Bruce in Manchester: standing shoulder to shoulder in hard times


The rain was lashing down so hard that the windscreen wipers could barely cope as I drove over to Manchester to see Bruce Springsteen’s show at the Etihad Stadium yesterday with an old friend who, at the last minute, acquired a pair of tickets from someone unable to go, and had graciously offered one to me.

What were we letting ourselves in for, we wondered, as the radio gave news of chaos as the deluge hit the Isle of Wight Festival, and flooding across the north as a month’s-worth of rain fell in 24 hours.  In Liverpool, as we left, came news that the annual Africa Oye Festival had been cancelled after the stage had begun to sink in waterlogged ground at Sefton Park, and was declared unsafe.

Well, Bruce is The Boss, and he sorted it…minutes before he and his 16-strong band came on stage at 7:15, the rain stopped and, apart from a couple of brief showers later on, no rain fell for the next three and a half hours of the show.

There was no messing about: the band tore into the defiant opening chords of Badlands with a powerful energy that was maintained through the entire show, only pausing for breath during a brief interlude when Bruce sat alone at the piano to play The Promise.

Badlands, you gotta live it every day
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you’ve gotta pay
We’ll keep pushin’ till it’s understood
And these badlands start treating us good

‘Decline, exploitation, war and death all receive an airing … ennobled into fist-punching entertainment,’ wrote Kitty Empire in her Guardian review of the show at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light three nights ago.  That is the abiding impression left by this show for me, too.  For much of concert, Springsteen’s choice of songs traced a distinct thread, one that raged against the injustices and betrayals of these hard times: the destruction of the material lives of ordinary working men and women, the promise of a better life and the dreams of personal fulfilment crushed by ‘robber barons and greedy thieves’ who ‘ate the flesh of everything they found’ and whose crimes ‘have gone unpunished’.

But Springsteen always ensures that his audiences go home spiritually lifted and with a vision that, standing ‘shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart’ we will one day rise up and leave our sorrows behind:

Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past
The characters and stories in Springsteen’s songs may be vivid portrayals of ordinary men and women doing their best to get by in a tough world, but the language, the imagery, is intensely spiritual – indeed, as is apparent on his new album, Wrecking Ball, increasingly religious, as the songwriter seems to draw on the deep well of his Catholic raising (as does Patti Smith).  Part way through a rendition of My City of Ruins drenched in gospel, Springsteen roared, ‘can you feel the spirit tonight?  Kitty Empire again:
Modern-day mass events – gigs, sporting fixtures and political rallies – can’t help but echo many of the ancestral dynamics of faith gatherings. And while most rock’n’roll makes liberal use of religious metaphors, there is a blatant revivalist tinge to tonight’s show, which borrows heavily from soul and gospel. Land of Hope and Dreams turns into People Get Ready. Lyrically, we are never far from Biblical language – a valley, or a mountain; Springsteen takes us down to The River, to some of the biggest cheers of the night, then takes us up to The Rising…

In another review of this tour, Evelyn McDonnell wrote in the LA Times:

Springsteen has always been a killer showman, someone who’s closely studied the great acts of R&B (the Rev. Al Green and James Brown) and learned how to preach a story, milk a call-and-response affirmation, and play dead then get on up. But increasingly, the gospel roots of this soul man have made themselves manifest. It seems like this Catholic son has been spending time in black churches.

‘Hard times come, hard times go’ is the phrase, delivered as a shamanic incantation part way through the song Wrecking Ball. Springsteen’s songs always have been a powerful combination of hard times and joy, but in these times and in this show that blend was paramount.  The first six songs all expressed the rage and perseverance that ran like a thread through this show: Badlands was followed by a sequence of powerful songs, beginning with No Surrender, reprised from Born In The USA:

Once we made a promise we swore we’d always remember
No retreat, baby, no surrender
Then continuing with a trio from the new album Wrecking Ball: We Take Care of Our Own,Wrecking Ball, and Death to My Hometown.  I was a bit lukewarm about some of the songs when the album first appeared, but performed live in a stadium setting these are powerful anthems. I understand better now what Springsteen is attemting to do beneath the surface patriotism and flag-waving of We Take Care of Our Own:
From Chicago to New Orleans
From the muscle to the bone
From the shotgun shack to the Superdome
We needed help but the cavalry stayed home…
Where’s the eyes, the eyes with the will to see
Where’s the hearts, they run over with mercy
Where’s the love that has not forsaken me
Where’s the work that set my hands, my soul free
Where’s the spirit to reign, reign over me
Where’s the promise, from sea to shining sea
Wrecking Ball, written in protest at the demolition of Giants Stadium, is now presented as a metaphor for the destruction wreaked on communities by financial institutions,culminating in that incantation of the phrase, ‘hard times come, and hard times go’:
Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust
And all our youth and beauty, it’s been given to the dust
When the game has been decided and we’re burning down the clock
And all our little victories and glories have turned into parking lots
When your best hopes and desires are scattered through the wind
And hard times come, and hard times go
And hard times come, and hard times go
Death To My Hometown is as furious and fierce as it gets:
They destroyed our families, factories, and they took our homes
They left our bodies on the plains, the vultures picked our bones …
So listen up, my sonny boy, be ready for when they come
For they’ll be returning sure as the rising sun
Now get yourself a song to sing and sing it ’til you’re done
Yeah, sing it hard and sing it well
Send the robber barons straight to hell
The greedy thieves who came around
And ate the flesh of everything they found
Whose crimes have gone unpunished now
Who walk the streets as free men now
They brought death to our hometown, boys

But if one song stood out in this opening sequence, it was My City of Ruins, a track that I’d almost forgotten.  It dates back twelve years, but took on a different meaning after September 11, and as a result it was added to The Rising.  But now, post-recession, it regains its original sense.  This was a tremendous performance, with Springsteen pushing the gospel exhortation, ‘Come on, rise up’, to the limit:

Young men on the corner
like scattered leaves
The boarded up windows
The hustlers and thieves
While my brother’s down on his knees
My city of ruins
Come on rise up!

The mid-section of the show consisted of a cavalcade of upbeat numbers, beginning with Spirit in the Night and a rare outing for The E Street Shuffle (with a superb jazzy intro), and several welcome rockers from The River: Two Hearts, You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch), Out on the Street, as well as the title track itself, with its faerful challege:

Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse?

Darlington County was peeled off Born in The USA (to be followed later, in the encores, by Bobby Jean and Dancing In The Dark).  Waiting on a Sunny Day came just as rain began to fall for a few minutes.

The main theme returned with a trio of songs from the new album: Jack of All Trades, Shackled and Drawn, and the inspirational Land of Hope and Dreams, with its invocation ‘This train’ rising to a crecendo:

Well, I will provide for you
And I’ll stand by your side
You’ll need a good companion now
For this part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past

Jack of All Trades seems at first a quiet song out of the mouth of a quiet man, but ends with the threat, ‘If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight’:

That hurricane blows
Brings a hard rain
When the blue sky breaks
Feels like the world’s gonna change
We’ll start caring for each other
Like Jesus said that we might
I’m a jack of all trades
We’ll be alright
The banker man grows fat
Working man grows thin
It’s all happened before
And it’ll happen again
It’ll happen again
It’ll beg your life
I’m a jack of all trades
Darling, we’ll be alright
 Shackled and Drawn rails against a world gone wrong:
Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bills
It’s still fat and easy up on bankers hill
Up on bankers hill the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shackled and drawn
Pick up the rock, son, and carry it on
Trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong
The Promise and The Rising were in there, too:
All my life, I fought that fight
The fight that you can’t win
Every day it just gets harder to live
The dream you’re believing in …
The promise is broken, you go on living
It steals something from down in your soul
There isn’t a Springsteen song that doesn’t, in the end, create spiritual uplift.  But on this night, he seemed to demarcate sections of the show to different moods: apart from a sequence of rockers from The River album, he reserved the uplifting, crowd-rousing songs mainly for the lengthy encore, with unavoidable numbers such as Thunder Road, Born to Run and Dancing In The Dark. The encore set opened with the most uplifting song off Wrecking Ball, We Are Alive:
Our spirits rise to carry the fire and light the spark
To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart

Bruce with Max Weinberg on drums (from Backstreets.com)

Bruce with Nils Lofgren (from Backstreets.com)

Springsteen boasts an augmented E Street Band on this tour – 16 members, including old stalwarts Roy Bittan (piano, synthesizer), Nils Lofgren (guitar, vocals), Patti Scialfa (guitar, vocals), Garry Tallent (bass guitar), Stevie Van Zandt (guitar, vocals), Max Weinberg (drums) and Charlie Giordano (keyboards).  They are augmented by new recruits such as Soozie Tyrell (violin, guitar) and a tremendous brass section, including tuba, trumpet and trombone.  But the most crucial new guy is Jake Clemons, the nephew of the late Clarence Clemons, whose shoes he has filled effortlessly.

But Clarence is missed deeply; during My City of Ruins, Bruce took a roll call of the band, asking, finally, ‘Are we missing anyone tonight?’.  Everyone in the crowd knew to what he was referring: not just the loss of Clarence, but also organist Danny Federici, who died in 2008.

Later, during the encore, came the most moving moment when, during the climactic Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, at the line, ‘When the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band’, Springsteen stopped the music. For several minutes Springsteen held up his microphone, urging the crowd (who really didn’t need any urging) to clap, roar, cheer or cry as images of the Big Man’s career flashed up on the giant screens. It was rock ‘n’ roll catharsis. It was beautiful.

At 62, Springsteen can still strut his stuff – he’s insanely active for someone his age, powering through the show non-stop for nearly four hours.  He knows he’s old enough to be granddad to a large section of the crowd (that age profile was pleasing), and makes a point of emphasising it with a knowing grin in Dancing in the Dark when he comes to the line

You sit around getting older
there’s a joke here somewhere and it’s on me

There’s  a bit of a performance, too,  halfway through the encore when Bruce makes out that he’s completely knackered, collapsing to the stage and lying flat out as Steve Van Zandt tries to revive him by drenching him with a huge spongeful of water.

Earlier, just as the rain returns for a brief moment, Bruce goes straight into Waiting on a Sunny Day, with its opening line, ‘Well it’s raining…’.and then urges a young boy to join him on stage to sing a chorus or two.

This, and other moments, drove home what a great showman Bruce is.  During Dancing in the Dark, he replicates the famous video at the time of the single release by having a couple of young women pulled on stage to dance alongside him, before each receiving a hug and a kiss. What a memory to take home from a show that was powerful, emotional and memorable for all of us.

The full setlist was:

  • Badlands
  • No Surrender
  • We Take Care of Our Own
  • Wrecking Ball
  • Death to My Hometown
  • My City of Ruins
  • Spirit in the Night
  • The E Street Shuffle
  • Jack of All Trades
  • Atlantic City
  • Prove It All Night
  • Two Hearts
  • You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
  • Darlington County
  • Shackled and Drawn
  • Waiting on a Sunny Day
  • Save My Love
  • The Promise
  • The River
  • The Rising
  • Out on the Street
  • Land of Hope and Dreams

Encore:

  • We are Alive
  • Thunder Road
  • Born to Run
  • Bobby Jean
  • Cadillac Ranch
  • Dancing in the Dark
  • Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
  • Twist and Shout

These video clips are from other performances on the 2012 tour, but I’ve chosen them because they are high quality – and capture a few of the high points of what is clearly a crafted show that has retained certain key elements on every night of the tour:

Badlands – Madison Square Garden on 6 April

Thunder Road on 28 March in Philadelphia

Waiting On A Sunny Day on 17 April in Cleveland

Tenth Avenue Freeze Out in Boston on 26 March 26 with tribute to Clarence Clemons

And here are two additional nuggets that offer further revealing glimpses of the man.  First, at his Berlin concert, Bruce performed When I Leave Berlin, a song from the 1973 album by British folk musician Wizz Jones:

When morning comes and I’ll leave Berlin
My mind is turning
My heart is yearning
For you and Berlin

Here today but the wall is open call out the soldiers and the guns
Here today the gates are open mothers are in the arms of their sons
When morning comes and I’ll leave Berlin
I’ll know for certain I am a free man When I leave Berlin

And finally, the other week, Springsteen inducted Jackson Browne into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with a fine speech that ended with this passage:

In seventies, post-Vietnam America, there was no album that captured the fall from Eden, the long, slow after-burn of the sixties; it’s heartbreak, it’s disappointments, it’s spent possibilities better than Jackson’s masterpiece, Late For the Sky. It’s just a beautiful body of work. It’s essential in making sense of the times. Before the Deluge still gives me goosebumps and it raises me to cause. Late For the Sky, when those car doors slam at the end of the record, they still bring tears. And there was no more searching, yearning, loving music made for and about America at the time. [...]

Jackson’s influence and his voice has always been his own. He’s one of the true activist musicians I’ve ever known. World In Motion, Looking East, Lives In the Balance, he followed his muse wherever it took him. Risked his, and he paid whatever the cost. He’s long put his mouth, his money, and his body where his politics are. Lives In The Balance sounds more urgent today than it ever did. [...]

Listen to the chord changes of Rock Me On the Water and Before the Deluge, it’s gospel through and through. Now I always thought that in our fall from Eden, besides the strains of physicality and the bearing of earthly burdens, our real earthly task was that an unbridgeable gap, or a black hole was opened up in our ability to truly love one another. And so our job here on earth, the way we regain our divinity, our sacredness, and our general good-standing is by reconstructing love and creating love out of the broken pieces that we’ve been given. That’s all we have of human promise. That’s the way we prove ourselves in the eyes of God and facilitate our own redemption. Now, to me Jackson Browne’s work was always the sound of that reconstruction. So as he writes in The Pretender:We’ll put our dark glasses on, and we’ll make love until our strength is gone, and when the morning light comes streamin’ in, we’ll get up and do it again. Amen.

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2 thoughts on “Bruce in Manchester: standing shoulder to shoulder in hard times

  1. Wonderful. I saw him in Berlin and this captures how that show made me feel. One of the greatest live music experiences of my life, and the mixture of anger, hope, love, redemption and joy that the songs made me feel at different moments during that evening at the Olympic Stadium still gives me goose bumps. I hope you don’t mind, but here are my hurried thoughts from the morning after: http://underagreysky.com/2012/06/01/tramps-like-us/

    Thanks again for such a great piece.

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