Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Ethiad Stadium, 25 May 2016
Paul Johnson shares his personal experience of seeing The Boss bring The River Tour to the UK. (Links in Bold.)
One soft infested summer me and Peter became friends…
I have total and complete recall of buying, playing & learning The River way back in 1980 – a damp, dark winter alone in the lounge, playing the 4 sides again and again and again. It’s how people my age used to consume their music. It was a study, a task, an effort to understand the album, to consider the meaning, the order of tracks, the highs and lows. You needed to “get it”. You listened to your music, you didn’t just hear it.
I’d met Pete the year before, at college and he would become my lifelong best friend, who I speak with almost every day. It was therefore particularly fitting that we walked into the damp, over cast, unseasonably chilly Etihad together, 36 years after The River was released (& 37 years after we’d met) to prepare for its first full live airing in Europe.
This was the opening night of the UK leg of another Springsteen tour. We’ve attended many, with varying degrees of excitement, anticipation & on one occasion, disappointment (The Emirates gig in 2008 seeming too much like a Going Thru the Motions Mortgage Tour to me – maybe it’s just my obvious aversion to that venue.)
But tonight was different. Very different. There was a palpable sense of raised expectation, a fever of excitement among all comers – something was going to happen tonight that we’d not seen, felt or heard before. Maybe it was only hope, but I was ready. We were all ready.
As usual the Band ambled on stage, with little showbiz spectacle or affected overblown drama. They just turned up, to do their work, as they have for over 40 years. To prove it all night (well, for over 3 hours) Amongst them, lagging a little behind, the slightly stooped, sometime shuffling, figure of The Boss. 66 years young and ready to blow our minds. Again.
And then a powerful punch straight to the face as the band launch into a belting Atlantic City, reborn & revived as a swirling singalong of redemption & hope – not the mournful, longing refrain of the original track. “…but everything that dies some day comes back”
The opening seven numbers were a blistering, relentless, wall of noise – each song taking you a little higher, sucking you further in, pulling you under in a way – Bruce wanted & needed you close, absorbed, overwhelmed & under his spell – he worked his nuts off to wrap his arms around everyone in the stadium so that by the end of this onslaught you had surrendered, you were his, you could not resist, you’d lost all self-control & he owned you (& your heart & soul) for the next 3 hours.
The 7 Song Intro:
The Ties That Bind
What was most surprising & unexpected for me was how fresh, new & original some of these songs felt & sounded – almost like hearing them for the first time. Impossible but true. The lyrics that I knew by rote sounded completely new, with deeper, more resonant meaning – I heard them differently tonight. Maybe it’s my age. Perhaps I’m now a middle aged man who sometimes looks back more often than forward. I don’t know.
Badlands was a fist pumping unifying shout along. Sherry Darling (an unfairly maligned song in my opinion) was a walk through the crowd pleasing, smile your face off celebration. No Surrender (a track I’ve always loved) almost a mission statement from the entire E Street Band. And we responded back in kind.
Have I mentioned the constant drizzle yet? No one seemed to even notice – it wasn’t relevant – we were beyond trivial concerns like the weather. And this is the thing about Bruce live – nothing else matters whilst you are in the presence of the greatest live act on earth. To be there, to bear witness is above all else.
And then things got a little odd – “What’s with the Santa Claus suit…?” asked Bruce having spotted a guy in the crowd….”What…what’s that all about?” Bruce beckons him up on stage, complete with his placard & Santa suit for a surreal, unseasonal rendition (& part appalling out of time duet) of the requested track. Smiles so wide in the stadium, laughter all around & 60,000 people singing a Xmas song in the rain, in May.
This is unlikely to ever happen again.
Then it was the entire crowds turn to perform – Hungry Heart starts up & the 1st verse is belted out from the terraces & pitch side – “You sound GOOD!” Bruce then jumps in & the feel good factor rises a notch, again. This may be a pop song, a huge chart hit that is very un-Springsteen, but like much else, it fits in perfectly. As it was probably meant to.
By now it’s become clear that we aren’t going to be served up a full start to finish live playback of The River as I and I guess many were expecting. But what we do get is something better, more responsive, more surprising & more considered perhaps. It felt as if Bruce was amending running orders and set lists as he went along – tailoring the package to meet the crowd mood & attitude
After the somewhat simplistic, pop ditty that is Hungry Heart we were then rewarded with a terrific version of Out on The Street before a placard request & a haunting, fully loaded, magnificent, head bursting Darkness on the Edge of Town – one of several highpoints of the whole gig for me. Again, something so familiar sounding so new & peculiarly uplifting. I cannot work out why – maybe that darkness is a comforting place that we’ve all found refuge in. Maybe we miss it?
Next were two tracks I’d gladly miss – Crush on You & You Can Look (But You’d Better Not Touch). But the author of this site had warned me about what then followed; (Mel had seen the LA leg of this tour earlier this year) so I had some advance knowledge of one of the most startling reinventions of a song I can think of; what I had for over 30 years dismissed as filler and a track so juvenile that it was out of place on any Springsteen record had been re-imagined & re-presented as the natural bookend to a song Bruce used to cover in his early years: I Wanna Marry You is a post script to Pretty Flamingo – and probably just as good. The intro, with Bruce on maracas, “Here She Comes Walkin” is almost a rewrite of part of Flamingo..it makes for a hypnotic song about the purity of unknown love. (“The kind that doesn’t exist” as Bruce declares.) Another massive highpoint in the show.
As night descends so too does the mood slightly alter on stage – having taken us up, up and away, Bruce is about to bring us down with the most poignant, breath taking & painfully emotional performance of the album’s title track. He remains unmoved but for a slow rocking side to side, head bowed and eyes shut tight as he and the crowd sing The River as one. This was that something special I felt we were going to witness tonight. “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true…?”
I was not alone in having to attend to something in my eye.
And just for good measure, he hits you again as you are doubled over, with the remarkable Point Blank – a song so bleak, about someone so lost that hope seems completely impossible.
Johnny 99, Darlington County & a fantastic upbeat version of Working on a Highway that belonged in an Irish bar lock in followed.
The next 5 tracks were like a power play, with Bruce once again determined to lift us, to inject joy, hope, humour & happiness into proceedings – and this was probably my favourite section of the gig – just when you thought you had to take a breather and sit down, he refused to allow you to. We are up to song 20 and he just turns the dial up to 11 with a majestic Promised Land – we all believe in it tonight. We are in it, right here right now. This is as good as it gets.
“I can see a break in the cloud Steven…”shouts Bruce as the band start up – Waiting on a Sunny Day. Halfway through he walks down to the front of the crowd to where a person he talked to earlier is:
(“Is this your first concert…your first time ever?” he asks of someone at the front of the crowd…
“How old are you?….Ten??? Twelve…wow, twelve and this is your first concert”)
Bruce saunters over to whoever he had spoken to and holds their placard to the camera. The big screen fills with “Play Waiting On a Sunny Day for Issy”
Little Issy is lifted up onto stage and has the best ever first concert experience anyone has or will ever have – she gets to sing her favourite song with Bruce, who has his arm around her. The stadium seems to smile. It’s cheese but unless you have a heart of stone it’s undeniably magic. She may not know all the words, but the crowd help her out.
Now, the really unexpected as a bellowing, raucous, almost punk sentiment version of Because the Night smothers us all with that unifying chorus that every single person in the postcode seems to holler. This was special, spectacular & spine tingling. My first time seeing this live. I’ll never forget it.
And still he goes on…with a stunning version of The Rising moving into a blistering Thunder Road – we can’t get any higher surely, we can’t get louder, closer, more united…we are moving into rare and unique space here. I’m losing the plot completely and doubt I am human anymore – I am the music, I am the electric guitar, I have become audio. I may need sedating. All around me I see aspects of the human spirit – the father and son arms linked, dueting every single word of every single song. The gay pensioners helping each other to their feet because the night belongs to lovers. The ladies of a certain age on a hubby free night out swaying together, wine fuelled vocals never stopping.
And still he takes us up. I don’t think I can take it anymore – I need some respite, I need to catch my breath but he will not allow it – we are suffocated by the sheer power & noise of a phenomenal Encore section, a crescendo to the show. This dial has no number.
Backstreets to Born to Run to a wonderful Glory Days to Dancing in the Dark.
Perhaps the most moving moment of the night next as we are treated to Tenth Avenue Freeze Out…as the lyric “When the change was made uptown, and the Big Man joined the Band” is about to be sung, the jumbo screens switch from a live feed of the performance to a pre-recorded segment – old footage of Clarence & The Boss, and Danny Federici are played out as the band play on. There’s not a dry eye around me and perhaps not many on stage.
An elongated, almost never ending crowd lifting Shout follows & it’s blissful. We are all high on whatever he’s poured into our bloodstreams. Bobby Jean completes the set as the Band take the applause, job done, crowd spent, energy sapped.
Bruce reappears alone, with an acoustic guitar and serenades us a farewell with a beautiful This Hard Land. We have been to church tonight and the minister of his congregation leaves the stage. I hope he’s immortal.
There is no other artist who appeals spans a 12 year old girl and a 70 year old man. For more than 40 years. To spend an evening with him is to be lifted, refreshed, and renewed. To feel good about everything and everyone. The warm afterglow of a Springsteen gig lasts a long time & is like no other. Go and see him soon and as often as you can. In an era where the giants of rock are leaving us faster than we’d like, artists with this longevity, this talent & this scale are never ever coming again.
Now…is New Jersey in August doable…???
Paul Johnson aka @Sniersmoregut
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