Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Ricoh Arena, 3 June 2016
It is not even quarter to seven in the evening when Bruce Springsteen walks on stage in Coventry. He’s on his own and saunters over to sit at Roy Bittan’s grey piano, lit sky blue by the lights. Something special, in the spirit of Hyde Park 2012, is coming. He delivers a rare outing of For You, from his debut album released in January 1973; on record it is a song where he is at his most Dylan-like, with cutting, poetic lyrics and flowing delivery where he throws away the odd line with disdain as part of a fuller, fluent sound. The live solo verison is more sombre and a sold out stadium, which was bustling before the start to the point there was no room to move in the first third of the matted football pitch. fell silent in awe.
Almost seamlessly he brings on the band, walks centre stage and within a heartbeat they launch into a thrilling version of Something in the Night. Something in the eye. But there ain’t even a cloud in the sky. Soon, many were lost in a flood. Something in the Night, a song about blanking everything else all out in lament, was delivered with an intensity that was transparent both in the sound and in The Boss’s face, beamed close-up on big screens. It was then followed immediately by Prove it All Night. Two storming versions of songs he cited at Wembley 2013 as part of his fiercest collection. Overpowering yet empowering at the same time. To nick another Springsteen lyric, he is getting a crowd to laugh and cry in a single sound. And it wasn’t even 7pm.
This was nominally called The River Tour, but whereas the US leg had the whole of The River performed from start to finish there are number of River tracks here interspersed with a selection of Springsteen’s back catalogue, many of which have been changing nightly. Rarities follow in Coventry, with My Love Will Not Let You Down and then a little later, Save My Love (a sign request from Burger Girl) where, while tuning his guitar, Bruce speaks about how he wrote the song, with one of his introductions that always add insight and make so many of his live recordings and bootlegs so captivating.
Like a number of lyrics in his songs, which he later creates new songs in their own right, the speaking intros also give a clue to later song development; in his 1980 recording of Independence Day (a sad omission tonight) at Tempe, Arizona, he speaks about how music taught him more than the conformity of the classroom and No Surrender, from 1984’s Born in the USA, played another sign request in Coventry contains the golden line “We learned more from a three minute pop record than we ever learnt in school.” No retreat, no surrender, is now an anthem of defiance, in keeping not just with rebel songs like Death to my Hometown, but with a lyricist who stood up when they said “sit down” and who spits in the face of badlands.
Set lists from the European leg of this tour show it has been Born in the USA heavy; an album he played in its entirety in Europe in 2013 and there are a few more tracks of it tonight, with a very good version of Working on the Highway where Bruce leads on the walkway with an acoustic guitar, followed up by an enthusiastic Darlington County. The title track also gets an airing, with it’s booming opening, a song Republicans stole from Bruce and he is taking it back. And Dancing in the Dark is now a staple, with the lights on and participants pulled on stage, where in Covenrty a bloke who got his request to dance next to Roy Bittan scene stealing on a croweded stage.
Waitin’ on a Sunny Day, back in the set for the European stadium dates, has the same gimmick, but with a child getting their chance to come up and sing with The Boss. Bruce gives kids the moment of their short lifetime that is unlikely to ever be bettered, while playing something some hardcore fans are tired off yet, undeniably, from the bloke whistling it at Coventry train station that afternoon to the reaction from some leaving the stadium afterwards, remains a favourite for many others.
From The River the upbeat Ties That Bind and Sherry Darling, fitted in perfectly in the opening flurry of songs, up tempo songs that build on the euphoria Springsteen has himself created. Hungry Heart involves more crowd participation and is followed by Out on the Street, the band song great for a Friday early evening outdoors from the backstreets of New Jersey to the stadium on the edge of dual carriageways in the West Midlands. But the real highlights from The River in Coventry come midway through the set, with the title track followed by Drive All Night, an epic that not all European crowds have been treated to, despite the name of the tour.
While it is debatable which River songs should have been sacrificed on this leg, the new additions are treats. Youngstown, from The Ghost of Tom Joad, is played with sincerity, while a couple of live rock covers Travellin Band and Seven Nights to Rock are played for fun, as is Shout, which sees the E Street band depart stage after over three hours. Bruce stays, with an acoustic guitar and gives the crowd a thirty third song of the night, a solo Thunder Road.
With the welcome airing of his very earliest work on the European leg of this tour, these dates are becoming a reflective of his career: the precocious talent in an era of post-folk rock; the master pieces; the pop sing-alongs; the collision with punk; and being part of the greatest live band of all time. A prisoner of rock’n’roll.
As early as 1978, recordings evidence Springsteen was aware of the potential of sharing live performances via bootleg (he specifically jokes about it before playing Racing in the Street in Winterland 1978); every performance on The River Tour is, or will be, available to download. It may explain why he has been happy to mix it up, in the knowledge the great versions of The River ballads which have been omiited on some of the European dates are out there for all to savour, while every crowd still gets a unique performance.
And the download of this gig will be well worth getting.
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