ASBURY PARK, N.J. -- Bruce Springsteen played "The Promise," one
of his most storied unreleased songs, live for the first time in more than 20 years
Springsteen's solo version of the song -- which is finally to be released April 13 as a bonus track on the box-set sampler 18 Tracks -- was a highlight of the second of two benefit shows Springsteen and the E Street Band played here last week to warm up for their upcoming reunion tour.
Roughly 3,000 fans saw Friday's show at Convention Hall, a grand but decaying old building in the seaside town whose rock clubs gave Springsteen his start in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and whose places and people he has chronicled in countless songs.
Among those fans were singer/songwriter Melissa Etheridge and her partner, Julie Cypher. "I've died and gone to heaven," Etheridge said. "I'm seeing Bruce Springsteen in Asbury Park."
Besides "The Promise," Springsteen played several songs on Friday that weren't part of the first rehearsal show of the night before, including "Give the Girl a Kiss," a song that debuted on the 1998 box set Tracks, the chestnut "For You" (from 1973's Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.) and "Murder Inc." (RealAudio excerpt), another song that lay around unreleased for years until appearing on Springsteen's Greatest Hits (1995).
But the highlight for many fans was "The Promise," which Springsteen played alone at the piano while the E Street Band took a break. "This is a song a lot of people requested but it wasn't on Tracks," he said. "But it is going to be on a collection of some of the Tracks coming out, and I cut a version of for it and got it on that thing for all you die-hard fans out there."
The crowd remained appreciatively silent during the song, which Springsteen last played live during his tour in support of Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978).
Last week's shows, which benefited several local organizations, were advertised as public rehearsals, and Springsteen emphasized the point Friday.
"Welcome to our rehearsal; welcome to Asbury Park," he told the crowd before playing "Darlington County," a song from his best-selling album, Born in the U.S.A. (1984), that wasn't part of Thursday's set.
For the most part, Springsteen and the E Street Band -- guitarists Steve Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren and Patti Scialfa, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, keyboardists Roy Bittan and Danny Federici, bassist Garry Tallent and drummer Max Weinberg -- played rousing rock 'n' roll. But they also showed off a strong country influence on songs such as "Mansion on the Hill," a track from Springsteen's solo acoustic album Nebraska (1982) that was fleshed out with pedal-steel guitar and mandolin.
The E Street Band version of "Youngstown," from another acoustic album, The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995), gave the song "a new meaning," concert-goer Mark Conte, 29, of Morristown, said.
"You can feel the anger and frustration in the lyrics now, in contrast to the poignant desperation of the Joad version," he commented.
Springsteen barked to the crowd in preacher-like fashion during a musical break in "Light of Day." "I can't promise you life everlasting," he told his fans, "but I can promise you life right now." Then he and the band tore back into the song.
As they had on Thursday, Springsteen and the band ended the set with a new song, "Land of Hopes and Dreams." Before playing it, Springsteen said, "It's nice I got all my old friends back together with me, so these two shows here have been kind of a rededication to continuing with the job we've tried to do for 25 years and let you know that once again we are at your service. Tell all your friends that this summer there will be a big train coming down the tracks."
The E Street Band reunion tour starts April 9 in Spain, and is scheduled to reach the United States in July. In addition to a new, acoustic version of "The Promise," 18 Tracks will feature the previously unreleased bonus tracks "The Fever" and "Trouble River."