NATIONALS PARK: These Are Better Days

A slightly edited version of this piece originally appeared on Backstreets.com, which you can read here. If you already did, scroll down a bit to find a lot of performance notes and observations that were not included in the original version.

How do you follow the show heard round the world?

That was the question facing Bruce and the band for their stop at Nationals Park in America’s capitol a mere two days after their instantly legendary concert at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium on Tuesday, and they provided an answer almost immediately: simply do it all over again. Instead of resting on their laurels, they put on another whopping 34-song, three hours and 45-minute extravaganza that was every bit as impressive as – and closely followed the template of – its Garden State predecessor.

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Nationals Park

The similarities began from the start with “New York City Serenade” accompanied by the string section. Though their recent performances of this masterpiece have been uniformly majestic, they somehow keep upping their game, due in no small part here to Nationals Park’s crystal clear sound. As they become more comfortable with the song’s nuances, their renditions have gotten increasingly looser, allowing the song more room to breathe – Bruce even repeated a few lines in a spoken word-esque delivery over some the orchestral sections.

This in fact held true for a majority of the night’s performances, especially for those rarities played in Jersey that made reprisals here: the E Street Band has the immaculate ability to repeatedly improve upon their own high standards when they’re afforded the opportunity to revisit a seldom-played gem multiple times, especially when they’re as totally locked-in as they were in D.C. This phenomenon was on display for “Summertime Blues” – a fitting choice for this balmy summer night in an outdoor baseball stadium, the first venue of the tour that houses America’s favorite summer sport – but was really showcased over the stretch beginning with a sign request for “Growin’ Up” that kicked off eight consecutive songs predating Bruce gracing the covers of Time and Newsweek, all but one of which also made appearances at MetLife 3 and were thus somehow given superior performances here. Bruce even added an introduction to “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City:”

“This is the song I sang to John Hammond when I went up to his office to audition for him at Columbia Records. I wrote it in an abandoned beauty parlor on the mean streets of Asbury Park…well, not so mean; just unkind.”

This story served as a reminder of the stark differences between the recorded versions of many of these early songs and their live counterparts. Whereas Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. sounds folksy, acoustic, and very guitar-lite, its songs become dynamically alive in concert thanks to the full power of the E Street Band, who Bruce gives ample time to shine through a plethora of solos, most notably on “Does This Bus Stop…” Despite Mr. Hammond diminishing the sonic role that Bruce wanted guitars to play on the album, they are the most remarkable aspect of these live renditions, from Bruce’s introductory licks in “Growin’ Up” to his and Stevie’s duel at the end of “It’s Hard to Be a Saint…” to Stevie even adding some nice fills over Max’s opening drum beat in “Spirit in the Night” to Bruce’s searing guitar solo to close “Lost in the Flood,” not played in Jersey.

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The official poster

Bruce’s blistering guitar work on it proved a breathtakingly perfect – let me repeat: perfect – lead-in to the guitar-heavy, walloping Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle three-pack of “Kitty’s Back,”[1] “Incident on 57th Street,” and “Rosalita.” The beloved transition from “Incident” into “Rosy” hinges upon the differentiated tempos between Bruce’s gorgeous yet somber guitar solo during the former and his and Stevie’s introductory, rollicking wall of guitars in the latter – crucially connected by Roy’s coda – and Bruce’s guitar prowess on “Lost” and “Kitty” added greater fuel to this glorious shift. Ultimately, the slow, intense burn that is “Incident” feels like a dynamite fuse leading to the rock and roll explosion that is “Rosy,” the combination of which worked this very strong crowd into an absolute frenzy.

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The official t-shirt

Yet instead of slowing down the pace like he did with “Pretty Flamingo” on Tuesday, Bruce wisely built upon the unbridled momentum of “Rosy” with “Night,” a sign request for “Trapped,” and the only tour premiere – and my personal highlight – of the night: “Better Days,” only its fourth E Street Band performance in America in the 21st century. Even so, their execution made the song sound like a tour staple, and the crowd actually ate it up as such. Combined with “Living Proof,” these top-shelf renderings will hopefully convince Bruce that he should delve further into his early-90s albums, which contain some of his most soulful, emotionally autobiographical writing.

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A new t-shirt they’re selling to promote Bruce’s upcoming autobiography

After Bruce found the time to make a social statement with “American Skin” mere blocks away from the Capitol Building in America’s political center, the remainder of the setlist actually felt like an elongated encore full of his ‘greatest hits’ aimed at casual fans – with the exception of “Secret Garden” and the more-than-welcome return of “Seven Nights to Rock,” which raucously elevated the actual encores. Though the show felt a little like a tale of two halves, even the more conventional second half had more than its fair share of memorable moments: Bruce being given flowers during “Hungry Heart” and then throwing them at an ecstatic little girl in the front row;[2] Jake forgetting to join Bruce on the mid-audience platform for “Hungry Heart,” so he had to play his solo while sprinting around the Pit; Jake getting a chance to redeem himself by singing Soozie’s part during the call-and-response portion of “Out in the Street;” Nils singing an entire verse of “Darlington County” by himself; Patti very noticeably contributing her unique vocal stylings on “Because the Night;” Jake literally making it rain with his “Jungleland” solo; and Bruce deciding to lie down on the back stairs instead of leaving the stage for his exhausted, James-Brown-cape-shtick during “Shout.” Needless to say, the man deserved a break after this phenomenal run of shows.

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Bruce after receiving flowers during “Hungry Heart”

 

 

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The girl after receiving the flowers from Bruce during “Hungry Heart”

Speaking of which, everyone is going to ask the obvious question: was MetLife 3 or D.C. better? Honestly, it’s a complete toss-up; the oldies seemed to resonate more in Jersey because they’re so inextricably linked with locales only a few miles away from the stadium, and of course there was more novelty in experiencing the ’73 stretch without having any idea what would come next – “Incident” into “Rosy,” for instance, didn’t have the same WOW effect.[3] On the other hand, the performances in Washington were more refined and hard-hitting, not to mention the vastly improved sound and louder, albeit equally yappy crowd.

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The official ticket – I LOVE the unique design

 

But really, does it honestly matter which is better? That’s like choosing between your two favorite children. What interests me is why Bruce has suddenly felt compelled to reach way back into his past by so heavily relying on his first two records. The answer, I believe, brilliantly conforms to the original purpose of this tour. During the full album performances of The River – which has largely been left behind on this leg, with only three songs from it being played here – Bruce and the Band were making a 35-year old record come alive again in such a vital way that so many of its songs and themes felt pressingly relevant today – more like 35-years young. Now that they’re reaching the end of this tour, they want to make even older music – Bruce’s oldest – feel even fresher in the midst of epic-beyond-epic concerts that’d make you believe Bruce and the Band are just now entering the dawn of their career instead of the dusk. In doing so, they hopefully allow themselves and the crowd to feel as young as they were back in 1973, except with the knowledge and experience that only time can bring. Youth and wisdom are often oxymoronic, but in Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s world, that’s the type of combination only rock and roll can provide…every night.

 

 

PERFORMANCE NOTES

  • I’ve decided that I like baseball stadiums more than (American) football stadiums, mostly because they have way more character. Whereas most stadiums – and arenas, for that matter – are faceless, interchangeable corporate behemoths without any real defining attributes, many baseball stadiums have unique characteristics and significant history. The only arena that fits that bill is Madison Square Garden; the rest are being torn down, ala the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Plus, since he’s a fan of the sport – “Glory Days,” anyone? – he seems to get a real kick out of baseball stadiums, ESPECIALLY when he plays them during the summer since baseball has always been predominantly associated with this season. Arenas are still probably the best experience because of the intimacy and sound quality, but I – unlike many others – do not consider them head and shoulders above the rest (I honestly miss the giant screen behind the Band in arenas – why can’t they figure out a way to keep such a screen regardless of the venue?!)…especially if we’re considering soccer stadiums in Europe as well, which have AMAZING character and history (many even have museums either inside of or attached to them). Though Nationals Park doesn’t have nearly the same history as somewhere like Fenway Park, I must say that it has some of the best food – and best sound – of any outdoor venue in America. Pro tip: if you ever find yourself in Nats Park in the near future, make sure you go to Shake Shack as soon as you enter the venue. If you wait like I stupidly did, you’ll be faced with a gargantuan line.
  • IMG_4540

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    I love how you can see portions of the field. Also, they used the dugouts as medical centers.
  • Oh, and caveat: the above opinion only pertains to those who also prefer to stand in the Pit. If you like seats, then you have every right to despise baseball stadiums – there really isn’t a good seat in the house, not even those on the field.
  • Despite reports to the contrary, I’m fairly sure that there was no soundcheck. What most heard, I believe, was a recording from a past show. Though I totally understand that Bruce was probably exhausted after Tuesday – not to mention D.C. was his third show in five nights – a lack of a soundcheck usually results in almost no tour premieres; he felt comfortable busting out “Better Days” here because they had soundchecked it before MetLife 3.
  • Bruce and the Band actually walked on stage before 8pm (they had been doing so shortly after 8pm in Jersey). With the increasingly geriatric (only in age, NOT IN ANY WAY performance-wise) E Street Band putting on such long concerts so late in their careers, it makes sense that they’d want to get to bed at as reasonable of an hour as possible. So for those going to one of the remaining shows on this tour, make sure to arrive well before 8pm!
  • The string section ended up walking on stage AFTER the lights went down, but the Band still waited a few minutes before joining them. Also, does anyone think that the string section should be providing walk-on music for them instead of just total silence?!
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    The bland Pit wristband – why can’t they print the date, venue, and ‘Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band River Tour’ on them?!
  • Speaking of the string section, I’m fairly sure that they’ll be joining the Band for the rest of the tour…which probably also means “New York City Serenade” will open each of the shows. I originally figured Bruce had only hired them for MetLife 1…but when they made an appearance at the next show AND Chicago, I figured he had simply contracted them through MetLife 3…but now that they were also in D.C, I feel it’s safe to assume we won’t be taking the train until after the tour ends!
  • Bruce gave the string section a cute little wave when he walked on stage. I laughed.
  • Bruce has really started to add some nice flourishes to his acoustic guitar solo during “Serenade.”
  • I can’t stress enough how much the improved sound here helped “Serenade.” Being able to hear every word that Bruce sung – who’s never been an all-star enunciator – made the whole song so much more emotional. Note: other people standing in different parts of the stadium informed me they heard some annoying echoes here and there, which I really only detected for slower songs like “I’m on Fire” and “Jungleland.”
  • By the way, I don’t blame Bruce’s sound team for MetLife’s inferior quality; apparently its acoustics are horrendous regardless of what anyone tries to do, which is roughly the 538,754,307th reason the stadium is such a 1.6 billion-dollar atrocity. The second most expensive stadium ever built, and probably one of the worst – what a combo.
  • IMG_4536
    When did they start selling these GREY hoodies?! Almost the same as the black ones they’ve been selling all tour…
  • I’ve been trying to figure out why Bruce has decided to begin every concert with “Serenade” on this leg. The most probable reasons are that he knows he’s underplayed it in recent years AND he just loves working with a string section, but I also really do believe that it’s a summer song, specifically a love letter to NYC’s hot summer days and nights. In fact, an argument could be made that the first six songs of the night all concerned summer in some way: “Summertime Blues” is obvious; “Sherry Darling” is a classic beach summer jam; “No Surrender” comes from Born in the U.S.A., an album that was released during and famously provided the soundtrack for the summer of 1984; “Growin’ Up” connects to summer often being viewed as a time when many young people grow up and mature when they go away and have real life experiences in between school years; and “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” feels like a song written about dark underbelly of summers in NYC.
  • “Summertime Blues” is one of my absolute favorite Bruce covers, especially when he plays it in an outdoor baseball stadium – the sport of the summer! – on warm summer nights. Even so, Bruce clearly expected the crowd to know more of the song than they did; he asked them to sing along to the chorus, but they must not have known the words because they were all too willing to participate when asked throughout the night.
  • Max added a lot of extra oomph to his drum buildup during “Summertime Blues.” As Bruce introduced him at the very end of the night, he’s just the man that never stops.
  • Would anyone have guessed that “Sherry Darling” would be one of the few songs from The River that Bruce would refuse to let go?! I think it’s been played at as many shows as the title track! But I believe the two most played songs from the album are, predictably, “Hungry Heart” and “Out in the Street.” I can’t decide if Bruce should split these up once in a while, or keep this crowd-pleasing albeit predictable two-pack intact.
  • Bruce and Patti danced their way in each other’s arms to the down platform for “Sherry Darling.” They’ve been very lovey-dovey and outwardly affectionate of late. Another example: they booty bumped during “Rosy.”
  • The first sign request was for “No Surrender.” Though most fans despise signs for such commonly-played songs, allow me to provide a contrarian argument: if someone only attends one concert per tour, and their favorite song is a staple like “No Surrender,” why should they be judged for bringing such a sign?! If that’s the song they’re dying to hear, then that’s the song they’re dying to hear. It’s no more selfish to request a song that’s likely to be played anyways than it is to request a song that a majority of the crowd has never even heard of.
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    The sign request for “No Surrender” – Bruce completely ignored the singing portion of the request.
  • The sign requests for the night: “No Surrender,” “Growin’ Up,” “Kitty’s Back,” “Trapped.”
  • IMG_4566
  • IMG_4547You know how Bruce often excitedly speak-sings portions of “Wrecking Ball” to elicit cheers from the crowd? He adopted that same delivery style for the second verse of “Growin’ Up.” I liked it…
  • …but I LOVED Roy’s extended intro to “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City.” Bruce really did take his time on this performance, with abnormal preeeegnant pauses both during Roy’s solo and before his and Stevie’s guitar duel.
  • Ready for an embarrassing confession? Due to Bruce’s aforementioned enunciation problems, I’ve long believed that the “…Saint in the City” lyric, “The cripple on the corner cried out ‘Nickels for your pity’” was actually, “The cripple on the corner cried out ‘niggers for your pity.’” Thankfully, Nat Parks’ excellent sound system corrected the offensive error of my ways!
  • Bruce’s hands were in a highly gesticulating mood, from flailing all over the place during the “Does This Bus Stop…” line, “Queen of diamonds, ace of spades, newly discovered lovers of the everglades…” to miming, “his hand on his own hardware” during “Lost in the Flood.”
  • Recent crowds have been confused by Bruce’s longstanding tradition of yelling out, “Can I hear a ‘yeah yeah?!’” during the introduction to “Spirit in the Night.” Instead of waiting to repeat his subsequent, “Yeah yeah!” crowds have instead immediately started yelling “Yeah yeah!” after he asks the initial question. And you know what – that actually makes more sense! I’m surprised other crowds of the past haven’t made this very understandable mistake.
  • Bruce once again chugged a crowd member’s beer during “Spirit in the Night.” But instead of resting the cold beer against his face in between sips like he did at MetLife 3, Bruce here just chugged it straight, albeit very slowly. The whole ordeal ended with a tiny burp. See Mom, if Bruce feels comfortable burping in front of tens upon thousands of people, then you should be okay with me doing it in front of you! Needless to say, the crowd drank up every second of it – who doesn’t like a good beer chug?
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  • It always brings a smile to my face to see how happy Jake’s soulful solo during “Spirit in the Night” makes Bruce. In D.C., he simply put his mic in front of Jake’s sax while beaming at him.
  • Amazing moment during “Spirit in the Night:” Bruce once again went down to his knees on a side platform to sing to a group of girls in the front row. One of them was spotted on camera looking at Bruce in awe…until she remembered that she hadn’t taken a selfie yet! She quickly rectified that ‘mistake.’
  • Someone threw a sign at Bruce during “Spirit in the Night,” and it somehow landed in his arms. He read it, took it to the stage, then ignored it for the rest of the night.
  • Though the “Lost in the Flood” solo was as killer as ever, it was definitely shorter here.
  • Some people in the crowd tried to refute Garden State fans’ claims that a show like MetLife 3 could ONLY happen in Jersey…but I still think it took Bruce’s home state to inspire him to think of a setlist like this…or maybe I’m just trying to get back in the good graces of all of those Jersey fans who were upset about my MetLife 1 piece.
  • Bruce has been making more of an effort recently to organize the pile of signs that he plops on stage. During the portions of “Spirit” and “Kitty” where other members of the Band command more attention, he arranged the signs in such a layout that he could easily see all of them, which probably made his decision-making process easier when thinking of which sign to choose next instead of having to dig through them.
  • Like in Jersey, he interacted with the very back of the stadium at the end of “Kitty’s Back,” like so: “Who’s that coming down the alley? Way in the back there. Is she back there? [lights on the back of the crowd come on as they cheer]. Is she back there?! Is she back there?!?? IS SHE BACK THERE?!?!?! Here she comes…”
  • But seriously, people need to shut the fuck up during “Incident.” It wasn’t just that I was standing around a lot of yappers; the Pit literally sounded like a widespread chorus of yappers, almost like a sound effect recording titled, “general chatter.” I miss shows like Paris 1 where he opened with “Incident” solo on the piano and literally the only person that dared to utter one word was loudly hushed up in the most French moment of the show.
  • Speaking of “Incident,” my god Bruce’s guitar solo was legendary.
  • Bruce went out of his way to take a “Back in Your Arms” sign during “Promised Land.” A) If he had played it, this show would’ve immediately trumped MetLife 3. I still think its rendition at Dublin 1 was the best single song performance of the entire tour. B) Whenever Bruce goes out of his way to take a sign, that usually means the song will stick in his head as one he’s interested in playing, and will probably make an appearance at a show in the very near future. As such: C) SOMEONE SHOULD BRING A SIGN FOR IT TO EVERY SHOW UNTIL THE TOUR ENDS. “Back In Your Arms” may be the most baffling outtake of all time – how did he think it wouldn’t fit on an album?!
  • Speaking of MetLife 3 vs. D.C., I really think it’s a toss-up. However, I DID prefer how the rarities were more interspersed THROUGHOUT the setlist at the former, whereas they were all for the most part clumped together in the first half of the setlist here.
  • Watch Jake resting on Bruce’s shoulders beaming at the rest of the Band during their call-and-response portion of “Out in the Street.” Perhaps Bruce wanted to reward this subtle enthusiasm by letting Jake finally participate in this portion here.
  • IMG_4585
    Jake beaming during “Out in the Street”
  • Bruce oddly flashed a weird sign during “Darlington County:” “Dance with me and win an Oscar,” with a plastic Academy Award taped to it.
  • After “Darlington,” Bruce took another loooooong preeeeegnant pause while thinking of what song to play next…before choosing the predictable “Working on the Highway.” What the heck was he considering?! In any case, here’s a recreation of my thought-process during this pause: “Don’t do it…don’t do it…don’t…no…no…nooooooo…[I spot his acoustic guitar]…aaaaaand he did it.”
  • By the time they got to the steamy “I’m on Fire,” Bruce had stripped down to his sweat-drenched t-shirt.
  • Patti’s voice was REALLY high in the mix all night long…I actually like Patti, but I’ll leave this at that.
  • Another crowd interaction moment that made me laugh: Bruce pointed and smiled at a guy losing his mind during “Badlands.” Realizing he had the Boss’ attention, he quickly bent down, grabbed his “Code of Silence” sign, and flashed it at Bruce, who once again smiled before completely ignoring the request.
  • Bruce invited an unconventional charity group to collect donations in the stadium: Hero Dogs! They’re an organization that trains service dogs to aid veterans. A highly noble endeavor that also allowed anyone walking around the concourse before the concert to play with all of the dogs that the volunteers trying to collect money wisely kept by their side. It was probably the only pre-show occurrence that can rival a real pre-show set from Bruce. Seriously, it was amazing for this dog-lover; I even met one that can open a fridge to fetch beer!!!
  • Controversial question: if the rest of the shows on this tour feature setlists that are merely slight variations of the mold introduced at MetLife 3, would that diminish how MetLife 3 is viewed in years to come?
  • I by no means have expert musical ears, but holy cow did Jake completely flub a note during his “Jungleland” solo; it literally sounded like his sax randomly farted.
  • Speaking of “Jungleland,” does Patti always leave the stage for it?! Bruce even had to call her back on for “Born to Run.”
  • I’m very happy that Bruce has started letting the crowd strum his guitar again during “Born to Run,” not because I personally like to do so but because I love seeing people’s faces after they’ve done so.
  • I appreciated the structural similarities between the E Street Band’s renditions of “Kitty’s Back” and “Seven Nights to Rock,” both of which afford almost every member of the Band a chance to flex their solo muscles. Nils had a pretty killer one during “Seven Nights” – I always want more Nils…
  • Patti was literally trying to raise the roof during the buildup to “Tenth Avenue:”
  • IMG_4591
    Patti raising the roof during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”
  • Though Bruce tried to pull off the James Brown cape shtick during “Shout,” it didn’t really work here because instead of feigning exhaustion after exclaiming, “Good night everybody!” he instead started dancing around the stage like a goofball. Sometimes the man has too much energy for his own good. BUT, I did like that instead of leaving the stage while Stevie teased the audience with, “The Boss has left the building,” Bruce instead merely lied down on the back stairs. Stevie’s response after turning around to see what he was up to: “The Boss has left the building…wait, no, he’s just resting.” And then Bruce called him over because he needed help getting off the stairs. Here’s a slideshow recreation:

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  • Once again, Bruce placed extra emphasis on, “Thank-God-for-Viagra-takingwhile introducing the Band with his usual litany of descriptors. But there were other, odd changes too: gone was the old cartoon-y, comic book-y font that pops on screen when the crowd yells, “E! Street! Band!” They’ve been changed to the River font that’s been used almost everywhere on this tour…except the video team didn’t time it correctly, so “E!” and “Street!” flashed on the back screen way later in the song; “Band!” finally showed up at the beginning of “Bobby Jean!”
  • I’ve hypothesized before that it felt like Bruce ended a few concerts in smaller markets on this tour with “Bobby Jean” as a way of potentially saying goodbye to them…not because Bruce knows the Band will never return to those cities, but because Bruce is smart enough to always suspect they MIGHT never come back – he’s aware that life can disrupt anyone’s best laid plans. Ending with “Bobby Jean” here made me think the same thing, especially when Bruce said goodbye to the crowd with, “Thanks for supporting our music over all of these years.” Let’s hope I’m wrong…
  • Alternative titles for this piece: “These Are the Best Days” and “If It So Ain’t Broke…”

 

 

 FOOTNOTES

[1] This was only the fourth time “Lost” and “Kitty” – two cherished, once-uber rare classics – have been played in the same show.

[2] She was later invited on stage for “Dancing in the Dark.”

[3] But it was still amazing because, you know, “Incident” into “Rosy” is “Incident” into “Rosy.”

 

 

SETLIST

  1. New York City Serenade
  2. Summertime Blues
  3. Sherry Darling
  4. No Surrender
  5. Growin’ Up
  6. It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City
  7. Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?
  8. Spirit in the Night
  9. Lost in the Flood
  10. Kitty’s Back
  11. Incident on 57th Street
  12. Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
  13. Night
  14. Trapped
  15. Better Days
  16. The Promised Land
  17. American Skin (41 Shots)
  18. Hungry Heart
  19. Out in the Street
  20. Darlington County
  21. Working on the Highway
  22. Downbound Train
  23. I’m on Fire
  24. Because the Night
  25. The Rising
  26. Badlands
  27. Secret Garden
  28. Jungleland
  29. Born to Run
  30. Seven Nights to Rock
  31. Dancing in the Dark
  32. Tenth Avenue Freeze-out
  33. Shout
  34. Bobby Jean

 

 

 

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