Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – Manchester, England June 22
THE POWER AND THE STORY
Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band at Etihad Stadium, June 22
What’s always made Bruce Springsteen such a uniquely compelling figure is how he completely understands that rock’n’roll can be so powerful and glorious that it literally changes lives, just like it has his. Yet, at the very same time, it’s utterly silly, simple fun. How else could a closing medley of Twist And Shout/Louie Louie (a notion that would normally have any right-thinking person shivering to the depths of their soul) so happily co-exist with eloquent examinations of the state of the world like The River? The two ideas aren’t contradictory, whatever some tired old pundits and sour musos might contend. As in the blues/gospel/soul tradition which increasingly influences his work, Saturday night and Sunday morning are simply two sides of the same coin for Bruce.
For the proof, all you have to do is to experience one of his shows, when 3 and half hours as he played in Manchester this weekend, can pass in a blur of adrenaline-pumping excitement, poignancy (can any artist ever have been quite so present in someone else’s set whilst not actually being there as the late and sadly-missed “Big Man” Clarence Clemons?) and sheer exhilarating exuberance, plus more than a little deliberate mugging and goofiness. There really is like no other live act like it anywhere and the 30-song strong Manchester show was up there with his best. Hey, he even managed to get the day’s torrential rain to stop for most of the show, at least until he tempted fate by playing Waiting On A Sunny Day.
Tearing into tried and tested no-holds barred openers Badlands (shame no-one tipped him off to retitle it Eastlands for the occasion) and No Surrender, the set began to hit its stride properly with a trio of songs – We Take Care Of Our Own, Wrecking Ball and Death To My Hometown – from Bruce’s latest, profoundly pissed-off-at-the-state-the-world album. It’s telling that, unlike so many artists of his vintage, people genuinely want to hear the new stuff live and not just the old favourites. In this case, they gave a new context to a “hello and goodbye” song like My City Of Ruins, originally part of The Rising, Bruce’s response to 9/11 and its aftermath.
The absence of the beloved “Big Man” has at least allowed Springsteen to reconsider the use of horns live, with some of Southside Johnny’s horn section drafted in for live duties, along with Clarence’s nephew Jake on sax. Although he’ll never enjoy the same semi-mythological fan-status as Clarence, Jake proved a terrific team player and is obviously already well-loved, even amongst the sort of devotees who could excitedly recount that the night’s intro to Prove It All Night was “the 1978 version”. Exceptionally soulful versions of Spirit In The Night and The E Street Shuffle especially benefitted from the horns.
With a quietly devastating Jack Of All Trades, Springsteen once again directly confronted the greed and corporate terrorism that is ravaging the so-called developed economies. Near me, there was spontaneous cheering for the straightforward lines “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight.” Take that, Robert Peston!
But the song does finish by observing “we’ll be alright” and it was the signal for another breakout of full-bore rocking, embracing the likes of Two Hearts and Darlington County before a stirring Shackled And Drawn and Waiting On A Sunny Day (a song, like a few in Bruce’s repertoire, that works much better live than on record) delivered a by-now delirious crowd to an unexpected interlude with a couple of song requests, Save My Love and The Promise, the latter a solo piano version.
The home run saw one of Bruce’s best-ever songs The River, perfectly followed by The Rising, the fecklessly rocking Out In The Street and a mesmerising Land of Hope and Dreams.
But there was still the better part of an hour to go, with any remaining stops not only pulled out but punted into the darkening night as a considered We Are Alive bled into an ecstasy-inducing run of Thunder Road, Born to Run, Bobby Jean, Cadillac Ranch and Dancing in the Dark. As the opening chords of Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out rang out, the tense excitement was palpable in the night air. This was, after all, the song that, along with that iconic Born To Run image, cemented the Clarence Clemons legend in the E-Street Band mythos. As the line “When the Big Man joined the band” came up, the band momentarily fell silent and images of Clarence appeared on the screen. Sort of corny but actually rather lovely and heartfelt. Completely right, in fact, and I’m welling up just writing about it. A seriously celebratory, wonderfully silly Twist and Shout was pretty much the only place to go after that.
I’m old enough to have seen hundreds, nay thousands, of live performances. Many have been great, a lot have been educational (in that they taught me a bloody lesson!) but none have ever been so consistently joyous and life-affirming as the shows by Bruce Springsteen and The E-Street Band. Long may they run.