It took me quite a while to fully appreciate the genius of Bruce Springsteen. For quite some time I bought into the myth that his music is 'rock music for those who don't like rock music', but when I finally began to listen to him properly I realised that this was, of course, absolute rubbish. Springsteen will always be known for his lyric-writing, which often depicts realistic portrays of blue collar working America. As bleak as they are uplifting, Springsteen's lyrics are probably some of the best ever written. Lots of attention is often given to his lyrics, and many seem to forget that he can write an extremely catchy and memorable tune too. Without great music to back them, his lyrics would not hit half as hard as they do, and Springsteen has been writing great and memorable songs since his 1973 debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.. I finally realised my love for all things Springsteen about three years ago, but missed out on his UK shows at that time due to the fact I was finishing my degree. When I saw this current run of UK shows announced a few months back, I knew I had to go this time. Getting tickets was not easy, even though I was at the computer ready for 9am the day they went on sale, but I managed to get through to the site after a few attempts and bagged a seat at London's Wembley Stadium. I had been to Wembley Stadium twice before, but both of those trips were for football. I had never seen a band in the stadium before, and that is something that has to be done at least once! In fact, my only stadium gig previously was Meat Loaf at Plymouth's Home Park back in 2008 (I think), and this was on a whole other level indeed! This current tour from Springsteen and the best backing band in the business, the E Street Band, is billed as The River Tour. I am not sure why his 1980 double album The River is getting lots of recognition at the moment, as it is not a special anniversary for the album this year, but I suppose it is a good opportunity to do a nostalgia-type tour while he does not have a new album to promote. The American leg of the tour featured the whole album played in full every night, but he has chosen not to do this for the European leg which I think was actually better. The River has plenty of good songs on it, and some were featured in the set, but there is also quite a bit of filler to be found. Given Springsteen's want for playing long shows, the stadium opened at 4pm with the show due to start at 6pm. He came on about 20 minutes late in the end, but this is no matter given the sheer quality of the show that was to follow.
The 33-song three and a half hour set started in a rather laid-back fashion. Springsteen took to the stage by himself, sat behind the piano, and treated us to a version of Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street? from his debut album. This gentle intro was a stark contrast to the bombast that was to follow and, when the E Street Band was brought to the stage, two chugging blues rockers in the form of non-album track Seeds and Johnny 99 followed. Johnny 99 in particular was an early highlight, and saw Nils Lofgren (guitar/lap steel/vocals) waltzing around the stage creating bluesy licks with his portable lap steel. The dropping of the complete performance of The River brought Springsteen's trademark unpredictability back. You can never quite predict what songs will be played at one of his shows, and this one was no exception. The mixture of classics and rarities (some requests from the crowd - another Springsteen tradition) made for a very varied evening of music. There was a three-song suite from The River early on however, and the highlight of this was the AOR-tinged Sherry Darling which has one of the best choruses in his back catalogue. The first request, No Surrender, was the first song to really get people on their feet and the band delivered a rousing version. Steven Van Zandt (guitar/vocals) seemed to really enjoy this, and often joined Springsteen at the microphone to belt out the lyrics. I want to take a little bit of time here to raise something that did annoy me slightly about the show, although thankfully did not dampen my enjoyment too much. The set up included three big screens, one behind the band on the stage and one either side of the stage. These two at the side almost exclusively showed Springsteen throughout, while the one at the back was more varied, showing all the band members and shots of the crowd. Due to my position high up in the gods, it was hard to see this screen. This meant that the vast majority of video footage I saw was just of Springsteen. I would have liked to have seen more of the other members of the band, as they are just as important to the delivery of the show and set as Springsteen. I do not want to be negative, as this was one of the best gigs I have ever seen, but this practical change would have definitely improved things for me.
Candy's Room was another request, and Roy Bittan's (keyboards) distinctive piano intro over Max Weinberg's (drums) fast hi-hat beat made for another highlight. A funny moment came with another request, the newer I'll Work for Your Love, which Springsteen performed acoustically, and seemed to have half-forgotten initially. He tried it in a couple of different keys, before finally running through it to huge cheers from the crowd. It is moments like this that make Springsteen shows stand out. Another couple from The River, Out in the Streets and You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch) brought some much-needed energy back to the set after a few quieter numbers, and saw plenty of crowd interaction and singing. Throughout the evening, Springsteen made plenty of adventures into the crowd, collection sign requests and shaking hands with the fans. The song that was possibly the best of the main set was a spine-tingling and elongated rendition of American Skin (41 Shots), and song that finally found a home on 2014's High Hopes. The murky atmosphere and cutting lyrics were enjoyed by the whole crowd, and the huge cheer after it finished showed how popular it was. Springsteen even paid tribute to Mohamed Ali with Tougher Than the Rest, which he sung as a duet with wife and band member Patti Scialfa (vocals/guitar/percussion). The main 26-song set came to and end with a rousing performance of Badlands which, if Wembley had a roof, would have definitely have taken it off! There was plenty more to come yet however, including one final request - my personal favourite Springsteen song (and one of the greatest songs ever written in my opinion) Jungleland. This was definitely the highlight of the whole evening for me. From Soozie Tyrell's (guitar/violin/percussion/vocals) violin intro, to Bittan's final piano flourishes, the song was a masterpiece. The real highlight though was Jake Clemons' (saxophone/percussion/vocals) lengthy saxophone solo. He played plenty of excellent solos throughout the show, but this was the best of the bunch. This encore section also included some of Springsteen's biggest hits including Born to Run and Dancing in the Dark, and all came an end with a spectacular version of Bobby Jean. As the E Street Band trouped off to huge applause, the evening started as it began: acoustically. Springsteen, armed with a guitar and a harmonica, played a stripped back version of Thunder Road which was the icing on the cake of a fantastic evening of live music. The setlist was:
Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?
The Ties That Bind
She's the One
My City of Ruins
I'll Work for Your Love
Spirit in the Night
Out in the Street
You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
Death to my Hometown
American Skin (41 Shots)
The Promised Land
Waitin' on a Sunny Day
Tougher Than the Rest
Because the Night [Patti Smith Group cover]
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Shout [The Isley Brothers cover]
During the rather long and slow trudge out of Wembley and back to the tube station with thousands and thousands of other people, I realised how fantastic this show really was. So many great songs were featured from an songwriter and performer who is still at the top of his game four decades after first bursting onto the scene. There is no doubt that this was one of the greatest shows I have ever seen, and maybe even the absolute best. I hope I get the opportunity to see him live again one day but, if I do not (tickets are not easy to get!), I will have had at least one opportunity to do so.