Who: Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band
What: The River Tour 2016
Where: Wembley Stadium, London
When: 5th June 2016
My track record with the music of Bruce Springsteen has been a little chequered. I discovered his music early in his career and love the first four albums – “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.”, “The Wild, The Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle”, “Born to Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of the Town”. “The River” was an interesting album. Bruce felt it needed to be a double record. Listening to it in Yorkshire in England, I always felt it would have been better as a single album. Loved “Point Blank” but couldn’t get excited about what Mr Springsteen refers to as his “bar-room songs” especially pieces of fluff like “Crush on You”. But there was some real meat in there and I remember listening to that album a lot.
Then along came “Nebraska” which was a real departure and whilst the song-writing was a little same-y in places, the record was different enough to spend a long time on my turntable.
And then I hit a problem, next up to bat was “Born in the U.S.A.”. Now I’m still not sure whether this was the music snob in me (by now, the rest of the world had caught up on Broooce) or just a reflection of how much I disliked the 1980s keyboards, drums and programming but this album really irked me. Some of his songwriting was just as good (who didn’t like “Dancing in the Dark”) but some seemed like re-treads of songs he had written before and some was just not, in my view, very good at all. After that “Tunnel in Love” had some good moments but most of the rest of his career has left me cold. Bruce & I were a little like his relationship with that character in “Point Blank”:
“Well I saw you last night down on the avenue
Your face was in the shadows but I knew that it was you
You were standin’ in the doorway out of the rain
You didn’t answer when I called out your name”
(Lyrics by Bruce Springsteen (c) 1980)
We were separated for a long time but just when I was about to make the divorce permanent and take my old discs to the second-hand store, Bruce started to take a new interest in his back catalogue. There was “Tracks” and “The Promise” (lots of exciting stuff from the “Darkness…” period) and finally and most recently “The Ties That Bind” which gave us a long look at what “The River” might have looked like if it had been that aforementioned single record.
And then Springsteen announced “The River Tour 2016” where he would play the whole of the double album in its entirety…. and I was offered tickets. And I bit. I wouldn’t have gone if it was going to be a regular Bruce Springsteen tour or to hear him promoting a new album but even though I’m no great fan of nostalgia, I decided that hearing him play the whole of that 1980 album was too good a chance to miss.
But somewhere between that decision and the 5th of June something went awry. After opening the tour in the States with exactly the kind of set list he had described in a pre-tour interview with Rolling Stone, the contents of the show began to change until the idea of a “The River-in-its-entirety” show was left behind. Maybe it would be re-instated for England’s capital city.
Hope springs eternal! When Bruce came out to play piano to tumultuous applause and played “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street” unaccompanied, this looked like it might be my show after all. Different than I expected but perhaps just as good. On the early albums one of the things that I really liked was the way the Sancious / Bittan piano sound and Danny Federici’s keyboards were pushed to the fore and created a unique sound. In this first performance, even without Roy Bittan on stage there were echoes of this.
But then when the full band took the stage for “Seeds” which debuted on the Live box set which followed “Born in the USA”, the sound where I was sat became a mess of muddiness. It took me a full two minutes to figure out what the song was – and this was the way that the sound was going to be for the next few numbers. Having Miami Steve and Nils and the Boss himself on guitars creates a real party atmosphere for those who know and love this kind of show but for those who are seeking to figure out the sounds in the barn that is the new-ish Wembley Stadium, it is not so good. I’d figured how long this show was likely to be and really didn’t want to stand on the field but now I began to reflect that maybe the sound would have been better down there.
After a similarly undistinguished “Johnny 99” and “Wrecking Ball”, the band began to pick up that idea of a “The River” set and I began to be optimistic again. “The Ties That Bind” was good, “Sherry Darling” was better still. Then came “Hungry Heart” which was just an audience singalong and sounded horrible. Just as significantly, it was out-of-place from its track-listing position on the album so I began to see whatever was going on, on stage, it wasn’t what I was hoping for. Then came “No Surrender” from the “Born in the USA” album which was one of the better tracks from that album and then a real hidden gem in “Be True” which in most artists’ careers would be a masterpiece but in Springsteen’s is a mere footnote which just crept out initially as a b-side.
The upsurge of aural quality continued with a fine “Candy’s Room” and then dipped slightly with “She’s the One”. But Springsteen and Jake Clemons (nephew of the original E-Street saxophonist, Clarence) were whipping up a storm up and down the walkways at the front of the stage and the audience were going crazy.
Next came, I think, “My City of Ruins” but the sound and vocals (particularly) were hard to distinguish. Perhaps this was my prejudice against the newer songs, but from my vantage point, these were the ones that were proving harder to figure.
I was glad for some acoustic relief after that and “I’ll Work For Your Love” provided it. Springsteen cuts a bizarre figure these days, caught somewhere between a blue-collar worker and a multi-millionaire rocker but it is easy to imagine that if you got to know him, he would be your friend. It is easy to see why there is an audience, at the front of the stage, full of cardboard signs held by people who believe that he will respond to their song requests. You wouldn’t get this at a Bob Dylan concert.
“Spirit in the Night” was given a gospel edge at the opening and closing and then it was back to the headline album for two of those bar-room songs, “Out in the Street” (nothing to commend here) and “You Can Look, But You Better Not Touch” (the finest version of which is in the “Ties That Bind” box set).
That muddy sound pervaded the next part of the set. “Promised Land”, “Darlington County” and “American Skin” were in there somewhere but “The River” (the title track of the album) was the only one of this section likely to challenge for best performance of the night. It was also notable for being the last song from that album to be performed on the night. By my reckoning that makes for approximately 6 of a possible 20. By comparison, 5 of the 8 songs from “Born to Run” found a part in the set. Anyone for “The Born to Run Tour 2016”?
Sarcasm aside, I want to emphasise that this was a good show, it just wasn’t my show. Springsteen’s duet with his wife, Patti Scialfa on “Tougher Than the Rest” was very affecting. His inter-action with the audience on “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” and “Dancing in the Dark” could reduce you to tears. It was like being invited to a huge party. It just wasn’t my party.
The four songs from “Born to Run” which made into the encores sounded just like they should have done – especially Bittan’s piano on “Jungleland”. And it would be a hard man who wasn’t moved by the memorial to Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”.
There were some peculiar sights. Really, really bad dancing from old men on the field. One guy seemed to be trying to run a marathon in time to the music. A 12-year old girl getting really excited about the fact that “the night belongs to lust” on “Because the Night”.
Just as the show began with a great acoustic moment so it ended, with a majestic “Thunder Road” with Springsteen alone on the piano. The tickets may have been expensive for the average punter but Bruce couldn’t have worked harder to give them value for money.
Many of the problems with the show were caused by a venue which is built like a concrete jungle and feeds the whole (huge) crowd into a walk way that heads to the tube station whether they want to travel by the underground or not. I suspect that many of my grumbles about the sound quality were caused by the unforgiving architecture too. I won’t be back here for a concert anytime soon.
I’m not even going to mention the drunk guy and his girlfriend who spent the whole show talking and then kicked me in the back on one of his way too many trips to the bar and then spilled beer on the row in front of him on his return and refused to apologise. This was the minutiae of a music evening. A good show, not a great show. A Bruce Springsteen “Hits” show but not a “The River” show. A great party but not my party.