The North-East rain has been falling steadily and relentlessly all day; pretty typical for early British ‘summer’ with an outdoor event planned. Fortunately it has eased a little in the early evening as the Stadium of Light in Sunderland gradually fills, with a palpable sense of growing excitement and anticipation for the arrival of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, back in the region for the first time in over 20 years, on his Wrecking Ball tour.
I’ve been a Springsteen fan for a long time. Not a ‘die hard’ fan perhaps, but I’ve listened to and enjoyed a lot of his albums over the years. I first ‘discovered’ him in 1984, with the release of Born in the USA; which led me to explore some of his back catalogue – notably the classic Born to Run (1975) and The River (1980). I liked his Human Touch (1992). More recently I’ve rediscovered him through Working on a Dream (2009) and his latest release Wrecking Ball (2012); along with the excellent retrospective 7 album box set ’73-’84 Collection.
Stadiums were made for Bruce Springsteen concerts. His live shows have always been legendary: 3-4 hour, high-energy, marathon rock and roll parties. As this is the first opportunity I have had to see him live, the question on my mind (and I guess many others) as we stand in the eager crowd half way back across the covered pitch of the arena, is at 62 years of age, does he still have what it takes to meet those high expectations?
When the band take to the stage a little after 7pm, without announcement or unnecessary fanfare, and the man himself walks on and up to the microphone, guitar at the ready, to rapturous cheers, whistles and applause, the whole place is like a roller coaster set to tip over the precipice: and any doubts about Bruce’s age and the more ‘rootsy’ feel of some of his recent recordings are blown away in the opening volleys of the classic Badlands, which immediately has the die hard fans bouncing and singing along.
With the tone set and the entrance well and truly marked (and a brief nod to the weather: ‘This is what I want! I don’t want no sunny and 75 degrees!’), he walks us through some offerings from the latest album including the eponymous Wrecking Ball and the new material obviously has a good following. For good measure in the early part of the set, classics like Spirit in The Night and Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street? are thrown into the mix; along with (rather gratifyingly for me) the more obscure Murder Incorporated.
Early in the set, as Bruce runs seamlessly into another song with barely a beat’s respite, the cameras feeding the big screens pick up a blonde girl perched on her companion’s shoulders near the front of the audience. As she sees herself on the screen she quickly crosses her arms and drops her hands to the hem off her tee shirt at her waist, ready to pull her top off. The camera cuts away quickly to Springsteen singing. He seems confused for a moment by the sudden disappointed outcry from his enraptured audience, then gets his eye on the distraction, laughing as the camera cuts back to the blonde who now only has a skimpy stars and stripes bikini top (no doubt in his honour) protecting her from the elements. He chuckles, missing the next line of the lyric, saying instead ‘You know there are some things you just can’t compete with!’ He continues to grin as he slips back into the melody.
Working on the Highway gives us our first nod to the Born in The USA album, and by the time he slips into Waiting on a Sunny Day EVERYBODY is singing along again. Throughout the E Street Band are on-the-money tight, and Bruce is in fantastic voice; in fact his voice seems to be one of those rare commodities which indeed has if anything improved with age; in tone, power, range and quality. And throughout he engages completely with the audience: making frequent trips to the front of the stage to show solidarity and take in a little light rain; or to the wings where he shakes hands, sits on the edge of the stage, and engages in other interactive shenanigans, without missing a beat or a note for the first two hours (topless ladies aside).
The middle of the set (or the end of the set before the extended encore, depending on how you look at it!) sees the tone and pace of the songs drop a gear for the likes of Point Blank and the hauntingly melancholy choruses of The River (with trademark harmonica). This gives us time to catch our breath and move a little further back in the audience; specifically away from a couple of punters who are either stupid-drunk and/or talking constantly over the set (which seems to be increasingly common these days unfortunately – why don’t you just go to a bar?) – finding a bit of space where there is a nice, good-natured party atmosphere for the remainder of the gig.
We are well rewarded, with an encore (which runs straight on from the main part of the set) of classic, high energy Springsteen, including Thunder Road, Born to Run, Hungry Heart, and Glory Days. The popular Dancing in the Dark gets a twist on its signature moment, when Bruce spots a banner in the audience which says ‘Can we dance with Birthday Nils?’ It is indeed, long-standing E Street Band member and legendary guitarist Nils Lofgren’s birthday. Of course Springsteen obliges, and two lucky guys are soon up dancing on the stage with Nils as he solos/plays through the rest of the song.
Throughout this third-hour encore, Springsteen shows little sign of flagging as the gig reaches fever pitch; only once ‘feigning’ exhaustion while guitarist Steve Van Zandt pours water over his head as he lies prone on the stage; while the audience, young and old, shouts, cheers, whistles, claps and generally laps it up. Other than that he has sang, note perfect, ran around the stage and pounded on his trademark telecaster through a set that would shame artists less than half his age.
The gig finishes in party mood, floodlights up (as they have been pretty much since dusk) with Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, including a touching tribute to the late, great Clarence Clemons; a silent (save for the rapturous cheers and applause of the audience) montage of stills and film of Clarence with Bruce and the band over the decades. His nephew Jake Clemons has admirably filled ‘The Big Man’s’ shoes all night on Saxophone.
Even three hours has left us wanting more; and I rue that I have had to wait so long to see Springsteen in concert. If you get the chance; any chance – do this at least once in your life. Come to one of Bruce Springsteen’s rock and roll house parties with a few thousand of his closest friends. Sing, dance, cheer, be merry; come and go as you please. But just remember who’s The Boss!
Set List – 21/06/12
2. We Take Care of Our Own
3. Wrecking Ball
4. Death to My Hometown
5. My City of Ruins
6. Spirit in the Night
7. Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?
8. Jack of All Trades
10. Murder Incorporated
11. Johnny 99
12. Working on the Highway
13. Shackled and Drawn
14. Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
15. The Promised Land
16. Point Blank
17. The River
18. The Rising
19. Out in the Street
20. Land of Hope and Dreams
21. We Are Alive
1. Thunder Road
2. Born to Run
3. Hungry Heart
4. Seven Nights to Rock
5. Glory Days
6. Dancing in the Dark
7. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out