Broadcast December 14, 1995
52 min, 6 sec
The Ghost of Tom Joad and its accompanying tour are generally seen as the end of Bruce Springsteen’s extended mid-life crisis, the ten-year period of time where he struck out on his own, having fired his long-time musical partners in the E Street Band in 1989. Save for a single session for Springsteen’s Greatest Hits album in 1995 and his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1998, Springsteen would not reunite with his band in public until the Reunion Tour of 1999, which began the current era of Springsteen.
But we’re not there yet, and so here we have Columbia Records Radio Hour, recorded over three separate dates and broadcast in the early days of the Tom Joad tour. Moreso than even the album it supported, this tour was done by Springsteen alone, with only a guitar, a harmonica, and his voice to make music with. (Springsteen guitar tech Kevin Buell occasionally provided off-stage instrumentation, but this was limited to atmospheric keyboards.) The Columbia Records Radio Hour series showcased numerous Columbia Records artists in an intimate format, featuring exclusive interviews and performances from the featured artist. Springsteen’s edition of the show featured an interview recorded in November prior to the start of the Tom Joad tour, alongside a pre-tour performance that same night. Select tracks from two other concerts in December, after the tour’s beginning, were mixed in to break up the interview sections and studio tracks from Tom Joad.
The tour, like Tom Joad, was dour and sparse, with Springsteen frequently reminding his audiences that silence was an essential part of the performance, far removed from the raucous live shows the fans had been accustomed to. Springsteen’s hard-line stance (as tongue-in-cheek as it was) eventually earned the tour the dubious nickname “Shut the Fuck Up Tour,” taken from a line in one of Springsteen’s many intros, where he recommended the audience to politely implore their neighbors to “shut the fuck up” during any given song. Despite this, Springsteen retained his usual stage presence, scaled back for the smaller, more intimate venues, but more willing to talk for a while in between songs. The tour became notorious for seemingly never ending, running for eighteen months across three calendar years, Springsteen ambling across all of America many times, and Europe several times as well, with breaks around the summer of 1996 and the holidays of each year to spend time with his family.
The selection of tracks on Columbia Records Radio Hour is a pretty accurate indicator of the early Tom Joad setlists, with a heavy focus on the new album’s tracks, as well as an interesting mixture of Springsteen’s 70s and 80s classics, all redone in the same style as the Tom Joad tracks – just Springsteen and his guitar. It changes the feeling of pretty much every song in the set, far removed from the damaged optimism and glimmers of hope that the originals held. “Darkness on the Edge of Town” becomes even more of a lament than it usually is; the stark condemnation of post-Vietnam America is even more obvious in “Born in the U.S.A.,” while “Streets of Philadelphia” benefits hugely from the quiet, acoustic treatment it receives in this set. Only “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” provides a reprieve from the crushing seriousness of the constructed set, and the song itself is an oddity for the Tom Joad sets.
As unusual as the Tom Joad tour was, and as much as it represented what many thought would be the end of Springsteen’s career as his decline into irrelevance seemingly bottomed out, the tour still provided a fascinating shift in tone and musical style, opening Springsteen up to two more tours away from the E Street Band following their reunion – the similarly solo and acoustic Devils & Dust tour in 2005, and the surprising and unique Sessions Band tour in 2006 and 2007, both in support of records made separately from the E Street Band at the time. The Ghost of Tom Joad and its tour was new territory for Springsteen, and that new territory gave him more freedom than ever before.