The E Street Band’s performance of “The Weight” in Newark on Wednesday night was not just a great performance; it was notable as the only time Bruce has ever performed the song. So where does it fall in the rankings of Bruce Springsteen’s best “one-time-only” covers?
Many of Bruce’s greatest covers (“Sweet Soul Music,” “Rockin’ All Over the World,” the “Detroit Medley”) have been played numerous times over the years, and the audiences’ familiarity with them often adds power to their performance. But there are also those lighting-in-a-bottle moments where the band tries something for the first time and nails it. Hence this exercise.
The songs presented here are those performed once and only once. I was fully prepared to include the performance of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” from October 4, 1975 in Detroit (Audio: Link) — it would have come in at #3 on the list below — until research revealed that Bruce had done the song a few other times (albeit without the E Street Band). Additionally, performances where the songwriter was on stage are excluded. Is it really a “cover” if you’re singing “Better Man,” “Bad Luck,” or “Keep the Car Running” with the person who wrote and performed the song? A debate for another time, but those “covers” are also excluded here.
The top 5:
5. Expressway to Your Heart, May 4, 2009, Nassau Coliseum
Ostensibly a “sign request,” but rehearsed in the pre-show soundcheck, to obvious great effect.
4. When I Grow Up to Be a Man, June 1, 1985, Slane Castle
Dave Marsh suggested in Glory Days that Bruce sounded miserable due to the large, sometimes-out of control crowd at Slane Castle that afternoon and coming out for the encore with a mostly acoustic number was a clear attempt to change the direction of the show, if only temporarily. The choice of song is also notable as this was Bruce’s first show after getting married (for the first time).
3. Haunted House, October 31, 1980, Los Angeles Sports Arena
The first of the Halloween shows in Los Angeles with Bruce carried on-stage in a coffin. Originally by “Jumpin’” Gene Simmons, and a classic example of the humorous Bruce-Clarence interaction on stage.
2. I’ll Fly Away, April 22, 2008, St. Pete Times Forum
Essentially the public memorial service for Danny Federici, this entire show featured a setlist tailored specifically to emphasize Danny’s role in the band. And then, to start the encore, the entire band (yes, even including Max on the backing vocals) came to the front of the stage for this, a moment too powerful to ever be repeated.
1. Ballad of Easy Rider, August 20, 1981, Los Angeles Sports Arena
A big part of why the benefit concert for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation remains one of the most important (and best) shows of Bruce’s entire career.
Also considered: Night Train (Atlanta ’78); Little Bit O’Soul (Philadelphia ’09); I Sold My Heart to the Junkman (Boston ’74).
So where does “The Weight” come in? Outside the top 5, but not by far; it would likely be somewhere between #6 and #9, a remarkable feat, as all of the songs in the top five were likely rehearsed and practiced ahead of time.