March 19, 2013 by brettdgale
I have seen the future of Rock and Roll. Or perhaps I’ve seen its past. Or maybe last night I simply saw my past.
It is three days shy of 28 years since I missed Bruce Springsteen in Sydney in 1985. It’s hard to explain the disappointment in the heart of a young teenage rock fan at not having enough cash to pay the scalpers’ price and forlornly walking away from the Entertainment Centre with noting more than a concert program and a Born in the USA T-shirt. If I was the type to have a bucket list seeing Bruce Springsteen live in concert would have been on it. But, as years rolled by and Springsteen failed to return to Oz I began despairing to the point that I’d never see Bruce or the E Street band live.
Thankfully, Massachusetts came to my rescue as it has so many times, with 2 August 2003 at Gillette Stadium doing the deed.
And now he’s down under again, and I’m finally living my hometown dream. Wallowing in the music of my youth, living the reality that for most people there comes a point in life at which we get trapped into the music and musical styles of our formative years. At a certain point we are willing to explore what came before (hence the ongoing love of each new generation for The Beatles) but we become less and less likely to explore the music that comes after we graduate from university and get a steady job. And virtually no one becomes open to new music after the age of 30. Thus is my ongoing love of Bruce Springsteen a part of my life in stasis, I grew up with him and in a way I still am.
Of course, there have been literally millions of words written about Springsteen over the years. Solid biographies, newspapers and magazine articles (including Jon Landau’s famous review), fanzines, and blogs. Millions of words of pyscho-babble, social critique, over wrought, over-hyped paeans to working class greatness and sundry other forms of bullshit have been written about “The Boss”. I’ve no doubt that this review will only add to the verbiage in the same way.
But here’s the thing, something about Springsteen almost compels such writing. The man is in fact as big as the myth – from the marathon concerts to the epic storytelling.
This is a literary blog and the reason I like Springsteen is that he is an extraordinarily literary songwriter. As Marc Dolan points out in his compelling and comprehensive recent biography of Springsteen (Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock and Roll) it was said of Ronald Reagan’s political genius that he “made sense of the world narratively”. The same applies equally to Springsteen. He has a talent for interpreting people’s experiences back to them.
Most songwriters want their songs to tell stories. But Springsteen’s songs, from his rousing anthems to his deeply haunting dirges, manage to simultaneously capture both straight forward chronicles and complex themes. Whether dealing with very specific current issues in a song like American Skin (41 shots) or generalized themes of youth alienation in a song as timeless as Thunder Road, Springsteen has a knack of getting the mood and moment just right. What boy from a town like Fairfield doesn’t feel the absolute emotional call of the words “it’s a town for losers, I’m pulling out of here to win”? And, with its’ Shakespearean overtones, Jungleland may not just be just Springsteen’s greatest song but one of the most literary songs of all time.
Springsteen is the great chronicler of American life and struggle, the troubadour of American decline and hardship. Springsteen once declared of himself “I’ve spent most of my creative life measuring the distance between the American promise and American reality”, and in many respects Springsteen is telling a specifically American tale. But it’s an American tale with a universal resonance, Youngstown? try Sheffield in England or Whyalla down under.
This ability to tap into a collective emotional knowledge of the world goes someway to accounting for the worldwide adulation of Springsteen. Yet, just as important as Springsteen as storyteller, is Springsteen as rock star, as concert performer.
A Springsteen concert is something to behold. As Marc Dolan makes clear, from the mid 70’s on Springsteen made an explicit pact with his audience that he would treat every show with them as if it was his last and perform accordingly. In Helsinki last year Springsteen played a concert lasting 4 hours and 6 minutes. The average length of his shows in the 70’s was 3 hours or more, the average length of shows on the Wrecking Ball tour is 3 hours or more. Except for this show in Sydney which runs for some 2 hours and 45 minutes – perhaps sending a message to Sydneysiders that you have to get there on time (the stadium is literally less than a third full for the advertised showtime). Sydney wankers get your act together for the rest of the week unless you want to shortchange yourselves!
Dolan illustrates this audience/entertainer pact by the startling observation that on 1978’s tour Springsteen gave 112 concerts featuring 74 different songs. As a contrast, during the same 7 months, on Black Sabbath’s 10th Anniversary tour through Europe and America over the course of 93 shows they played the same 17 songs over and over, every night.
I know who I’d rather see live.
So last night, from the opening fiddle strains and typically Bruce mumbled intro of the Irish jig like American Land as an homage to St Patricks Day, straight into Prove It All Night and the sign suggestion Adam Raised a Cain the crowd knew it was in for another good night. The set was hot and tight, traversing works dating back to the earliest Bruce with Spirit in the Night through to the Wrecking Ball tracks for which the tour was named.
In a world of MP3s, with every person their own dj, with Spotify generated playlists, and the ability to produce singles on your bedroom computer, Springsteen still retains the ultimate skill of the musical storyteller, the ability to put together a coherent thematic album. Wrecking Ball is a loud angry reaction to the GFC and the waste of human capital and dignity it engendered. On this night though, only three songs from the album are played (the title track, Shackled and Drawn and Death to My Hometown ) and each with a joyous inflexion and lightness of touch that somehow enhances and belies the angry anti-banker messages at their core.
Speaking of bankers, as I drove into the carpark I was followed by a BMW 7 series with a typical fat cat Sydney spiv at the wheel (probably an investment banker methinks). I wonder whether he’s like those right wing politicians who are Springsteen fans who come for the music without hearing the lyrics, but then I realise there’s a footy match on at the stadium next door and he’s probably there to cheer on the Rabbitohs.
In this show, Springsteen and his band are full of a joi de vivre and energy so infectious that you truly wish you will have the same attitude to life when you are 63. Of course this is not the E-street Band as we know. It’s both larger and lesser.
We are missing some old favorites of course. And during a heavily gospel inspired My City of Ruins during his roll call of the band goose bumps are raised as Bruce pays tribute to the departed Dan Federici and Clarence Clemons.
It takes a large horn section to replace Clarence Clemons but in doing so this new revamped version of the E street band has a deeper and more multi-layered sound than we’ve heard before. The New Orleans inspired second line (and of all things a trombone solo) during the performance of Pay Me My Money Down is And Jake Clemons shows a sublime handling of the sax in his uncle’s stead.
And then there is the missing Steve van Zandt, but when Tom Morello takes lead guitar and shared vocals on an amazingly amped up version of The Ghost of Tom Joad you are in the presence of greatness.
There are many highlights of this show:
The trio of Youngstown, Candy’s Room and She’s The One are delivered as pure Rock and Roll.
Crowd participation and crowd surfing during Hungry Heart.
The second ever live performance of High Hopes.
The emergence of long repressed feelings as the searchlights stab out in eerie patterns as The Rising is underway. Whilst by and large novelists have struggled and still do, with how to render the events of September 11 in artistic form, Springsteen’s The Rising beautifully captured the tumultuous emotions, the visceral reactions of shock, emptiness, loneliness, and yet, the warming sense of community resulting from that horrific day and its aftermath. On this night it is fantastic.
The only rough note on the night comes in the sing along for Waiting on a Sunny Day – with a few missed notes and false starts. But it’s more than made up for by bringing a ten year old girl up on stage to sing a few verses of the chorus.
The main set finished with a truly blistering rendition of Badlands which had the entire crowd on their feet fists in the air and fingers pointing. Although at this point a typical arena concert occurrence happened around me. The old guy sitting in the row behind (who had neither, moved or clapped all night) suddenly got into an argument with the eager young (young being relative at a Springsteen concert) beaver in my row who was busily bopping and weaving on his feet all night. Ahh! rock and roll.
Then to the house lights on full encores, a fairly standard set of the classics we all want and love and all the better for that.
As the show closes out with Tenth Avenue Freeze Out one of the most self reverential of Springsteen’s earliest songs the crowd is in anticipation. They know this is the big man’s song and suddenly Bruce says “this is the important bit” the line comes “When the change was made uptown and the big man joined the band” The band freezes an homage to Clemons appears on the big screens and there are tears in the corners of my eyes. What other artist other than one truly at one with his audience and longtime fan base would put a one minute video eulogy in the middle of his rollicking encore set?
It was a damn good old fashioned Rock and Roll show. Who could ask for more? As you exit a Springsteen concert one thing you know for sure – It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.
Setlist: American Land, Prove It All Night, Adam Raised a Cain, Wrecking Ball, Death to My Hometown, Hungry Heart, My City of Ruins, Spirit in the Night, High Hopes, Youngstown Candy’s Room, She’s the One, Pay Me My Money Down, Shackled and Drawn, Waiting on a Sunny Day, The Rising, The Ghost of Tom Joad, Badlands, Thunder Road, Born to Run, Seven Nights to Rock, Dancing in the Dark, Tenth Avenue Freeze Out.