The international world saw two sides of British life last summer. On the good side, we made a stunning success of hosting the Olympics. But a few weeks before, across town at Hyde Park came the farcical jobsworthery of pulling the power on Bruce Springsteen at curfew time, at the very moment Paul McCartney had joined him on stage for Twist and Shout.
In a neat piece of symmetry, the Hard Rock Calling Festival this year upped sticks from its Hyde Park home, decamped across London to the Olympic Park, now a mixture of building site and some of the structures that became instantly iconic landmarks last summer, and invited The Boss back to headline the second night of the festival at his leisure.
While a plain site- essentially a giant tarmac strip with artificial grass laid, the sight lines and sound were excellent and it felt comfortable to get near the front and stay there. The only downside was that the other two tents seemed a country mile from the main stage, so I reluctantly missed out on the likes of the Flamin Groovies and the Temperance Movement.
Opening up were teenagers The Carnabys, who had won a Hard Rock Cafe battle of the bands. This was a surreal moment for me as they live in my neighbourhood and friends and I saw them two or three years ago playing covers in a local pub, recognised their precocious talents, but never imagined they would be opening for Bruce Springsteen.
As their name suggests, they were very 60’s inspired with a sound taking inspiration from the early R n B of the Stones or the Animals with a few later Britpop influences. A supercharged cover of Gimme Shelter proved the point but equally impressive was a set of self-penned songs showcasing the Steve Marriott-esque voice of Jack Mercer, dapper in a maroon coach driver jacket, and their confident stage craft.
Next up were Deaf Havana with a crisp set of melodic, slightly jangly power pop, with good vocal harmonies, reminding me of 90’s American acts like The Gin Blossoms or Sister Hazel. I had never previously heard of them, only to read an advert in the programme for their tour which includes a London show at the prestige Roundhouse, proving that I really should pay more attention to the scene.
After the home contenders came a well chosen trio of American bands, all showcasing the roots of American music, primarily from the south. The Zac Brown Band are arena fillers in their own right in the States. Hirsute of head or in Zac’s case chin, their sound combined his rich southern drawl with a countrified musical approach, with organ and steel guitar prominent but most particularly Jimmy Di Martini’s fast and furious frenzied fiddle playing.
They seemed to have a substantial number of fans in attendance and a bold singalong to Jump Right In somehow paid off, while the ballad Colder Weather and the punchier Whiskey’s Gone also made a mark on me. After a brief snatch of Kashmir, it was fitting that they closed with a cover of The Devil Went Down to Georgia as it was Charlie Daniels’ classic that their musical style kept calling to mind.
The upmarket music press have been raving about the Alabama Shakes, but I found myself rather underwhelmed. They have that classic Stax soul feel, and Brittany Howard has an arrestingly distinctive voice but they seemed to get into a slow to medium paced groove and stay there for the whole set; only upping the tempo midway through the last set.
With the place filling up, the question was which Black Crowes would turn up? With only an hour to play for a festival crowd, would they stick to the hits as I wanted them to, or would they go off into lengthy jams? Well, the moment Rich Robinson cranked out the opening chords to Twice as Hard, it looked like the former approach was winning out, as more classics in Sting Me and Jealous Again followed, and on the latter the interplay between Rich’s power chords and slide guitar and the melodic solos of new boy Jackie Greene were wonderfully Allman Brothers-esque.
However, as Sven Goran Eriksson used to say, ‘first half good, second half not so good’. Although the sounds generated during Wiser Time were wonderful, a lengthy keyboard solo followed by each guitarist stretching out in turn took the song to well over 15 minutes. After a wonderful stripped down She Talks to Angels, Chris Robinson’s voice as distinctive as ever and with acoustic guitar and mandolin respectively from Rich and Jackie, Thorn in My Pride was another jam to tip the proverbial stopwatch at over 10 minutes.
When Chris, who seems to have become less arrogant with age, said he would bring a slice of Georgia to London, a loose limbed Hard to Handle finally got the crowd going, though to my surprise it segued into another cover in Hush and the hour was up before Remedy was slayed. I felt ambivalent about the Crowes show- on a hot day the rich southern sound they conjured up was wonderful, but I just wish they had reined in the jamming.
After an afternoon of relative comfort, it suddenly became rather packed for the Bruce Springsteen set. It was somewhat unusual in that this date was announced well after his other UK shows, which had included another London show at Wembley Stadium as well as one in Coventry which I witnessed.
On this occasion they opened with Shackled and Drawn, which after a slow start showed how the expanded line up, with a five piece horn section and girl backing singers including one in the hoopy earrings that scream ‘chav’, give an added folk and soul dimension, particularly to the songs from the last album Wrecking Ball.
We were then in more familiar territory with the classic Badlands and Prove it All Night, featuring a brilliant solo from the Fagin like Nils Lofgren, delivered ever faster while spinning on one leg.
The way The Boss will take requests fans write on cardboard has become an ever bigger part of his act and after making his way down a ramp to the front he returned with requests for Johnny 99, rocked up with the horn section all getting a turn and the bluesy garage rock feel of Reason to Believe, with Bruce playing harmonica, before Atlantic City competed a trio of Nebraska songs and Wrecking Ball, building to a huge, defiantly joyous sound and Death to my Hometown, fiddles and accordion to the fore, took the atmosphere up a notch.
Bruce then explained that, after playing Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born to Run in their entirety on the last two UK shows, this night they would play Born in the USA, complete and in order. Some Springsteen snobs decry this as his most nakedly commercial album, but on a night when the crowd on the whole seemed a tad younger and more party hardy than at a usual Springsteen show, it was the perfect choice to match the atmosphere and there was instantly a mass punching of air and shouting to the misunderstood title track, not to mention a some furious drumming from the usually understated Max Weinberg.
Live favourites like Darlington County, No Surrender and Bobby Jean took on a new life in context, while Working on the Highway and I’m Going Down sparked joyful singalongs and rarely played numbers such as the hard rocking Cover Me, with solos from Bruce and Steve Van Zandt, brought back so many memories, for me of the time when one of my sixth form teachers tried to show his credibility by playing us the then newly released album.
I wondered who the Courtney Cox figure during Dancing in the Dark might be, but hadn’t reckoned on it being a sprightly older lady coming in from stage right who I discovered was his 87 year old mother, with his younger sister (and Sheryl Crow dead ringer) making it a family affair by playing guitar, before My Hometown completed the sequence and the E Street Band, mainly down to their core members for this segment, took a well deserved bow.
During the appropriately titled Waiting on a Sunny Day came one of the moments that make Bruce Springsteen such a life affirming performer as he not only pulled a young girl from the front of the crowd, but gave her a piggy back on stage. Completing a trio from The Rising, Lonesome Day and the title track kept the atmosphere going with their rousing choruses before a rocky Light of Day completed the main set.
Bruce then went back into the crowd, collecting a sign for Jungleland, and explaining how important the song was when he wrote it, led an epic rendition in which the highlight was a haunting sax solo from Jake Clemons, doing his late Uncle Clarence proud.
Talking of which, after tearing into a more ragged than normal Born to Run to near hysteria, such was Bruce’s exuberance he even leapt onto the top of Roy Bittan’s piano at the opening to a joyful Tenth Avenue Freeze Out where Clarence looked out from the big screen at the moment ‘the big man joined the band’ was sung. The folky jig of American Land, with Roy and Charlie Giordano in that rarity, an accordion duel, closed out the set and there were even pockets of pogoing breaking out before each of the band came down the ramp to take the applause of the people at the front.
There was one final moment as Bruce returned to the stage alone with acoustic guitar, but espying a fan’s tattoo, he seemed to change plan and play My Lucky Day, an uptempo recent song but an anticlimax to those anticipating Thunder Road which had closed his set on many of the other shows. Then, with a coy ‘I’ll be seeing you’ he was gone, ironically well before the scheduled curfew having played a ‘mere’ 3 hours.
Without wishing to be churlish the amazing thing is that this was not even a vintage Springsteen gig. There had been a bigger feel to the show in Coventry with larger video screens and more audience participation and a longer set, but perhaps that is the difference between his own show and a festival set up.
Nevertheless, this was a great end to a perfect festival day, and with warmth, integrity, some wonderful ensemble playing from his band and his incredible energy for a 63 year old, nobody does a live act better than New Jersey’s favourite son.
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
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