Wednesday July 24 is a momentous day for Leeds: it marks the debut gig at the new First Direct Arena and the opening act is Bruce Springsteen.

It seems bizarre now the building is completed that it has taken so long for a major city like Leeds to have an arena size venue. Millions have been lost to the local economy over the years as folk have trekked to Manchester or Sheffield to see Dolly, Rammstein. Beyonce or – god forbid – Coldplay.

But arenas are not just economic drivers, they are markers of a clear civic vision that allows big capital projects to happen and Leeds is now playing catch up with other more advanced cities. The arrival of Le Tour next year will help reposition Leeds as a major regional player as will high profile gigs like The Boss.

It’s a very smart move putting Springsteen on first because it was always guaranteed to be a sell-out gig, and sets down a marker that the venue is going after the world’s biggest acts.

So what can the people who were lucky enough to blag tickets expect? Two things – a long, old fashioned rock and rock revival show clocking in at well over three hours packed full of classics and some righteous anger absent from the British music scene dominated by posh fakes like Mumford and Son.

I’ve been a Springsteen nut for more than 30 years and for me Bruce is at his peak as a live performer, which is really saying something if you have heard the incendiary Live at Winterland bootleg recorded in 1978. I saw him last year in the concrete wasteland that is the Etihad Stadium, which I was dreading, but he managed to turn it into a strangely intimate affair combining years of stagecraft and sheer intensity. That is some skill working the room in a football stadium.

He achieves this by communicating his love of playing live to each and every punter which when you’ve seen other arena acts you realise is no easy thing.  But more than that he can dip into a roster of great songs at will.  Even after hearing it hundreds of times the opening bars of Born to Run still get me,  and he can provoke tears in a grown man (me again) if he plays blue collar drama The River.

Recently he has taken to playing requests that the crowd hold up on pieces of cardboard. These are usually obscure numbers that require his brilliant E Street band to know every song in his vast canon.

His ‘backing’ band are the other essential element as these grizzled 60-something virtuosos, and partners in crime, create a platform for Bruce to do his thing. Compare their joy of playing live and ability to improvise with the dead eyed corporate greatest hits shows by The Stones.

There is no greater live performer on tour at the moment and Springsteen fans can make a strong case that he is the greatest ever to strap on a guitar. But given Dylan last released a decent album in 1975, and Bruce has released late career classics like the post 9/11 The Rising or the angry Wrecking Ball from last year, this proves that The Boss is now the greatest American songwriter.

So, as well as witnessing a man in his mid 60s take the roof off the First Arena, they can join in with a city that is finally starting to punch its full weight as a major Northern player.

By Paul Clarke


What: Bruce Springsteen

Where: First Direct Arena, Leeds

When: July 24, 2013