If 2016 has taught us anything, it is to enjoy those significant musical and sporting talents whilst they are still around, taking the best they have to offer. I had no idea when David Bowie played at Wembley in 2003 that it would not only be the last time that I saw him in concert, but it would the last time he toured the UK. I didn’t try too hard to get Prince tickets the last time he was over in Britain – more fool me. I don’t want to raise any alarm bells though – Bruce looked hale and hearty, notwithstanding the lack of knee slides compared with the last Springsteen gig that I had been to in 2003. That said there are a few things that I could do 13 years that I can’t do know, not least navigate life without permanently wearing spectacles.
We got every aspect of Bruce at Wembley and for a performer who has always been a more artless than either Bowie or Prince for instance, it was a quite a few facets. As an aside, Bowie was a big supporter of Springsteen in the early days, covering a number of his songs in the 1973/74 period. When Bruce does characters, they tend to inhabit his songs not his own skin. Not the personas or costumes that his peers wore. His palette is broad though, and the cliche of his songs being about cars and girls is wide of the mark. NB See footnote for disclaimer re Bruce’s lyrics
Those I enjoyed the least were the stentorian last gang in town schmaltz of “No Surrender” and the folky “Death To My Home”. But those that parts of the show that raced, swung, shimmied and reflected were just spine tingling. Coupled with those moments when Bruce combines the anthemic with the doubting and the questioning, there was much to love. One of Bruce’s primary skills is that he can do rabble rousing without insulting your intelligence.
First I had to make a leap. My ticket was originally one of pair bought by my friend Mark. Unfortunately Mark couldn’t make the gig and those seats up in the gods at the rear of the stadium reinforced the potential disconnect at stadium gigs if you aren’t in the right place. Looking down at expanses of space in the stadium’s blindspots or at the gaps around the arena, the intimacy was diluted. Bruce and the band were dots in the distance, the time lag between the sound and the stage screens reinforced the sense of dislocation. So as night fell I blocked out those spaces and imagined myself down in the bear pit.
Once I had transported myself, it all clicked into place a little better. The looming darkness enhanced the atmosphere and we were there in the moment.
I had deliberately avoided looking at setlists for The River tour. What I had been expecting was a start to finish version of the first Bruce album I had bought (which I wrote about here). This was the format that the band had adopted for the initial tour dates in the USA. We didn’t get this but we got a gig centred on the more upbeat songs from that album. I confess a slight disappointment to the change in approach. Looking objectively it was probably for the collective best. Those slower and quieter songs that were dropped (such as “Drive All Night”, “I Wanna Marry You”, “Wreck On The Highway”, “Point Black”) would probably not have translated quite as well in my distant location. The material that replaced them as the night wore on (“Badlands”, “Spirit In The Night”, “The Promised Land”) helped bridge the geographic gaps around the stadium. They paved the way for the night’s highlights.
“Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” was the usual party piece but the verse about the Big Man joining the band served to pay an emotional tribute to Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, the E-Street regulars who had passed away in recent years. “Tougher Than The Rest” was a gorgeous duet between Bruce and Patti, which was dedicated by Springsteen to Muhammad Ali, a perfect selection.
I’ve posted a fantastic version of “Freeze Out” from Dallas, shot a couple of years ago. This is with the larger band but it illustrates a number of things. It shows Bruce as a soul singer, corralling his band with the panache of any Stax favourite. It shows the power of a slow build, the introduction runs for a full two minutes and just ramps the expectation up and up. Max Weinberg and Gary W Tallent are clearly the band’s heartbeat. It shows how Bruce works a crowd. Yes it can be a little cheesy, but boy is it effective. How can anyone not want to go to this party?
My personal highlight was “American Skin (41 Shots)”. For those not familiar with the song, Bruce wrote it about the killing of Amadou Diallo by four NYPD officers in 1999 in the early hours of a February morning. Diallo was from West Africa and was a young educated ambitious black man who was seeking asylum in the USA. Diallo was unarmed when shot, reaching for what the cops alleged was a weapon but transpired to be a wallet. Despite firing 41 shots, the officers were found to have acted reasonably and cleared of all charges. A sense of huge injustice prevails increased by the sense of history repeating with the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the need for the Black Lives Matter activist group.
It is a classic piece of Springsteen storytelling, shining a light on the downtrodden and the oppressed in a way that few of his stature are willing or able to do. It forms a centrepiece for the live show, the momentum and drama building to an emotional high. It is a shame that it still has a resonance. A day when Bruce doesn’t feel the need to play it will be happy day indeed.
The request slots are great way of engaging the crowd. The audience arrive with handmade banners with their favourite songs written on them. Bruce goes walkabout and collects a bunch of them, which he flashes to the E-Street Band and crowd as the show goes on. The band immediately launch into the chosen number.
An electrifying “Candy’s Room” with Max Weinberg’s mesmerising hi-hat, led into “She’s The One” and act as a taking off point for the rest of the gig. A solo acoustic version of “I’ll Work For Your Love” was a tour first. Bruce also did cutesie with a young girl who had brought a sign saying that she had school tomorrow but was waiting on a sunny day. Bruce brought her up on stage, got her to sing the chorus and then cue the E-Street Band in.
The run for home was chock full of the classics – “Jungleland”, “Born To Run”, a version of “Dancing In The Dark” that dialled up the War On Drugs sound of recent years. He encored with a solo acoustic version of “Thunder Road”, very similar to the demo version that I blogged about here.
Three and half hours and it was done. For many it is the length of Bruce’s shows which are astounding. Bruce opened with “Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?”, the first time he played it on the tour. Heading over to Setlist.FM again, I make it that there have now been 97 songs played on the 47 dates of the River Tour. If you strip out the 20 tracks that form the album and the half dozen or so keepers for every night (“Born To Run”, “Thunder Road” etc), that leaves you with 67 songs that were effectively superfluous to the regular show that the band have nailed. The Wembley show featured 3 debut songs for the tour, the preceding show in Coventry had 5 new songs and the Glasgow show had a paltry 2 introduced songs. I may be alone in this but I would love to understand the mechanics behind this turnover of material. If anyone has any interview links, please let me know.
In summary, when most of his contemporaries produce identikit shows night after night, this is phenomenal. I’ll acknowledge that the lack of external theatrics and a spare lighting show and stage set lend themselves to this versatility but even so, what an endeavour this.
And we are back where we started. Bruce is unique, amongst the last of a literally dying breed. Enjoy him now whilst you still have the chance.
I mentioned earlier about Bruce’s songs not solely being about cars and girls. Well, this isn’t the case but there is a modicum of truth in it. We were driving back from the airport on Saturday and there was an excellent interview on the radio with Rachel Mariner (available here), who had worked as a defence lawyer for Bill Clinton and is now a playwright living in Cambridge. She sounded an incredibly grounded, articulate and interesting person. Anyway she was commenting as a Michael Jackson fan that the three common words in his repertoire were “Baby”, “Love” and “Time”. It got me thinking about Bruce and statistics (here he goes again with the numbers thing!).
Radio.com has done an assessment of Bruce’s most frequent words.
The exercise filters out the common or garden words we use to form sentences and includes variants of certain words as one i.e. “love” includes “loves”, “lovely”, “lover” etc.
So what do we get? Well it isn’t entirely surprising “night”, “up”, “down” (up and down exactly 384 times each), “dark”, “heart” all figure significantly as does “Mary”. Nice to see “whoa” in there too.
If anyone wants to explore more fully, they break them down by decade here. Go ahead – knock yourselves out.
The Wembley Setlist