Thursday 20 June 2013, Wrecking Ball World Tour, Ricoh Arena, Coventry
A three-hour set of 30 songs in front of 32,000 people on a humid Coventry night. A surprise rendition of the whole Born to Run album, dedicated to fellow-New Jersey native and Sopranos star James Gandolfini. A revival of ‘Born in the USA’. A random girl plucked from the crowd to play guitar on ‘Dancing in the Dark’. A couple of fifty-year-old blokes in front of me punching the air. A night to remember? Yes, indeed.
I came to Bruce Springsteen quite late, when in my early 30s, after buying Born in the U.S.A. (1984) for £4 from a record fair and developing a particular fascination for the songs ‘Downbound Train’ and ‘Bobby Jean’. I then progressed to his other classic albums Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), The River (1980) and Born to Run (1975), and a contemporary album (gasp!) in the form of Magic (2007). So I eventually came to realise that ‘the Boss’ was indeed a songwriter of genius, and that his songs, frequently giving voice to downtrodden blue-collar motorists on the highways and in the bars of the U.S. rust belt, could serve as a source of strength through my own troubled times, as I motored my Nissan Note (with its annoying squeaking noise which the mechanic can’t seem to fix!) up and down the M5 and the Old Birmingham Road. With this new appreciation, I often considered attending one of Springsteen’s concerts, hearing stories about their epic length (two or three days, some said) and their capacity to reduce grown men to tears, together with popular descriptions of them as ‘transcendent’, and sometimes even ‘transcendental’ (is there a difference?). I subsequently marvelled at Springsteen’s Glastonbury 2009 performance on the telly, before buying two tickets for my first-ever Springsteen gig at Coventry – as part of his ongoing Wrecking Ball World Tour.
On the day of the show, I woke up to the shock headline news that James Gandolfini, the actor from Springsteen’s home state of New Jersey who starred in the hit TV series The Sopranos (1999-2007), had died suddenly of a suspected heart attack. I knew straightaway that this would have an impact on the concert, as I remembered Gandolfini playing the Mafia boss Tony Soprano alongside bewigged E Street Band-guitarist Steve Van Zandt (as consigliere Silvio Dante) in the series, which was itself set in the Garden State, featuring locations familiar from Springsteen songs. I then saw that Van Zandt had tweeted “I have lost a brother and a best friend”, making me fear, perhaps overdramatically, that the gig would be pulled or postponed. I was, however, pleased to discover via the internet that no such change of plan had occurred, leaving me instead to worry about whether my girlfriend and I would actually make the 7pm start time, in view of both of us working all day, amidst incoming reports of increasingly restrictive parking in the Ricoh Arena area. And, sure enough, we didn’t hit the road till nearly 6pm, when, despite my last-chance power driving at the outset, we quickly ran into congestion on the M42. This was extremely frustrating, to say the least, with the traffic problems being exacerbated (as I later discovered) by one Rod Stewart, who was playing his ‘Live the Life Tour’ at the nearby LG Arena on this very same night – damn him. On top of this, once we actually arrived in the vicinity of the Ricoh, I found myself stressing to find a parking spot in the local Tesco carpark, while angrily shouting at my parking-advice-giving partner that it was in fact me who was in charge of the frikkin’ car. Finally, as I pulled into a disabled bay, I could, to my mortification, hear Bruce already singing away within the arena, starting the show with a solo acoustic performance of ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’.
After missing out on a couple of other tunes, we finally headed down to the standing area of the arena just in time to hear the full band strike up on ‘Two Hearts’. It then took me a good while to actually get into the music, as a consequence of my recent stresses and my distinct lack of beer-drinking time up until this point. But it nevertheless hit me that, yes, there on the stage was the actual real-life Bruce Springsteen, looking a mere fraction of his 63 years; there was Van Zandt with his hangdog expression and trademark bandana; and there was the small army of musicians and singers that is the current extended edition of the E Street Band, numbering some 15 souls. Despite my awe at seeing this iconic band in the flesh, however, I must admit that I was not terribly impressed with the sound quality inside the arena, while also being aware that the crowd was a little subdued in response to the generally downbeat nature of the opening songs. I also considered the fact that a stadium-striding U.S. rock star calling out ‘Hello Coventry!’ (as opposed to ‘Hello Deeeetroit!’, ‘Hello Cleveland!’ or even ‘Hello Wembley!’) just sounds plain wrong (not his fault).
I needn’t have worried, as Springsteen has long perfected the art of stadium rock by interacting with his audience and creating a sense of intimacy, which he quickly achieved at the Ricoh. His skill in this was most apparent when he reached out into the crowd for hand-written song requests and messages on large pieces of cardboard, one saying ‘I’d look good playing your guitar’, another saying ‘can I have a manhug’. It was particularly touching to see him grab one cardboard request in favour of ‘long time coming 4 my new baby ruben’, when he chuckled and repeatedly said to the new dad in the crowd, “Don’t fuck this up”, before launching into the Devils and Dust–track on the theme of the moral responsibility of fatherhood, with its striking lyric: ‘If I had one wish in this God-forsaken world, it would be that your mistakes will be your own. That your sins will be your own’. Springsteen’s ability to connect emotionally with his audience was further evidenced on his performance of the stirring ‘Wrecking Ball’ from his latest banker-bashing album, for he sent fists flying into the air all around the arena. Two grey and grizzled fellows ahead of me, wearing ‘Wrecking Ball’ T-shirts, were particularly vigorous in their air punching (and whooping), while Springsteen went on to completely win the audience with the mass-singalong crowd pleaser ‘Hungry Heart’, during which he obligingly gave the manhug-sign man his required manhug.
One of the many highpoints of the evening for me was when Springsteen cut a lone figure at the front of the stage, with harmonica in hand, in readiness to answer a boy’s request for ‘The River’. This is another song that resonates strongly in today’s harsh economic climate, highlighting the story of a man’s loss of hope in his struggle to find work and follow the dreams he had for himself and ‘Mary’ as a youth. Bruce admitted that he hadn’t performed the song much recently, though you wouldn’t have known it by the way he launched flawlessly into its iconic harmonica intro, with the band joining him for the middle section, then falling away to allow his mournful humming at the close of the song to reverberate around the arena. He then recovered himself to announce, eleven songs in, that he was going to perform the whole of his career-making Born to Run album – in order – as the centrepiece of the gig, dedicating it to “our good friend James Gandolfini” to much applause, particularly from the two air-punching guys in front of me, who went into a repetitive-strain-inducing frenzy. I would have preferred to hear the grittier Darkness in its entirety myself (as at Wembley a few nights previously), but Born to Run is so, well, iconic that I could hardly complain, though I did miss the singer’s spontaneous interaction with the audience during this section, in his obvious decision to let the music do the talking. His performance of ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’ had a particular emotional impact as it featured a tribute to the late E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons (‘the Big Man’) on screens behind the stage. ‘Backstreets’ also sounded extremely powerful, with some sublime keyboard playing by Roy Brittan, while Jake Clemons, nephew of Clarence, also played a blinder. I must admit, though, to using the band’s rendition of the rambling nine-minute ‘Jungleland’ (which is hardly ever performed live) as an excuse to go for a refreshment break. I have never really got along with this song, with all its ‘opera on the turnpike’ and ‘ballet out in the alley’ stuff.
At the end of his impassioned Born to Run performance, Bruce looked absolutely exhausted as he lined up with the band on the stage to rapturous applause. Yet he managed to switch into another, more folk-orientated, gear when he announced that he would make everybody dance on his next song, which turned out to be ‘Pay Me My Money Down’ from his Seeger Sessions album (2006) – and, for sure, I did tap my foot a bit. He then pulled a boy out of the crowd to help him sing ‘Waiting on a Sunny Day’, before climaxing the show with a thrilling ‘Badlands’. He was soon back for an encore though, of course, easing into ‘We Are Alive’ from Wrecking Ball ahead of a rare performance of ‘Born in USA’, which I was quite overwhelmed to hear. This monumental song made him a superstar amongst the MTV generation in the 80s, while serving to confuse Ronald Reagan quite considerably (not hard), who deemed it a patriotic record rather than a protest song about how working class Vietnam vets were treated like dirt in their own country. The way Bruce spat the words out tonight made it quite clear as to what its real meaning is.
I was subsequently delighted to hear my favourite Springsteen song, ‘Bobby Jean’, appear in the encore, together with ‘Dancing in the Dark’, where the singer pulled out a girl from the audience to dance with him, just like in the celebrated music video featuring Courteney Cox. In fact, there were two or three girls on the stage during the song, one of whom actually did end up playing Bruce’s guitar. By this point also, I had forgotten that I had been watching the gig for nearly three hours, being more than keen to hear more – much more. However, Springsteen wrapped up the show with ‘American Land’, after which the band once more lined the front of the stage, with the singer walking down to acknowledge the pit crowd. I really wanted to hear ‘Racing in the Street’, but it wasn’t to be.
So having finally witnessed a Springsteen gig, I am adamant that I will be returning for more. I am also adamant that I will get the day off work for the next show I go to, so that I will arrive in plenty of time. Attending the Coventry gig has further motivated me to go out and purchase Bruce’s first album Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. (1973), as well as The Promise documentary, while rediscovering Born to Run. I am even getting to quite like ‘Jungleland’ now.
The Ghost of Tom Joad (Solo acoustic)
Long Walk Home
My Love Will Not Let You Down
Two Hearts (Sign request, sign actually said “Play anything”)
Seeds (Sign request)
Trapped (Jimmy Cliff cover) (Sign request)
Long Time Comin’ (Sign request)
Death to My Hometown
The River (Sign request)
Born To Run album – dedicated to James Gandolfini
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Born to Run
She’s the One
Meeting Across the River
End of Born to Run album
Pay Me My Money Down
Shackled and Drawn
Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
We Are Alive
Born in the USA
Dancing in the Dark
Raise Your Hand (Eddie Floyd cover)