Over a month ago now, on the 23rd July, I went to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. If things had gone to plan I would have written about it much, much nearer the time, but unfortunately real life has a nasty habit of getting in the way sometimes. Anyway, now that I’m wallowing in man-flu and self-pity and am too much of a grotbag to brave leaving the house, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to catch up as much as possible and see if I can get this blog completely up to date in time for my first blogging anniversary(!). Expect things to go a little bit crazy here over the weekend.
Anyway, I was super excited to be able to see Bruce in person after seeing such moving gig experiences shared by fans in Springsteen and I the night before. I had extremely high expectations of both Bruce and the band and the fans themselves, and I think it’s safe to say that they all excelled themselves. I had a nice day out in Cardiff with some friends before going to the gig, and I was pretty surprised to see a rather lengthy queue forming at the front of the stadium around 11 in the morning. I knew Springsteen fans were keen, but that did seem extremely keen considering that the doors weren’t opening until 5pm. Imagine my surprise then when I later found out that one woman had been queuing at the stadium for three days! Three days! Cripes, I really hope she got right to the front and had the best gig of her life for that level of dedication!
Now, I’m not a complete Bruce novice, and I’ve learned enough about Springsteen gigs to know that we were in for the long haul. Who needs a support act when you’ve got a three hours plus setlist up your sleeve! I was slightly concerned because my mum and I both have quite low blood pressure and are a bit prone to keeling over if we have to stand in the same place for too long. I’ve had standing tickets for loads of gigs before, but never for that kind of duration without a chance for sitting on the floor or having a good stretch of the legs between band changeovers and the like. I was getting even more concerned about this as the band seemed to be running later and later, so I made sure my mother was sat on the floor for as long as possible beforehand, knowing how weak and feeble I am when it comes to trying to catch people. I don’t know for sure if the band were late or if the stadium’s timings were incorrect, but I either read on the website or the ticket that the set would last from 7-10:30, and in the end it actually ran from 7:45-11:15 so there was a fair amount of hanging around in anticipation.
When Bruce and the band did finally come on stage, they opened with a version of This Little Light of Mine, which I must admit was not what I expected. It was all very jolly though, and it’s a song that I think most people would recognise from their school days at least so everyone could join in. This was followed by a fairly calm Long Walk Home and a fairly shouty Adam Raised a Cain. And then it was down to the crowd’s choices. Bruce had gone around collecting all the sign requests from near the front of the crowd, and out of these he chose to play Prove it all Night, TV Movie and Cynthia. TV Movie had apparently never been played live before (because it’s ridiculous according to Bruce), and there was quite a funny moment where they were trying to work out if they remembered how to play it. Apparently Cynthia is also quite a rare track to hear live, but is also one of Steve Van Zandt’s favourite to play.
Roulette followed, and then it was time for a string of the newest material, Death to my Hometown, the first single We Take Care of Our Own and of course Wrecking Ball, all from the Wrecking Ball album released in 2012. I’ve heard it said that Wrecking Ball is one of Bruce’s angriest albums, and I think that’s why it’s so popular. I think a lot of people who are pissed off with the economy and the like at the moment appreciate the way that the album’s almost seething with discontent and dissatisfaction at the way things are going right now. Springsteen songs have always been based around the struggles of the blue collar worker, and I think that’s important to people now more than ever, because it makes them feel that their struggles to get by are being recognised and that they do matter. Judging by the fans featured in Springsteen and I, it really means a lot to people for them to feel that they’re being represented in Bruce’s music, and that he’s speaking for them.
From newest to oldest, Bruce treated us to a sweet little story about when he first learned to play guitar aged fourteen, which is a grand total of fifty years ago now, and how he had to save up to buy it and then didn’t really know what to do with it. Not only that, but he claimed he wouldn’t be able to do anything without the support and energy of the crowds and the fans, and then launched into Spirit of the Night from the first Bruce Springsteen album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J in 1973. (Before you panic like I did that Bruce was on the verge of a heart attack due to the amount of sweat quite literally pouring off of him, I later discovered that he’d actually be soaking himself with a sponge from a bucket, and is not at death’s door quite yet).
If there’s one thing that surprises me most about Bruce Springsteen, it’s all the different sounds and types of music he and the band create. They all sound so distinctly Springsteen, and yet all the albums that I’ve heard and even individual songs on those albums seem to sound so different from each other, it’s quite an eclectic back catalogue really. Hungry Heart followed on from Spirit in the Night, and I think that’s one of the easiest ways to demonstrate this. Both songs sound so very Springsteen, and yet I couldn’t really imagine two more different songs. The whole vibe of them is different, they’re obviously going for a completely different sound, and even Bruce’s voice sounds astonishingly different on the albums considering that there’s only seven years between their recordings. I like how upbeat and cheerfully catchy Hungry Heart sounds even though it’s a song about a man walking out on his family, and yet listening to it can’t help but put a smile on my face. It was obviously quite a popular song on the setlist as well, as the audience sang the opening verse and chorus. It was obviously a bit tamer in Cardiff than it was in Leeds where youtube informs me Bruce did a spot of crowd-surfing during Hungry Heart, and I was certainly sad to miss out on that, but I think it’s fair to say that Bruce had a few treats in store for us as well. You can see in the video how much time he spends meeting and shaking the hands of the crowd, and he did that a lot throughout the gig, it was really nice to see.
My City of Ruins came next, and then there was a little surprise in store in the form of Eric Burdon from The Animals appearing on stage to sing We’ve Gotta Get Out of this Place. I must admit I was shocked by how old he looked, and although it’s always nice to have a guest appearance I think it’s safe to say that Bruce carried the song. Eric then left and we were treated to another cover in the form of John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom, before a stomping version of Cadillac Ranch. This was followed by another cover, this time of Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues, which was another sign request.
Steve Van Zandt joined Bruce up front for a rousing version of You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch), and then it was time for another one of my many highlights of the night, Pay Me My Money Down. Apparently this is also a cover and was originally done by The Weavers; I’ve never heard of them or the song before, but it was definitely one of my favourites of the gig. It was such good fun, very easy to join in with, had a real dance feel and, as you can tell from the video, was a good opportunity to showcase the talents of all the different musicians in the E Street Band. (I never thought I’d say this before, but accordion players really can be cool!) I really enjoyed it, it was definitely one of the biggest unexpected pleasures of my evening.
This set us up for a really great run of songs building up to the end of the main set. Shackled and Drawn came next, a song which I really love (and not just for the fun little dance the band do at the end, and the pure sass of Cindy Mizelle). As if that wasn’t enough of a treat, Bruce showed us what a fan-orientated man he is , and the reason why so many fans were raving about their very personal gig experiences in Springsteen and I. During Waitin’ For a Sunny Day (which is another song that I absolutely love and am striving hard to learn on the ukulele), Bruce spent an awful lot of time with all the fans at the front of the crowd, giving them cuddles and chances to sing into the microphone, and then this very funny and incredibly sweet little gem happened. A seven year old boy who’d been on his dad’s shoulders for most of the gig was allowed up on stage to sing with Bruce. It wasn’t just the little boy singing that was so adorable (and I’m saying this as a person who doesn’t even like children!), but what was really quite moving was the reaction of a person who I can only assume must be his father or some other close relative, who was so proud and grateful and overwhelmed by the whole thing that he was in absolute floods of tears, it was really rather lovely. It’s things like this that really made me understand what everyone in Springsteen and I was raving about.
Next came The Rising in which, if I remember rightly, Bruce wanted everyone to focus on someone they’d lost and celebrate them or something, but I didn’t do that because I was already finding the whole gig a bit emotional, and I’m still not really sure why. And then came Badlands, an absolute stomper to close the main setlist with more energy than you can shake a stick at. Anyone who’s read any of my gig reviews before will know that my absolute favourite thing to gush at length about is the gig choir, and lordy me there was a fantastic gig choir in Cardiff. I think it was at its most powerful during Badlands, but it was really quite an incredible atmosphere to be in throughout.
Then it was time for the first encore, and Bruce and the band didn’t show any sign of slowing down. They came back on to perform Tougher Than the Rest and followed it with the absolute Springsteen classic and ultimate driving anthem Born to Run, which is probably one of, if not the, most popular Springsteen song and so obviously went down a treat with a huge amount of audience participation and an opportunity for bunches of fans to ‘play’ Bruce’s guitar (or at least try and paw at it).
This was followed by Ramrod and I’m a Rocker before a load of very excitable fans were allowed on stage to dance with Bruce and the band during Dancing in the Dark. It turns out that all you have to do to be pulled on stage is hold up a sign asking to dance with Bruce and stand near the front, so I’m definitely going to make that my mission for all future Bruce gigs! The fan dancing with Steve was my favourite, she was obviously so thrilled to be there and so enthusiastic, you could just tell she was having the time of her life.
And then it was time to pay tribute to fallen friends. I’d been wondering if there was going to be some kind of Clarence Clemens tribute; he passed away in 2011, but had contributed to the Wrecking Ball album. The tribute took the form of a very moving montage of stills and footage of Clarence and the band during Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out after the lyrics “When the change was made uptown and the big man joined the band” – the ‘important part’ of the song according to Bruce. It really was quite touching, and it went down an absolute storm. It was also nice to see an awful lot of love for Jake Clemons filling Clarence’s saxophone shoes throughout the night.
A rip-roaring version of Shout came next, and it was at this point that I really started to notice that the gig was feeling long. As much as I enjoyed it, the refrain of Shout definitely lasted about five minutes longer than necessary. Plus I thought it was actually killing Bruce at one stage when he was quite literally crawling on the floor and pulling himself down the stairs on his stomach, but I think that was just for effect. I do like hearing a bit of Shout thrown into the mix occasionally (fellow New Jersey rockers Bon Jovi have been known to throw a smidge into Bad Medicine every now and then), but I sort of feel like it works better in snippet form and after ten minutes or so of doing what I like to refer to as the ‘Lulu woah refrain’ I was a bit exhausted by the ongoing enthusiasm. Sometimes it’s best not to overegg the pudding and, fun though it was, Shout was definitely overegged.
A reprise of This Little Light of Mine ended the first encore and I thought we were done for the night, but wait, there was more! How could there possibly be more you may be thinking, and to be honest I was kind of thinking the same myself, but it was clear that Bruce wasn’t ready to go home just yet. He came back on with his guitar and his harmonica to perform a lovely little acoustic version of Janey Don’t You Lose Heart merging into my favourite song to belt out in the car, Thunder Road. It was quite nice hearing a stripped back version without the piano, but part of me still feels that Thunder Road is really a song to be cranked up and belted. It calmed us all down nicely though and left us with smiles on our faces (and a long drive back to Swindon ready for an 8am start at work the next day).
Now if I’m being completely honest, I only recognised a few of the songs at the time (I have since expanded my Springsteen album collection quite dramatically) and I knew the words to even fewer of them, but it was such a good atmosphere that it didn’t really matter. I was able to join in without really knowing the music a lot of the time, and it was pretty easy to pick up the majority of the choruses at least. All of the band were on top form and it was really nice to see so many of them given their own chance to shine in solos and the like, and I didn’t realise before just quite how many people were involved in creating such a full Springsteen sound.
Obviously, anyone who’s capable of playing a three/four hour set night after night is pretty impressive anyway, but throw in the length of the tour and the fact that Bruce is comfortably into his sixties now and the levels of energy, drive and enthusiasm he brings to his shows is truly astonishing. You could tell, this is a man who did not want to go home, and could comfortably have sung his heart out on stage the whole night through. There was a moment when he was soaked to the skin and literally crawling on the floor and I thought the effort might actually be killing him, but it was all for dramatic effect (at least I really hope it was!). But what’s really remarkable is the fact that it didn’t look like it was an effort, or that he was working hard. The energy just seemed to come so naturally and effortlessly, but like Bruce said, they feed off the energy of the crowd (and there was certainly enough of that going round).
However, just because an artist is capable of lasting for a three and a half hour set, it doesn’t mean the audience are. By the end of it my feet and back were killing me, and I was definitely on the younger side of his demographic. Obviously I enjoyed every minute, but I definitely felt pretty exhausted by the end and it did feel long; but even though I knew it was going to be a really long set, I still don’t feel that I was completely prepared for quite how long it was going to be, and quite how much pressure my poor feet were going to be under after a day spent traipsing around the sights of Cardiff. But if I thought I was starting to get uncomfortable, then I have nothing but sympathy for the poor lighting/camera folk who were crammed into rigs above the stage for the duration of the show (and quite a long time before it started). At least they had a seat, but it looked far too cramped to be comfortable. Wimpiness aside though, there’s no denying that you certainly get your money’s worth at a Bruce gig.
Speaking of getting your money’s worth, and this really did surprise me, I managed to get a tshirt for a measly £10! Normally you can expect to pay anything between £20 and £40 for a band shirt (and I’m a little ashamed to say that I have been known to splash out £35 for one shirt before), so I was delighted when I saw a nice one for such good value. Okay so it says Coventry on it, but I’m pretending that’s how the Welsh spell Cardiff. And considering that most bands still haven’t caught on to the idea that girls like tshirts that might actually fit them well, and preferably are available in colours other than pink, I’d rather pay less knowing that the fit won’t be perfect than splash out on a £20/25 shirt that I only really end up wearing as pyjamas.
I can honestly say that I’ve never been to a gig quite like this one before. The atmosphere was unlike any gig atmosphere I’ve ever experienced; at times if felt like I was sat in a bar with a load of good friends, just enjoying the entertainment, having a bit of a singalong and a boogie, and generally having a whale of a time. I think it’s safe to say that I’ll be grabbing every opportunity to see Bruce and the band again with both hands from now on though, and I’ll certainly be making it a mission of mine to get up on stage and have a boogie with The Boss. It was everything that I expected and more, and I can definitely see what all the fuss was about now.
Set list: This Little Light of Mine, Long Walk Home, Adam Raised a Cain, Prove it All Night, TV Movie, Cynthia, Roulette, Death to My Hometown, We Take Care of Our Own, Wrecking Ball, Spirit in the Night, Hungry Heart, My City of Ruins, We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place (with Eric Burdon), Boom Boom, Cadillac Ranch, Summertime Blues, You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch), Pay Me My Money Down, Shackled and Drawn, Waitin’ On a Sunny Day, The Rising, Badlands.
Encore 1: Tougher Than the Rest, Born to Run, Ramrod, I’m a Rocker, Dancing in the Dark, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, Shout, This Little Light of Mine (reprise).
Encore 2: Janey Don’t You Lose Heart (Acoustic), Thunder Road (Acoustic).
See also Springsteen and I, or previous Gig Review featuring the British Summer Time Festival with Bush, Kaiser Chiefs and Bon Jovi.