“It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive” is a phrase from Bruce Springsteen‘s song Badlands that, for various reasons, has been haunting me lately.
Of course, as Springsteen fans will know, one of the most life-affirming experiences you can have with your clothes on is an E-Street Band show. I speak, it should be said, as a Bruce fan who hasn’t missed catching at least one show on every UK tour he’s done, going as far back as that very first show at the Hammersmith Odeon. But I’m by no means as obsessive as some of the fans interviewed in the nonetheless hugely enjoyable Springsteen And I documentary film and those fans the other night clustered at the front of the stage as they had been for every show in this European leg of his Wrecking Ball tour. Recognising many of them by sight, Bruce felt obliged to acknowledge their extraordinary, not to say wallet-stretching, devotion by playing some of the more obscure songs they’d requested on the signs they were holding up. The fact that he also asked them to then put the signs down so the audience behind them could see properly is a typical Bruce gesture. The relationship between him and his fans is so close in large part because they recognise some of the better parts of themselves in him – the unswerving dedication to always doing the absolute best he can being not the least of these attributes.
The willingness to play requests apparently at a moment’s notice (of course, the truth is that the E-Street Band is so fantastically well-drilled that they’ve rehearsed to a greater or lesser extent practically anything they might feasibly be called upon to play) hasn’t always worked, in my view, on this tour. This was the third UK show I’d seen this Summer and while it’s always a blast to hear some of the lesser-known songs (and they give some of the less-dedicated fans the chance to take a comfort break, always a legitimate consideration in a three hour show!), it can make the show slip out of focus and imperil the pacing, as does the occasional decision to play a key album from end to end. Of course, those sorts of thoughts only surface in the cold light of day. The bottom line is that there really is no such thing as a bad E-Street Band concert, only some that are less exhilarating than others. Focussed, fiery and celebratory, this show was up there with some of the best.
That was helped by the excellence of the brand-new Leeds Arena, which this show inaugurated. It looks to be a significant new player and if I were the management of the Manchester Arena (where you can seem to be in a different postcode to the band and often might as well be), I’d be seriously worried about them hoovering up the best of the touring acts who can fill a venue of this sort in the North. The sight-lines are exceptionally good and the rake makes even the most distant seats feel reasonably close to the stage. What’s more, the staff are courteous, and the beer, although it’s the usual piss, isn’t insultingly overpriced (it ain’t cheap, either, I hasten to add). Springsteen, still a fan at heart, is fastidious about the sound wherever he plays so it might not be fair to judge the venue on that yet, but, on this showing, that’s pretty good too.
So (finally, they sigh), to the show itself. Despite the fact that this was a late gig on an exhausting tour, Bruce and the band were firing on all cylinders. The set started with a bang, the raucously rocking Roulette followed by one of my personal favourites, My Love Will Not Let You Down. By the time we rocked up to Hungry Heart a half dozen songs later, Bruce was so confident in his crowd that he was able to walk out into their midst on a specially-constructed runway then crowd-surf back.
One of the great things about an E-Street band gig is that while there might be the reassurance of recurring tricks (the young boy plucked from the audience to sing a chorus of Waitin’ On A Sunny Day; the lucky female who gets to dance with Bruce on Dancing In The Dark), they never seem to be merely done by rote. At this gig, for instance, a whole family ended up on stage for Dancing In The Dark as Springsteen looked on in indulgent astonishment. Nor is it ever simply a canter through the greatest hits. Although no gig would be complete without the last chance power-drive of Born To Run or a version of Thunder Road, the audience are just as enthusiastic to hear the newer material, like the ferocious Death To My Hometown from the Wrecking Ball album, or relatively obscure tracks like Secret Garden.
Unlike so many acts of this sort of vintage, Springsteen knows that if you don’t keep going forward then you die – or at least suffer the living death of endlessly rehashing your 30-year-old hits for an ageing crowd who just want to relive their own youth. He’s still that kid who genuinely believes in the redemptive power of rock ‘n’roll, but he’s also an adult who tries to share something of his thoughts, mostly pissed-off, about the state of the world we live in. An E-Street Band show, for all its cartoon-like mugging and unashamed entertainment values, isn’t a retreat from anything. It’s a celebration of life and friendship and working hard at something you love and all sorts of other good stuff, not least imperishably great songs such John Fogerty’s Bad Moon Rising, as well as Springsteen’s own. It’s an affirmation, in fact, that it really ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.
Review by Kevin Bourke
What: Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band
When: July 24, 2013
Where: Leeds Arena, Leeds