Its twenty years since the first time I saw the Bruce Springtseen in concert. Wow, has it really been that long? Anyone who has ever had the honour of witnessing the Boss in a live environment, especially with the E Street Band, will tell you what a special experience it is. The band play with an intensity and passion undiminished by the passage of time. The shows routinely last three to four hours, and with such a large body of work to call upon, virtually every show is unique.
I always have to travel to the shows. To my knowledge Springsteen has only ever played in Wales once, and that was in 2008 when I was working in China. Travel has become part of the deal. It makes the experience more of a journey, an adventure, and most trips are not without incident. I see it as a test of character. I travelled all the way to Philadelphia to see him in 1999, only to find after I arrived that the gig was cancelled due to a hurricane. And on a concert trip to Rotterdam in 2002 I was robbed by some Dutch thugs then strip-searched by over-zealous French border police. Holland remains the only place I have ever been robbed. Thankfully. This latest excursion took me to Hyde Park, London, to see Bruce headline the Hard Rock Calling festival.
I planned the trip well in advance, travelling up from Cardiff on a national express coach the day before the show, which happened to be Friday 13th, something that didn’t fill me with confidence. The UK had just endured the wettest June on record, July wasn’t shaping up to be much better, and the city of London was on high alert and still frantically preparing for the 2012 Olympic Games. I had to purchase a ticket through getmein.com, so ended up paying £138 for a ticket with a face value of £60. I resented being stitched up in such a way but what can you do? The ticketing companies buy up all the tickets for major events then sell them on for extortionate prices, and if you want to attend the event, you have no choice but to pay. I thought I could recoup some of the money by skimping on accomodation, so I booked a couple of nights in a hostel on Bayswater Road, right next to Hyde Park. I thought it would make things more convenient. But little did I know at the time how damn big Hyde Park is. A quick glance at Wiki tells me that the park has a total area of 630 acres (1 acre = 4,040 squared meters). That’s bigger than Monaco.
When I rolled up for the gig on the Saturday afternoon the park was full of cyclists and people walking dogs, with no sign of either Bruce nor the other 80,000 audience members. I walked around for a while, bemused, as my mind flashed back to that ill-fated trip to Philadelphia, before I realized I was in the wrong section of park and had to walk for 40 minutes to find the gig. Doh!
The torrential downpour that was forecast didn’t quite happen, which was just as well as John Fogerty had already done Who’ll Stop the Rain in his support slot earlier in the day meaning Bruce was unlikely to do another rendition, thereby depriving him of his ‘go to’ open-air show rain song. There was no introduction. Instead, things kicked off in a rather low-key fashion when the Boss strolled on stage Roy Bittan close behind and broke into a piano version of Thunder Road, a tour premier. In fact, the Boss’s entry was so low-key that half the 80,000 crowd, including me, didn’t even notice. After that understated entry things got back on a more conventional track with the live staple Badlands going into the now-familiar coupling of We Take Care of our Own and Wrecking Ball from the latest album.
Not even the atrocious sound could put a damper on things. The crowd, mainly made up of Volvo-driving middle-aged rock dads and house wives, was a seething mass, with many unable to contain their emotion. It was a very polite seething mass, but the occasion brought out the beast in some. I stood next to a primary school teacher for a while, who, for some reason, flatly refused to let anyone pass her on her right side. Instead she would shout “Go that way!” and send them on an alternate route. It was fun seeing the expressions on people’s faces as they tried to negotiate their way through the crowd according to the woman’s rules. Another guy planted his feet in the mud and kept yelling things like, “I’ve been standing here for five hours and I’m not moving now!” to anyone who strayed inside his exclusion zone.
After a rather surreal opening, on the stage Bruce was hitting his stride. Some surprises followed, Spirit in the Night, Take ‘Em as They Come (as requested by a travelling fan from Spain who handed Bruce a sign boasting an impressive list of countries that particular obsessed fan had travelled this year following Bruce & the E Street Band), Empty Sky and Raise Your Hand perhaps while not unique performances, can all be considered tour rarities. For me the highlights of the show included an emotive Jack of All Trades and a stunning rendition of Ghost of Tom Joad, given a whole new dimension with some breathtaking guitar work by the first special guest of the night, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello.
As the show gathered momentum, The interplay between Bruce and Jake Clemons was interesting, but you got the impression Jake was just a stand-in playing a role. Not to take anything away from him, he just doesn’t have the same charisma as the sadly departed Big Man, and his sax playing is nowhere near as strong. At the climax of the show, with the chords of Dancing in the Dark still ringing through the air, Bruce announced another special guest, this one coming as a complete shock. Enter one of the most treasured jewels in the British crown… Sir Paul McCartney.
There were gasps of surprise and cheers of appreciation, followed by eager bursts of discussion and frowns. What would they sing?
My money was on Twist and Shout, and if I had put money on it I would have collected. But not until the legendary duo (with a combined age of 132) did a stirring version of the Beatles classic I Saw Her Standing There.
All the controversy came at the end of an epic performance when one of the greatest shows of Springsteen’s long career was cut short when the festival organizers turned off the sound in order to comply with a noise curfew imposed by the local council. The area around Hyde Park is very upmarket, and apparently residents complain if people continue having a good time after 10.30 pm. This forced conclusion irritated the hell out of the Volvo crowd, and Miami Steve Van Zandt (who took to Twitter the next day to declare the UK a ‘police state’) and confused poor Bruce, who was left to mouth his ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’s’ into a silent microphone
Steve Van Zandt later let slip that the E Street Band were set to play at least one more song. Sources suggest this was going to be Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, which would make sense as it has been played at every other show on the tour, but Bruce seemed to be in one of those moods where he wanted to play all night. He was enjoying himself up there, and after that proposed classic cut from Born to Run, which has closed so many recent shows, anything could have happened. We will never know. Very embarrassing indeed for the city of London, and though the fade-out left a bad taste in the mouth, nothing could detract from a truly epic performance.
Bruce got the last word a couple of nights later in Dublin, when he began a show at the very end of Twist and Shout with the words, “Before we were so rudely interrupted…” He also performed a tongue-in-cheek I Fought the Law, complete with a theatrical appearance by someone wearing a British bobby uniform.
Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night…
Knowing what suckers Boss fans are for set lists, here it is in full:
Thunder Road (acoustic)
We Take care of Our Own
Death to my Hometown
My City of Ruins
Spirit in the Night
The Promised Land
Take Em As They Come
Jack of all Trades
Because the Night
Working on the Highway
Shackled and Drawn
Waitin on a Sunny Day
Raise Your Hand
Ghost of Tom Joad
Land of Hope & Dreams
We Are Alive
Born in the USA
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
(With Paul McCartney):
I Saw Her Standing There
Twist & Shout