I never seen nothing like this," an ecstatic Bruce Springsteen confided to 20,000 of his closest friends early last month as he kicked off his summer U.S. tour with six sold-out dates at New Jersey's Brendan Byrne Arena. Springsteen's open-mouthed enthusiasm was clearly directed less at the fine new concert-sports facility than at the overjoyed reaction of his Jersey brethren. "That was the best show ever," he said in his dressing room after the first night's performance. "We couldn't hear each other onstage. I felt like the Beatles."
Even so, the opening set of his three-hour-plus show seemed curiously lackluster. Concentrating on the more pensive, brooding songs in his repertoire ("Darkness on the Edge of Town" and his new Elvis tribute, "Bye-Bye Johnny"), Springsteen remained relatively inert onstage. The most surprising point came before "Independence Day" and its concomitant rap, when he muttered quickly to the crowd, "I'm gonna need a little quiet on this song, thank you." Not a graceless moment, surely, but an off-key one, as if Bruce had lost sight of his fans' savvy. He repeated the line before a solo version of "This Land Is Your Land," replete with characteristic minor chords and overly mournful vocals. Somewhat uninspired renditions of "Badlands" and "Thunder Road" closed out the set, leaving a few Springsteen aficionados knitting their brows worriedly.
But Bruce and the E Street Band erased all doubts in Act Two. Taking the stage with fire in their eyes, they launched into a whammo streak of ass-shaking rockers: "You Can Look (but You Better Not Touch)," "Cadillac Ranch" (sung by Bruce while wearing a humongous foam-rubber cowboy hat) and "Sherry Darling." The good-natured Springsteen swagger was back, and when saxman Clarence Clemons, resplendent in a powder-blue polyester suit, swung into "Hungry Heart," the euphoric house screamed out the first verse and chorus to the visible delight of the band.
Much of the rest of the show passed in a blizzard of dancey delight, and for the encore, Springsteen came up with a masterstroke cover: Tom Waits' "Jersey Girl," a bittersweet ballad on the vicissitudes of love in what used to be called the armpit of the nation. Miami Steve Van Zandt then got into the act, crooning his own "I Don't Wanna Go Home," and an extended Mitch Ryder medley brought an end to the proceedings -- that is, until a hopped-up Bruce stopped his bowing and lurched the band into their European tour curtain-closer, a John Fogerty foot-stomper entitled "Rockin' All over the World."
Later shows had Springsteen juggling the first night's lineup and adding a scintillating new song, "Trapped," reportedly a Jimmy Cliff number reworked in the searing mode of Darkness on the Edge of Town. But not everything went his way: during the third show, a firecracker exploded smack in the middle of the emotional "Racing in the Streets," angering Springsteen and perceivably altering his relationship with the audience for the duration of the set.
After inaugurating the Brendan Byrne Arena, Bruce and the band made an unannounced appearance at the opening of Clarence Clemon's restaurant-club, Big Man's West, in Red Bank. Declaring to the 400 fans who'd braved temperatures in excess of 100 degrees that "this is a night for bar music," Bruce led the group through Chuck Berry's "Around and Around," Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" and a handful of others before declaring, "Game called on account of heat!" and splitting.
Once done in New Jersey, it was on to Philadelphia for another series of shows, to be followed by similar engagements in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and a host of cities to be named later. Also on the boards is a benefit for Vietnam veterans, the details of which have yet to be announced.
This story is from the August 20th, 1981 issue of Rolling Stone.