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Bruce Springsteen at Wembley

Bruce River Wembley

Is it a fan’s wishful imagination, or does Bruce Springsteen reserve something special for the start of his London shows? I think back, in particular, to the spellbound harmonica and piano introduction to “Thunder Road” in a pin spot at Hammersmith Odeon in 1975 and the cathartic, eyes-closed rush through “Born to Run” at Wembley Arena six years later. Last night at Wembley Stadium it was a wholly unexpected solo-at-the-piano version of “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street” from Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., slowed down, like he did with “For You” in ’75, but still a little trip back to the unshadowed wordspinning joy of youth: “Mary Lou, she found out how to cope / She rides to heaven on a gyroscope / The Daily News asks her for the dope / She says, ‘Man, the dope’s that there’s still hope.'”

If that was one for the fans, so was the next: “Seeds”, which I don’t believe he plays all that often. First the harsh voice against the stripped rockabilly guitar, and then an eruption of full-tilt rock and roll thunder — a thousand guitars, a hundred horns, the shout of a Hammond organ, the implacable backbeat, the measured walk of the bass, all churning on and on and on towards some invisible horizon — that reminds you of exactly what this music can do, in the right hands. And the realism of the lyrics: a man drags his family across the country, searching for work, seeing the homeless men by the railroad track, listening to the children’s “graveyard cough”. And watching the world of other men go by: “Big limousine, shiny and black / You don’t look forward, you don’t look back.”

“Sorry, son, it’s gone, gone, gone,” the job-seeker is told. What hasn’t gone is Springsteen’s magical ability to make an audience both dance and think, sometimes in the same song. Over the next three and a half hours of a wonderfully warm evening there were many more moments of contrast between exhilaration and reflection, from the dedication of “Tougher Than the Rest” (a gorgeous duet with Patti Scialfa) to Muhammad Ali to the fury of “Death to My Hometown”, from “Sherry Darling” to “Candy’s Room”, from “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” to “American Skin (41 Shots)”. That last one resonates even more powerfully than it did when he wrote it in 1999, prompted by the shooting of the unarmed Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old street peddler from Guinea, by four plain-clothes officers of the New York Police Department who were later acquitted of second-degree murder. Last night he gave it full justice in a sombre, intense reading that was, for me, the centrepiece of the concert.

Billed as a tour revisiting The River, it has become something much less specific and more inclusive, although half a dozen songs from that great 1980 double album studded the set (I was sorry he didn’t include “Wreck on the Highway”, but you can’t have everything). This being an arena, the sound was never going to be more than an approximation, albeit a powerful one, of how he and the E Street Band can sound. The salient bits — the lead vocals, Nils Lofgren’s howling guitar solo on “Because the Night”, Jake Clemons’ invocation of his late uncle on “Jungleland”, Charles Giordano’s keyboard salute to Danny Federici on “Hungry Heart” — were fully audible, of course, but you’d wish that everyone hearing them on this tour could also know their impact in halls of more modest size and human scale — like Hammersmith Odeon, to which he returned with the Seeger Sessions show a few years ago — where giant screens are not required and the musical nuances of which they’re capable might be fully explored.

Still, one thing a Springsteen show never lacks is a sense of intimacy. And as it had begun, so it ended: Bruce alone with the audience, strapping on an acoustic guitar to summon our collective history with “Thunder Road”, just as he did on his last visit three years ago but somehow different and still the perfect closure to yet another night invested with so much emotion that every song had the weight of an encore.

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9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Peter Walker #

    If I may add one to your list of opening numbers. It was also at Wembley Stadium, July 4th 1985. Hot on the heels of his massive ‘Born in the USA’ album he came on stage, alone with acoustic guitar, and played ‘Independence Day’. In that moment we were all American.

    I too was at Hammersmith. I don’t remember much about the concert (the wife and I argue constantly whether it was first or second night) but the image of Springsteen playing ‘Thunder Road’ is burned into my memory for eternity.

    June 6, 2016
    • I was there on the Fourth of July in ’85, too, and you’re right. I was there for both nights at Hammersmith: “Thunder Road” definitely opened the first one in the manner I described, and I think the second one too, a week or so later.

      June 6, 2016
  2. A truly memorable show, with Springsteen and the E Street in magnificent form. You just have to admire the man for his stamina in performing at full tilt for 3&1/2 hours. His engagement with the audience was quite remarkable, but you couldn’t quite tell whether him collecting the homemade placards with song requests on was staged or not.

    I am afraid that many of the key songs were spoiled by very poor sound, especially when all band played at the same time, which rendered backing vocals, saxophone and keyboard sounds inaudible in the distortion. The dynamics of songs like Candy’s Room, in particular, was completely lost. One explanation maybe the acoustics in the Wembley Stadium are not suited the sound of a large band.

    A Springsteen show is always a rock ‘n’ roll revival, almost evangelical event. By the end everyone in the stadium was on their feet , joining in with Born To Run, Dancing in the Dark and Shout. When Springsteen first played in London, the hyperbolic claim was made that he was the future of rock ‘n’ roll and now more then 40 years on that has been proved to be true!

    Thanks for identifying Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street at the first song!

    June 6, 2016
  3. Don Rooke #

    “….invested with so much emotion that every song had the weight of an encore.”

    Beautifully put.

    June 6, 2016
    • Thanks, Don. I’m always amazed, after listening to him for more than 40 years live and on record, how he manages to keep on having the same effect with the same fairly limited range of tools.

      June 6, 2016
      • GuitarSlinger #

        Well I’ll be the voice of descent in the conversation . Without going into a myriad of details having grown up a Jersey boy [ as in New Jersey ] cousin of a Joisey boy and a musician who’s come in contact with the man many times on many plains I’ve followed Springsteen’ career ever since his buried in obscurity Asbury Park bar band days . And to be honest the Springsteen of today to me at least feels a bit of a sham having become a parody of his former self . Suffice it to say at the point he sold his soul , got the plastic surgery and started hanging out and marrying the ‘In’ crowd Springsteen’s credibility has all but disappeared into the void of stardom and celebrity . Sure he puts on the ‘ show ‘ … but is there really any substance left or has it ll gone down the ‘ Rabbit Hole ‘ of blatant spectacle . Like so many other things these days I’ll vote for the later . Nuff said ..

        June 7, 2016
      • There’s always a welcome for a dissenting voice here. But although I can see where you’re coming from, I can’t agree. Springsteen’s celebrity doesn’t stop him doing great things. The Seeger Sessions, for one; how was that going to make him another fortune? Continuing to perform “American Skin (41 Shots)” — a song that upset a lot of people — for another. I don’t think all the songs he’s written in recent years have been up to scratch, but some of them have been worthy additions, and he has a greater appreciation of and respect for his own back catalogue than most people who’ve been doing the job as long as he has. Of course, the style — his and the band’s — has long since solidified, but not, I think, calcified. But the impression I still get from him, even in an arena with 50,000 people present, is one of personal and artistic generosity. For me, his heart remains in the right place.

        June 7, 2016
  4. Richard, I love the idea of “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street” opening the show – such a great title for a song. Peter, the Hammersmith concerts were released a couple of years ago – it’ll take you back. The recording is of the first night (I think the second was a week later after a short Euro tour).

    June 6, 2016
  5. GRAHAM ROBERTS #

    That’s a great summation of a fantastic night at Wembley on Sunday. It looks from your photo that you had a similar vantage point in the stadium to mine, in which case you might, like me, have taken some satisfaction from glancing at the audience from time to time; I am not a great lover of stadium events but the good nature of this particular crowd won me over; great atmosphere. The music, of course, was stupendous.

    Sentimental, i know, but I loved the moment when Bruce noticed a young girl in the audience holding up a placard with the message: “Tomorrow I’m at school, but right now I’m ‘Waiting For A Sunny Day'”, and invited her on stage to help out with vocals on the song. What a great story she will have to tell her school friends about the day when, after finishing her homework, she dropped into Wembley and helped Bruce out on vocals. Quite implausible, really.

    June 7, 2016

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