Words: Justin Hulford
Springsteen is in that short list of artists that can headline, and fill, stadiums across the world. Part of this is due to his longevity that is coupled with a varied back catalogue. Part of it is built on the massively massive Born In The USA, one of eleven UK number one albums and one that spawned seven singles from ten tracks. But another part is due to the value for money he offers – tickets aren’t cheap but you normally get thirty or so songs delivered right on the money.
I don’t have any albums of his, and whilst I would be happy to hear him come on the radio I probably wouldn’t spin an album at home. But the live performances I’ve managed to see over the years mean a live show is something to really look forward. So let’s try two…
For the first of my two shows I got into Dublin the morning of the day before. It’s a great city with most of the sights quite close and there were loads of signs that he was in town – plenty of people had no doubt been at his previous show at Croke Park on the 27th. It’s quite a feat to sell out a stadium that takes over eighty thousand two shows in a row, but he’d managed it.
Croke is a short walk north of the centre and in my seat at about half way I was bathed in amazing early evening sun, anticipating a prompt start. This place has a tight curfew so I guessed he’d be on close to ticket time to squeeze in as much as possible. But tonight was especially early, just a few minutes after the ticket time of seven o’clock.
So how do you kick off a show like this, with a crowd bubbling away in readiness? Of course, you start with a solo piano led version of a song from your second album from 1973! I am sure that he throws in these unusual numbers as a crowd gauge – if they go wild then he knows anything goes, if they clap in appreciation then he might need a few hits to bring into play. But when you have a few hundred tracks to call upon, not to mention numerous covers, there are plenty of options.
This first track was “Incident on 57th Street”, a tour debut. His sets are varied endlessly and obsessive fans predict, guess, record, and speculate on what will come show by show so such stats end up being important for some. It was well received and led to a flow of songs. This set was immediately different to the one two nights before and the crowd was well engaged if not overwhelmed. That’s nothing to do with what was happening on stage but more to do with the tracks selected, perhaps a slight nod to the full-on fanatics. Despite what the latter might think, the bulk of the crowd were waiting.
He dropped in a couple of crackers along the way, energy flowing from all corners of the stage and there was a big early peak with “The River.” This tour is named for that song and whilst he was playing that double album in full indoors in the US he has switched to selecting fewer songs in the stadia. This night actually had more from the album than many shows thus far with ten. The title track, with its haunting harmonica start, was the first wild reaction.
“Waitin’ On A Sunny Day” was probably the next real pick-up for all and was the gateway to the crescendo finish. He normally gets someone to sing the chorus and ideally that person will be under twelve – tonight saw a local boy who actually had a half decent voice and even counted the band in! Then that finish was comprised of nine songs that just kept coming and had the whole place on its feet. It does help if the first features some local singer called Bono who came out to assist with “Because The Night”.
There was then a real rear stack with “The Rising” appropriate in the city commemorating one hundred years since their own rising, followed by the mega hits – “Badlands”, “Born In The USA”, “Born To Run” and “Dancing In The Dark.” The latter sees a person up on stage to dance with him, a la the Courtney Cox video. Tonight saw three from the crowd, one to dance with sax maestro Jake Clemons, another with Steve Van Zandt, and the third with Springsteen himself. Initially she was overwhelmed by the whole thing but in the end didn’t want to leave!
Then came “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”, a song that he uses to pay tribute to fallen band members. I saw that used on the tour just after Clarence Clemons had died and it was emotional then. Somehow, a few years later, it feels even more poignant.
The last full band song was one of the covers he likes to close with, “Shout”. The band shuffled off at the end and I spied his guitar tech coming out with an acoustic guitar. This meant something special to close and was the ideal tonic to all that high energy. He strapped on the harmonica and delivered a great version of “Thunder Road”, a song that really belies its forty one years.
Along the way he handed a harmonica to one fan, picked a few songs from crowd requests that fans near the front had written on cardboard, and spent as much time in physical contact with the crowd via the many walkways as he did centre stage. He referenced his Irish heritage, allowed his band to share the attention (including Nils Lofgren doing two solos whilst gyrating madly on one leg) and left the Croke Park crowd purring.
It was closer to home a few days later and off to Glasgow. Unusually the weather was warm and the sky clear, and we had a hotel in the city. A slow bus drive out saw the area busy with the promoter doing everything he could to get people there for the six thirty ticket time. It was way off full when showtime came.
And what a different show it was! He opened at the even earlier time of quarter to seven and kicked off with an unusual opener, the crowd pleasing “Waiting On A Sunny Day”, tonight’s guest singer a little less on it than Dublin but still very enthusiastic. And then he just fired on from there.
It was a superb show that simply flashed by, and is hard to comment on without getting into all sorts of nerd facts about songs. But there were another thirty four to feast on with a lot of changes, particularly in the front and middle sections of the show.
The main man also seemed in a generous mood, giving away three harmonicas at different points and I think one girl might have missed a chance. During “Dancing In The Dark” he had a woman up first, saying she’d waited forty years to dance with him, before a younger girl came up and was handed an acoustic guitar to play, alongside Bruce. When she was done she handed it back to the guitar tech and I wonder what might have happened if she had walked back to her place and tried to hand Bruce the guitar instead – I’ve seen him give one away before…
This show was probably better than Dublin. It wasn’t really the songs he chose, more the crowd. They seemed more engaged with the songs and that was probably part because they were more into his music, and part because they were a Scottish crowd, one I have only seen rivalled by a German metal crowd.
Amongst a host of great songs the tour debut of “American Skin” was a moody stand out but it was left to a very similar crescendo end to really fire up Hampden. The whole place bounced along to the best known tracks and I think he could have gone on another hour if he had been able. Through the rest he grabbed more of those request cards, fired in tracks from a host of albums, including a good number again from The River, and seemed to pitch the show just right for the Glasgow crowd. As the band walked off at the end of the show stoppers he returned again, this time to do “This Hard Land”, “Thunder Road” having already had the full band treatment. It was solid, yearning stuff to close out a high energy set and respectfully appreciated by the crowd that moments before had been baying for more.
Two shows, two cities, not enough! He isn’t getting any younger so if you love music I would recommend getting along next time round to see a master at work.