Despite being a frequent enough visitor to these shores, whenever the Boss and his gang roll into town, the hysteria reaches fever pitch and the ensuing shows are always counted as a major event. An artist with a ridiculously wide fan base, from the muso to the mainstream, his appeal stretches across a huge demographic and the collective goodwill to be found at a Springsteen show is one of the few resolutely un-cynical things in today’s live music scene.
I’ll admit I was a late enough convert to the charms of the E Street lads, believing when I was growing up that the sentiments would be too on the nose, the performance an exercise in empty posturing and the piling up of platitude upon platitude. On a whim in my early 20s I picked up Born To Run, eager to see if the aura surrounding the work was justified, if there really was some magic in the night. I instantly fell in love with the bruised romance of it all, the sweeping and crisp sound, the youthful confidence one could only express in these avenues of hustlers and toughs. If the world conjured in that record is surreal and left of centre, I embrace it and place it beside the trappings of noir, the tropes of the western and finally the fantasy touches of classic literature such as Peter Pan. The Boss was right when he plainly said “Show a little faith…”. From that moment on, I loved that record with all the madness in my soul and soon discovered there were plenty of further backstreets to explore with the rest of the material.
This is my second time seeing the band, I was there for the “Working on a Dream” tour, the whole Bruce aesthetic galvanised by the promise of Obama and the political optimism of the time. Sadly, it acted as the final tour for one of the most beloved titans of E Street, the legendary Big man himself Clarence Clemons, and I’m eternally grateful I got to catch him in flight, his sax lines a little dimmer in the mix perhaps, but still soaring graceful like musical fireworks in the already incendiary mix. This time around one must wonder if the titular ‘Wrecking Ball’ of Springsteen’s latest isn’t being applied to the dream he was lionizing last time around.
The new material can be a little leaden on record but really came to life in this setting, with even the Dropkick Murphy-isms (surely a bad thing) of certain songs making more sense when presented in a party air rather than blaring out of a CD or computer speaker. ‘Death to my Hometown’ in particular, was reworked into a heavy party anthem, its galloping rhythms and licks locking into a thunderous groove while ‘Rocky Ground’ ended with some beautiful vocal interplay between Bruce and backing singer Michelle Moore, the lines they traded off bringing a heft of showmanship to its weighty themes.
Showmanship is a word that must be emphasised in this case as I can’t think of another musician who works quite so hard as Springsteen and his band, the gig clocking in at a curfew-baiting 3 hours and 40 minutes. Much has been said about the recent calamity regarding the cutting off of Bruce and Sir Paul McCartney at a London show so I won’t dwell, suffice to say that that incident was referenced here in a few jokes and an assertion that only the Boss says when he’s ready to leave the stage!
While the new songs were uniformly strong the beauty of the E Street repertoire is that the band can cover so much ground in their discography. Cuts from his debut are few and far between in his sets but we were treated to a fantastic ‘Sprit in the Night’ alongside the expected but no less appreciated concert standards such as ‘Waitin’ on a Sunny Day’ (where he was joined on stage by a petrified child whose initial enthusiasm for the idea was deflated a little when faced with the reality of appearing in front of 35,000 people) and the majestic ‘Badlands’, one of his most incisive readings of his particular brand of blue collar rock.
Delving into the Darkness album for two more songs gave me my personal highlight, the blistering ‘Adam Raised a Cain’, his grittiest take on the notion of complicated father/son dynamics. They tore through these tracks with the fervour of a far younger band, even hits they must be long since tired of rang with supreme swagger, such as ‘Dancing in the Dark’ – the cheesy pop breakthrough hit united this throng of people in absolute synchronicity. To add other flavours, the Van Morrison -esque jazzy take on ‘My City of Ruins’, and a solo piano run on ‘The Promise’ gave the long show a sense of pace. While ‘Ruins’ was interrupted with some fairly bog standard sermonising and revving up of the crowd, it was only faintly embarrassing and the sort of necessary evil one has to accept at these mammoth events. Fan favourite album Nebraska was well represented by an odd and beguiling version of ‘Atlantic City’, which utilised a strange arrangement but still worked, its tale rendered in the same type of rags we’re accustomed to but just maybe with a slightly different fitting.
‘The River’, his sombre tale of a young marriage gone wrong, managed to feel authentically universal while still telling a story I haven’t experienced, but that’s down to its nuances and irresistible melody. A surprise was ‘Born in the USA’, a song he swore off for a long time due to its misunderstood nature and perversion by political campaigns – he seems to have revived it now and I speculate that this is down to the fact that it shares sibling songs on his latest record. His recent single ‘We Take Care of our Own’ seems to mirror its sardonic approach, its verse seeming like a backhanded slogan smuggled into a fairly catchy pop song.
Before I go any further, special mention must be made of a moment in E Street signature song ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out’, a superbly sure footed and mythical telling of the formation of the band which gives a special shout out to Clarence with the immortal line, “When the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band…” . At this lyric the stage fell into darkness and touching footage of the Man himself was shown on the screen. The clarion call which got the song back into its swing was provided by Clarence’s nephew Jake Clemons, a very talented musician who has joined the band, and it is heartwarming to see that they have kept it literally and figuratively in the family as far as E Street goes. It feels right that this icon and his legacy would get such a tribute and although it was poignant it did not derail the gig into anything vaguely morose. The band would never confuse a celebration for a time of mourning.
It must be said that the show was not without fault but it had less to do with the musicians than the sound at the venue. From where I was for the first two songs, it kept cutting in and out, and while moving to the other side of the stage was a huge improvement, a few sonic missteps continued to occur, leaving a visibly powerful performance lacking sonically in places. Considering the price of the tickets, this is an untenable situation and I wonder if others were as annoyed with it as I was. I understand the RDS is a large venue but it should be possible to ensure a certain level of sound clarity across the entire arena and not have these frustrating blind pockets in the venue.
It is very easy to be cynical about Springsteen. He is the multi millionaire, who long ago left behind the working class he so obsessively analyses in his work, but I think when people do that they sort of miss the point. I believe it’s the feel of the work, the purity of a straight ahead approach to old fashioned rock and roll and boardwalk stomp and pop. He’s not given enough credit for the stylistic changes and advances he made across his canon because he does admittedly fall back, thematically, on formula. If one looks closer, however, he has gone from Dylanesque beat poetry to bleak social commentary touching on jazz, bluegrass and a million things in between and yes there may come another song about another man working in yet another factory down on his luck but so what? How many love affairs has Leonard Cohen documented, how many surreal conceits has Bowie given us, etc. ? That Bruce is producing work that while, far from his classics, still has some verve and vitality is hugely impressive for a 62 year old musician. He is one of the few doggedly alpha male artists I comfortably endorse, as sometimes what’s needed is just a rush of bluster and testosterone when you’re talking about giant sized stadium pyrotechnics.
He always bristled at that tag he was given back in the 70s as “the future of Rock and Roll”, an absurd decree by any standard, but I don’t think I’d be wrong if I said that, for a brand of straight ahead rock without the need to wink to the audience or to hide behind some distancing irony, currently he is very much “the present” of that form.