Bruce Springsteen took everyone by surprise with the announcement, about an hour into last night’s Wembley concert, that he and the E Street Band were going to stop answering requests and instead play Darkness on the Edge of Town, his great LP from 1978, in its entirety, from start to finish. This, after all, was a stop on the Wrecking Ball tour, promoting his latest album; it’s two and a half years since the documentary recounting the making of Darkness was released, with a great deal of attendant publicity. But what a fabulous decision it turned out to be.
The group of musicians on stage, nowadays numbering about 17, was stripped back to something closer to the original E Street line-up as they set off into “Badlands”, hardly drawing a breath until the last chord of the title song died away three-quarters of an hour later. They gave the 10 songs a performance of unbroken seriousness and intensity, with several emotional peaks. For me, those came with a brutal “Adam Raised a Cain”, the shiver-inducing slalom through “Candy’s Room”, the finest reading of “Racing in the Streets” I’ve ever heard him give, and a majestic conclusion with “Darkness” itself.
For most artists, those 45 minutes would be enough to justify taking the audience’s money. Springsteen, however, gave us another two and a half hours of fun, games, and tears. I wished Curtis Mayfield had been alive to hear “People Get Ready” appended to the set-opening “Land of Hope and Dreams” as a coda and benediction; he would have been proud and delighted to hear his great anthem put to such fine use. The communal singing of the first verse of “Hungry Heart” and various bits of “Dancing in the Dark” reminded me for the umpteenth time that Springsteen is happy to give everyone in the audience a chance to share the experience of being the lead singer with the E Street Band. “Twist and Shout” came in a cowbell-paced version that would have pleased Bert Berns, the song’s co-writer and the master of bringing Latin accents to uptown pop-R&B, and might have come off a 1966 Bang Records 45. And to finish off, after the band had left the stage for the last time, their leader returned, alone with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica harness, to do that other trick of his: bestowing upon you the illusion that he’s chosen one of the night’s song just for you, personally. On this occasion it was a lovely unadorned version of “Thunder Road”, the first song he played on his London debut — his first concert outside the United States, in fact — back in 1975.
I have couple of criticisms. While the idea of replacing the sadly departed Clarence Clemons with a five-piece horn section is a good one (and Jake Clemons, Clarence’s nephew, does a lively job of filling the hole left by his uncle’s sound and personality), there are now too many musicians on stage: the sound is often too full, too massive, with Max Weinberg’s technically flawless big-band drumming filling too many holes, and the ensemble loses the precious sense of mobility and flexibility that was its hallmark (and which was immaculately reconstituted on the Darkness songs). On this night, too, from my pretty good seat, the sound was affected by a strong echo reflecting back from the stadium’s upper tiers, by a frequent indefinable booming sound in the lower frequencies, and by an occasional lack of muscle in the midriff.
That’s small stuff, however, when compared with the pleasures of an evening spent in the company of a man whose humanity and generosity of spirit continue to make his every concert a unique experience.