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.