the convention centre for a stunning version of the Nebraska track, which also happens to evoke a sense of optimism in the way he sings “maybe everything that dies, some day comes back“. Unfortunately whatever success and sunshine these characters will eventually be getting won’t be in this life, which is par for the course when it comes to Nebraska. The same can be said for the Joad characters too, in particular the man he tells us about in “Straight Time”. Once again there are moments where his voice echoes, but for the most part his vocal here is quiet, clear and filled with the bitterness that life brings.
Bruce doesn’t relent, either, and continues with an upbeat, albeit damning rendition of “Darkness on the Edge of Town”, and follows that one with his eerie acoustic revision of “Murder Incorporated”, which is sang with Bruce declaring his words to the extent that this comes across as more of a personal service announcement than an actual song. He isn’t playing this for entertainment purposes, he’s playing it as a warning: This could happen to you.
It’s after his Greatest Hits track when he (briefly) brings this sequence to a conclusion courtesy of an under appreciated hit, “Highway Patrolman”. Thanks to New Jersey 1984 and Live in Dublin we’ve heard live takes on the Nebraska track, but there’s a striking contrast between those performances and this one: They’re sang with a sense of hope, this one isn’t. In this performance, Bruce reprises his performance of Joe Roberts fourteen years later, and the disappointed thirty-three year old brother who told this story as he was living it on the album has been replaced with a nearly fifty-year old who is years removed from the events and looks back on them seemingly feeling nothing. Until he feels something, and from 3:48 we can hear our protagonist singing with a such an urgency that it wouldn’t be surprising if he suffered a panic attack at this very moment. A fantastic performance that highlights how anything in life can sneak up on you.

Giving his audience some respite from the sombre and sorrowful, Bruce takes a little detour from thematic sequencing with a quick greeting from Asbury Park with “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City”. The audience are thrilled with the opening to this and he feels similar, laughing alongside their cheers, before delivering his no-nonsense story from a previous life that gives this show a vibrant kick.
Making it’s second appearance on any official Springsteen release, “It’s The Little Things” has expected differences to the rendition we can hear on Belfast, with no audience members shouting across the venue to each other about American coinage for one, but still features Bruce saying that all-time line “f*ck ’em no more change?” during his monologue. While the song itself still won’t blow you away, you’ll definitely be swept away by a couple of vocal nuances – “try to drive“, “let me take your boots off” – in a performance that is perfectly nice for Nice.
From one lighthearted song to another, this “Red Headed Woman” comes to us on a Super Bowl weekend where many are talking about the possibility of Bruce Springsteen doing an advert for Jeep, and it’s fitting considering this performance features him promoting his favourite thing during this era… Anyway, this is a naturally rowdy rendition where Bruce rids the show of all seriousness on a tour that many felt could be overly serious at times. When you hear him clucking like a chicken during this, you’ll be thinking the hyper focus on being serious was to balance the show out!
“Two Hearts” concludes this fifteen minute run of songs and likewise with the versions from Freehold and Asbury Park it’s an absolute gem that I’m certain many will be calling the highlight of the show. What’s best about this version is that it holds up against anything else in the set without Soozie contributing her violin playing, and while Soozie seemed to be the ace up Bruce’s sleeve to make those performance stand out, Bruce’s “I can do it” as he brings the song to an end quite simply says it all.

Ending the first half of the show is a duo that could be the highlight of any Springsteen gig – with or without the E Street Band – let alone this one. With the nineties being a period of reflection and rediscovery for Bruce Springsteen, “Brothers Under the Bridge” into “Born in the U.S.A.” was the ultimate double-shot to make an audience re-evaluate what this man and his music represents.
“Brothers” is preceded with more or less the same intro as in Belfast, with Bruce referring to the homeless veteran setting up camp in the San Gabriel mountains who met the daughter he didn’t know he had. However the performance is quite different to the one over a year before. While the version of the song we can hear in Belfast is a shout for the quietest on that night, here Bruce performs in a louder manner (and equally as powerful) playing his guitar with a quicker tempo and emphatically singing specific words, including the final “one minute you’re right there, and something slips…“. Even his guitar finale is as thunderous as he can possibly get it to be afterwards.
“Born in the U.S.A.” begins with Bruce erratically strumming his guitar, before he starts the song proper around 2:14 with a riff that is more reminiscent of the song’s (as we all know it best) sound than I’ve ever heard in another solo acoustic effort. He continues playing this throughout, and accompanies it with a fragile vocal that drifts from frightened to angry to lost. Emphasising the latter and everything in-between are his heavy breaths (4:58) in the finale before one last strum of his guitar. Mint.

As was custom on the Joad Tour, the opening portion of the second half is dominated by Joad tracks, however there’s an outlier within this six-pack that stands out massively. That outlier is “Long Time Comin'”, which is played eight years before it was released on a studio album and is just as welcome in this setlist as it has been in any other since 2005. Almost identical in execution to the versions we can hear from 2005, and that can also be said in reference to his vocals in 2006 (of course this lacks any instrumentation other than the guitar), the unique qualities that this particular gem brings to the show are in how Bruce doesn’t walk away from the mic while singing and, more so, it’s preceded by Bruce addressing how Human Touch and Lucky Town were received: “It’s a happy song, I don’t like to write those much anymore. I haven’t had a lot of luck with them. I’ve found out the public doesn’t like ’em.”
That comment would be interesting regardless, but it’s even more impactful seeing as it follows Bruce analysing his entire career before “Dry Lightning”. He’s definitely in a self-deprecating mood tonight!

I didn’t write about men and women for thirty years, I wrote about men in cars, that worked out pretty well for me so I stuck with that for a little while. Then I wrote about the men in cars looking at the women, had a good run with that one too. Then I wrote about the men and the women in the cars, but not talking that much, that went down pretty well also… After that I took the men and women out of the cars, and that’s where I f*cked up.

While the performance of “Dry Lightning” that follows stands out courtesy of his tone during the song being more consistent to the rest of the show than it is on the album track or in the Belfast song performance, in regards to it and the other four album tracks (“Sinaloa Cowboys”, “The Line”, “Balboa Park”, “Across The Border”), the one that shines brightest is unsurprisingly “Across The Border”, which once again gives me a joyous experience of listening to Bruce Springsteen talk as much as he can about John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (he doesn’t talk about Toland’s cinematography during the dance scene tonight mind) before he plays the Joad album’s song of hope perfectly. Similarly to “Atlantic City” and “This Hard Land” in fifteen minutes time, here Bruce gives his characters something to work towards, but while any reward in “Atlantic City” won’t be enjoyed in this life and the dreams of “This Hard Land” are ultimately dreams, in “Across The Border” there’s a future to be enjoyed in this life. I think that’s why it’s always this song that stands out most during the Joad album sequence in the second half. “Sinaloa Cowboys” and “The Line” are masterful performances when it comes to storytelling, and “Across The Border” gives us not only that, but also the solace that we seek in E Street Band shows.

This is a song I’m gonna do tonight because ELVIS (Costello) is in the building!

The surprises brought by this show don’t end with “Long Time Comin'”, because the final sequence of the show opens with two of them – and yes, it’s not too often you can refer to these as surprises! “You Can Look” and “Working on the Highway” complement the solace “Across The Border” offers as cheerful songs that don’t necessarily tell us anything, but they allow us to have a good time, which can often be the most important aspect of any concert.
Followed by that aforementioned beautiful version of “This Hard Land”, Bruce also uses this one to complement the songs of strife, reminding his audience that if you can persevere through the darkness, you’ll get to that place you thought only existed in your dreams.
Having said that, it’s fitting that he adds onto that with his autobiographical song of tenacity and defiance against all odds, “Growin’ Up”, which makes us remember Bruce’s words during the Broadway show, that all it takes “is to risk being your true self“.
Ending the night the same way he closes out Belfast, Nice are treated to engrossing, compelling performances of “Galveston Bay” and “The Promised Land” in it’s reinvented arrangement. They may not conclude the show on as much of a high point as Bruce and the audience singing “oh-oh growin’ up” together would have, but ending these shows on the highest note was never Bruce’s intention this tour. “Galveston” and “The Promised Land” have a motivational punch to them, but Springsteen and his audience have to march on through the sorrows of these twelve minutes in order to earn it in the end. That’s the story Bruce Springsteen attempted to tell with The Ghost of Tom Joad Tour in full effect tonight in Nice.

A delightful little show offering several differences to the three shows we’ve gotten so far from 1996, the first Ghost of Tom Joad Tour release from 1997 sees Springsteen regain focus on his initial mission following the looser gigs in his hometown and adopted hometown. However, for as comparable as this is to Belfast as a result, this show does see Bruce more so breaking his show up in order to give his audience respite, playing heartier songs in order to remind the people of Nice that there’s a light somewhere at the end of all this darkness.
We’re still waiting for “The New Timer” and “My Best Was Never Good Enough” to complete the Joad album live, but we can rest knowing that the repeat versions of the album tracks here deliver in as good a fashion as on the 1996 shows, and the new arrangements of back catalogue tracks more than suffice too.

Rating: 7.25/10

Kieran’s recommended listening from May 18th, 1997 – Nice, FR:
“The Ghost of Tom Joad”, “Atlantic City”, “Straight Time”, “Highway 29”, “Murder Incorporated“, “Highway Patrolman“, “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City”, “Two Hearts“, “Brothers Under The Bridge“, “Born in the U.S.A.“, “Dry Lightning”, “Long Time Comin‘”, “Sinaloa Cowboys”, “The Line”, “Across The Border“, “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)”, “Working on the Highway”, “This Hard Land” and “Growin’ Up”.

You can download the first official Springsteen release from 1997 here.

Coming next week, my review of Springsteen and the E Street Band’s 2014 Australian leg finale from Brisbane. See you then!

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