Bruce Springsteen, Nowlan Park, Kilkenny, Ireland, 28 July 2013
quoted in backstreets.com
I realised recently that I hadn’t reviewed the concert I went to on June 15th at Wembley Stadium in London. After all, I review books I’ve read and ballets I’ve seen, so why not this? Well, the thing is, it was a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band gig, and reviewing it would be like reviewing a friend’s performance, hardly unbiased. Not to mention that I have already raved extensively about the concert to long-suffering friends and family.
You see, I’m a fan. I’m one of millions of fans in fact. And I’m not even the most dedicated or nuttiest of fans. I’ve only seen the man six times in concert, whereas many diehards have seen him dozens of times. I’m certainly not like the woman who used to show a picture of Bruce to her son and say “Daddy”. This woman features in the trailer of a film about Springsteen fans, out on July 22nd this year (I haven’t seen it and don’t really plan to). Nor do I believe that Springsteen was the final straw that broke the Berlin wall, which this article reviewing a book by Erik Kirschbaum, posits. He added his voice to that of many, which is already a commendable thing to do, but Bruce didn’t bring the wall down, people. However, I did get a little thrill out of meeting a man this summer, over breakfast in a lovely B&B, whose son is best friends with Max Weinberg’s son. Max Weinberg is the drummer in the E Street Band for those of you who have to be told EVERYthing, and he is also the bandleader of the Tonight Show Band, as in The Tonight Show of Jay Leno and now Conan O’Brien fame. Steve van Zandt, guitarist, also has an acting career so tour scheduling must be fun… Anyway, people laugh when I tell them the I-know-someone-who-knows-the-son-of-the-drummer story, I can’t think why…
So, this year’s Wembley concert. Well, great reviews have been written about it. Such as this one (scroll down about halfway down this long page to get to June 15th) in Backstreets, the biggest fan produced website on Springsteen. The guys who write in Backstreets are seriously dedicated: complete set lists go back to 1999, that means LOTS of set lists. Detailed show reviews have grown out of these set lists, which still form the heart of the website. And this is what The Telegraph reviewer made of the concert and here is what the Guardian’s wrote. There was also review in The Times that I never managed to read.
My take? Well, it was wonderful. Obviously. As always I’m struck by the brilliant and familiar music, the fact that the audience is able to sing back entire songs that are over 30 years old, the complete absence of a choreographed and minuted show, replaced very advantageously by years and years of a band playing together and knowing how to build a show for a specific audience.
And this time, I was more aware of how a Springsteen gig has evolved over the years. (Make no mistake about it, although I’ve been scrupulous about mentioning the E Street Band every time I’ve talked about the Wembley concert, Bruce Springsteen is the band front man to end all front men. With the E Street Band or with other musicians, and I got to know Springsteen first when he was with non E Street Band musicians, Bruce Springsteen is the Boss.) The rituals have changed. Some have mourned the passing of the long stories Springsteen used to tell before a song, some of which have been recorded for posterity in live albums. While Bruce has been talking less than previously during concerts, maybe he’s been expressing himself more frequently on a larger platform, notably in recent years, supporting presidential candidates drawn from the Democrats. So I for one am quite happy to enjoy instead the now established rituals in E-Street Band shows: Bruce collecting sometimes wonderfully elaborate signs for song requests, picking out someone to dance to Dancing in the Dark, a kid to sing along to Waiting on a Sunny Day and acoustic pre-shows or finales.
Springsteen is famous for constantly coming up with new ways of making gigs special. He has hit the festival scene several times (I saw him at the Vieilles Charrues in Brittany, France and he also plays at such UK venues as Glastonbury or London Calling in Hyde Park.) And in the latter stages of the current Wrecking Ball tour, which has already been going for two years and will resume in 2014 with dates in Latin America, presumably followed by another tour of the US, he has taken to playing entire albums, yes, that’s all the tracks from an album in their original recording order. So at Wembley, we were treated to the whole of the Darkness on the Edge of Town album, a treat indeed. Other venues got Born in the USA. Another audience pleaser are the “band stumpers”, which are very rarely played tracks, or even songs by other artists, such as Little Richard’s Lucille requested by someone at the Stade de France in Paris. On the other hand, closing a show with Twist ‘n Shout is an established E Street band tradition going back years. Bruce has given the bug for spicing things up at concerts to other band members, too: Nils Lofgren, guitarist, is known for opening shows with local traditional tunes, such as Flower of Scotland in Glasgow, sometimes using an accordion as he did when he played The Blue Danube in Vienna.
Regular Springsteen concert goers often hope for a particular song to be played. My own all-time favourite is Lucky Town, probably a heretical choice for purists, as it’s one of those that was written outside the E- Street Band era (roughly ten years from 1989), but there you go. I didn’t hold out much hope of hearing it for a second time after I heard it at Milton Keynes Bowl in 1992. It was not on one of the signs chosen at Wembley (sadly I was too far from the stage to be a sign waver) nor at the next few venues. And then, one day, as I was still obsessively reading reviews on Backstreets in a post-Wembley glow, following the band across Europe, I discovered that Lucky Town had been requested, and played, at Leipzig. What had THAT fan done to deserve it, hey?
I’m not the only going on about the quality of the shows. See this cover of Rolling Stone? And although I’ll readily admit that many people will have in mind a favourite concert experience that might conceivably not be a Springsteen show, there are many arguments to point to the sheer staying power of the guy and his bands. Given the length of his career, you have to compare with other 60+ artists (Even though it’s not much fun realising you’re right slap bang in the demographic of an aging rock star band, facts have to be faced.) In the UK, much is made of the Rolling Stones. Sorry, but they have neither the album nor the concert output of Bruce and his E Street banders. People like Neil Young haven’t hung around long enough with Crosby Stils and Nash to make the comparison either.
Yes, I do remember with great fondness an absolutely wonderful Waterboys concert in the noughties in La Cigale, a great venue in Paris, or The Pogues’s brilliant opening before a U2 concert in Paris a longer time ago than I care to remember. But nobody churns out so many consistently feel-good shows, again and again. Nobody.