If ’Born To Run’ established his legend, it was the broad sweep of his ambitious double album ‘The River’ way back in 1980 that propelled Bruce Springsteen into the mainstream, at least here in the UK where as a teenager the singles ‘Hungry Heart’ and the title track were my first introduction to him.
35 years on, with rock’s heritage increasingly lucrative, the album recently was revisited through a box set with two CD’s worth of previously unreleased tracks, and the latest stadium tour from the Boss and the E Street band was billed as ‘The River Tour’ complete with the iconic album lettering.
However anyone who has seen his recent shows will know this is not an artist to lazily coast on nostalgia – the shows get better and more intense with age and the 66 year old draws on an incredible reserve of energy at a time of life when others might start slowing up, with the legendary set lengths as long as they ever have been.
After a few rumblings of ‘Broooce’, so it was that, at a ridiculously early 6.20pm for a headliner, the man himself took the stage alone, seated at the piano for an oldie in ‘Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street’, before the E Street Band joined him. Another relative obscurity in ‘Seeds’ showed how they have that instinctive American heartland sound down to a tee, as Charlie Giordano’s organ and Roy Bittan’s piano played off each other leading into a guitar solo from the boss himself, while a fun ‘Johnny 99’ rocked in almost boogie style with some tasty lap steel work from a wizened Nils Lofgren as the band made full use of the walkway down into the crowd.
Unlike many contemporaries they still have faith in their newer recorded material with the title track from ‘Wrecking Ball’ with its optimistic urgings prominently featuring Jake Clemons on saxophone. However compared to the last UK tour the E Street Band had been somewhat pruned back with neither horn section nor backing singers.
I was expecting the whole of ‘The River’ at some stage and sure enough there was an outpouring of delight at its opening two tracks in ‘The Ties That Bind’, with the ‘ay-ay-ay-ay’ refrain being raucously sung and ‘Sherry Darling’. Hungry Heart’ came over wonderfully live with the crowd taking over as Bruce worked the front of the stage.
However I was then rather discombobulated when an admittedly fine version of ‘No Surrender’ followed. As the gig wore on it gradually dawned that, having begun the world tour playing ‘The River’ in its entirety, they were now just playing a few choice cuts inserted in a more typical Springsteen stadium set list of career spanning hits and fan favourites.
Indeed, more than ever, a feature of the show was the interaction with the diehard fans in the front pit, all holding up homemade signs requesting favourite songs or perhaps a dance with the band. It really is one of the phenomena of rock that Bruce can pick any card and the band, with drummer Max Weinberg skilfully setting the tempo, can play at the drop of a hat. The lack of a big set piece visual backdrop or lights show allows this to happen but it is hard to see other bands prepared for such spontaneity.
On the downside it means that those of us further back on the pitch can feel a bit remote from the spectacle, with everything seemingly geared towards it, from the video screen footage to the way the stage appeared rather low to allow the band to reach the crowd, making for poor sightlines in a stadium of a size never ideal for intimacy.
Fan requests in a variety of styles, from an almost grunge-like ‘Candy’s Room’ to a solo ‘I’ll Work For Your Love’ were accompanied by some great moments in ‘She’s The One’ with Roy’s piano keeping the melody bubbling, and ‘Death To My Hometown’ where Charlie’s accordion and Soozie Tyrell’s violin added to the ambience of a celtic jig. ‘My City Of Ruins’, meanwhile, turned Wembley Stadium into something of a gospel church notably when Bruce took the tempo down and had us all singing ‘with these hands’.
Only once did the pace drop with ’41 Shots’, whatever its worthy lyrical message, becoming a tad repetitive and outstaying its welcome, as most of the set was relentlessly optimistic and up-tempo.
During a jazzy, jammed out ‘Spirits In The Night’ Bruce perhaps unwisely downed in one a pint offered him by a fan, while ‘Promised Land’ with its prominent piano and sax epitomised the spirit of all-American rock both lyrically and musically.
‘Waiting On A Sunny Day’ has become a great participatory number and a young girl was brought on stage to sing with him and count the E Street Band in, and a version of ‘Darlington County’ was a dictionary definition of ‘rollicking’.
I had long given up on ‘The River’ being played in full but there was a double of ‘Out In The Street’, various band members singing lines while Bruce was off in the crowd and ‘You Can Look But Better Not Touch’.
While some of the more mournful and downbeat numbers may not have worked well in this environment I did feel some of the more up tempo romps such as ‘Cadillac Ranch’ and ‘Ramrod’ would have enhanced the set.
Nevertheless the title track was bleak and sombre with haunting harmonica work and a song perhaps unsuited to a stadium of 90,000 people was carried along by the force of Bruce’s charisma.
I sensed he would pay tribute to another American idol in Muhammad Ali and sure enough with a simple ‘floats like a butterfly stings like a bee’, he dedicated ‘Tougher Than The Rest’ with wife Patti Scialfa, now restored to the touring band, moving in to sing with him.
That was the last subdued moment for a while as ‘Because The Night’ saw the band rocking as hard as all set with Nils delivering a superb solo with his trademark pirouhette across the stage. ‘The Rising’ with its catchy ‘na na na’ refrain built further momentum, reaching a memorable climax in a powerful ‘Badlands’.
Holding up a card with its title on, ‘Jungleland’ was an epic first encore with several distinct passages with Jake’s sax solo the centrepiece, leading into ‘Born To Run’ where the way the stadium lights were belatedly turned on as night began to fall made for an even more special atmosphere, and the party reached new levels during ‘Dancing In The Dark’ as various invited crowd members cavorted on stage including a bearded man playing the Courtney Cox role, all the while Jake’s sax solo carrying the melody.
‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out’, with montages of the much missed big man Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, led into a cover of ‘Shout’, its stop start nature only enhancing the energy levels in the crowd – ironically a song I more associate with fellow Jerseyites Bon Jovi, whose one time crown as the kings of stadium rock has been eclipsed in my mind.
‘Bobby Jean’ was a perhaps surprising wrap up but the Boss ended the show as he started it, the E Street Band taking their bow before he returned alone for an encore of ‘Thunder Road’, perhaps the song in his canon that has almost mythical status among Springsteen diehards.
These seasoned musicians had been on stage for an incredible 3½ hours. No matter whether you are a fan or not (and I was a long time agnostic about him as an artist) this was conclusive proof that an E Street Band gig is the ultimate live experience.
Review and Photos by Andy Nathan
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