Veteran of however many festivals that I am, I should have known better how to prepare for an open-air concert. Not by walking for miles around an unfamiliar city first, certainly; not by soaking my already limited waterproofing in a lunchtime downpour it never had the chance to recover from. I should have got there early enough to bag both a bottle of water and a place far enough forward to take full advantage of the atmosphere. But with a lack of proper planning the latter takes priority, and at least I packed my “festival bladder”. How jealous I was of the older couple by us, who’d brought a very civilised meal of cheese and crackers, some mats to sit on and binoculars and, at the bottom of their rucksacks, a plastic water bottle filled with red wine and two small tumblers.
There’s something to be said for the seeming renaissance of cool that Bruce Springsteen has undergone in recent years, with bright young things such as the Gaslight Anthem and the Fucking Killers citing him as an influence and openly aping his style. That both played the Oxegen Festival, just down the road from the Dublin venue, that same weekend was a fact surely not lost on any local lazy music hacks. Among the tens of thousands who crowded into the RDS Simmonscourt over two nights or Hampden Park yesterday were those of our parents’ generation who had grown along with the E-Street Band – although not always so gracefully. There were those our age, whether we had discovered the music in earnest through our parents or providence or drank it in with the words of our modern-day idols. And then there was the next generation, little kids down the front who knew just enough to sing along when Springsteen pushed the microphone towards them.
We stood and waited for the better part of an hour and a half in glorious sunshine before, just around the showtime noted on our tickets, it started to pour. Umbrellas shot up, and only the implication from the loudspeaker that the concert wouldn’t begin until they disappeared was enough to get them down.
Then the sound of an accordion, Nils Lofgren, a familiar tune it took me a minute or so to place. The band arrived onstage to the sound of forty thousand Irish voices raised to “Fields of Athenry”, and I caught myself mischievously wondering about the likelihood of it opening Glasgow.
With a mock-puzzled, accusatory look to the heavens, Springsteen launched into a defiant “No Surrender” – an opener perfectly pitched to get damp fists punching the air and hooded heads nodding. And there was no slowdown from there – for over three hours the band delivered until the rain was chased away.
Even after decades on the road, Springsteen prides himself on varying the setlist even from night to night. Billed as the Working on a Dream tour, there were of course the obligatory new songs: here, frontier tale “Outlaw Pete” got a particularly rapturous reception, complete with sweeping prairie video backdrop and a dramatic final shot of Springsteen’s cast-aside cowboy hat. But for the most part, the show consisted of delightful surprise after delightful surprise – at no point more so than the “requests” portion of the evening when Springsteen collected banners from the crowd with which to build some of the setlist.
Well, except possibly a haunting performance of “American Skin (41 Shots)” that sent shivers down my spine as it began to grow dark.
“We’re going to build a house!” he yells, like some half-posessed southern preacher wired on the music. “We’re going to take all the fear that’s out there, and build a house of LOVE! We’re going to take all the sadness, and build a house of JOY!” It’s the same speech he gives every night, and you could be forgiven for thinking it sounds slightly hokey. Perhaps from anybody else’s mouth it would be, but this is the legendary E! STREET! BAND! These people know how to unite and entertain; these anthems invented the word. Bruce and “Miami” Steve van Zant mug at the microphone, laughing in the face of your trendy “bromance” buzzwords. Behind them, Clarence “The Big Man” Clemmons towers majestically, still hitting those saxophone solos with dignity at close to seventy years old.
I didn’t think anything could top it, until last night at Hampden.
Maybe it was the joy of being on home turf, and I’m sure that a day sat on trains and ferries back from Ireland had done something for my aching feet. Maybe it was the acoustics, Hampden’s bowl-like shape keeping the sound in better than the RDS Simmonscourt. It certainly wasn’t the weather, although the lashing Scottish rain meant a fair few late arrivals and the chance for Dom, Rachel, Stringer and myself to snag wristbands for the pit.
And maybe it was the song choices. I know a few folks back in Dublin would have killed to see the massive banner unfurled onstage at request time reading “Incident on 57th Street”, and there were plenty of my own favourites on show including “Atlantic City” and a teary-eyed (from me) “The River”. And, whoever had collapse into a blubbering heap as my likely reaction to hearing my all-time favourite song live for the first time, please claim your £10.
It was a staggering, tremendous performance from start to finish and my tired feet felt guilty for complaining by the end of it when the performers could have gone on all night. Who knows how many years the E Street Band have left in them, but with a new run of 25 dates added to the US roster for September/October, here’s hoping it won’t be another 28 years before they make it back to Scottish shores.
[PS Graeme Thomson had a fab profile piece on the Boss in the Sunday Herald at the weekend, featuring interviews with Jesse Malin and Lucinda Williams.]