Or, perhaps, sing along with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band along with 80,000 others at Wembley Stadium on a stunning summer night.
I grew up to my dad’s favourite music. More often than not it was Radio 3, but my fondest evenings were always the ones when some rocky tune or acoustic guitar would drift up the stairs to my room from the kitchen speakers like the smell of a favourite meal. It might have been Bob Dylan, or Jackson Browne, or Warren Zevon, but if it was Springsteen you knew Dad was in a really good mood. Springsteen meant dancing around the kitchen on his feet.
I didn’t really fall in love with these artists on their own talents for many years; in fact, when I first saw Springsteen live around three years ago with my sister I was only just beginning my love affair with his music. Since then Rosa and I have also been lucky enough to see both Jackson Browne and Joan Baez, another Dad influence, live in concert; they were extraordinary evenings in their own right, but for all of the gigs I’ve been to nothing has quite compared to that night at Wembley with the E Street Band.
We weren’t sure whether Bruce would make his way back to the UK (the man is 66 and his shows are fast-paced, wild and almost always over three hours long!), so when it turned out that he was bringing his River Tour across the pond we leaped at the opportunity. Unlike 2013’s tour which was promoting ‘Wrecking Ball’, the latest album, this year’s string of concerts celebrates the release of the new River Collection box set. During the US leg of the tour the band played ‘The River’ album all the way through in sequence every night, and although this setlist was dropped as they headed to Europe we hope that the concert would consist of more of Springsteen’s ‘middle-old stuff’ as we’ve taken to calling it.
Like last time, we found ourselves nerve-wrackingly high up in Wembley’s fifth tier having navigated the enormous stream of people outside the stadium and dutifully queued for merchandise. I don’t much mind being so high up – there’s a fun element of camaraderie with everyone else who has suddenly realised they’re not as okay with heights (or as fit at climbing stairs) as they thought. Some people complain about the sound, but I didn’t think it was an issue; ultimately you can’t expect studio-quality at the top of an open-roof football stadium.
Once there we had a while to wait before Bruce made his way on stage and opened with a solo piano performance of Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?. It wasn’t the loud, rocky, full-on opening I’d expected – that came next with the strikingly political choice of Seeds – but it was impressive and instantly captured the entire audience.
Unlike last time when I’d stumbled through the lyrics of almost all the tracks, I was struck by how smoothly the words came to me now. This past year I’ve listened to Springsteen perhaps more than any other artist (the sheer number and variety of songs means it takes a while to get bored) and as a result haven’t just learned the lyrics but have attached strong memories, emotions and affiliations to much of his music. It was such a joy to feel part of something so much bigger as the crowed sang and cheered along to The Ties That Bind, Sherry Darling and Hungry Heart.
The day had been impossibly hot – I was sweltering in jeans – but it made for a perfect balmy evening at the top of Wembley as things got underway. It occurred to me that three years ago I was in a very different place; heart-broken some months beforehand and halfway through sixth form, I was feeling lost and unsure whether the future I wanted would be possible for me. Perhaps I’m rose-tinting, but as I remember it the concert marked a shift in my mindset from worry and concern to positivity and forward-thinking.
Given the difficulties of the last nine months or so, and the fact that through them Bruce’s words and voice have been a real anchor, whether through anxiety attacks or just the walk from campus back to my house, it felt poignant that this was the place I was able to return at another moment of insecurity. As we reached the first requests of the concert – audience members in the ‘Golden Circle’ bring homemade cardboard signs naming the song they wish to be played – my eyes genuinely filled with tears when the first to be pulled out was No Surrender, a track which has honestly carried me through every difficult moment this year. He played it for a stranger in the crowd, but it felt like it was just for me.
Another request favourite was the lesser-known track I’ll Work For Your Love. When Bruce pulled out the sign he commented that it was never requested at shows, but then realised with a smile that there were two more signs asking for the song. “This is a cool one,” he said, “it’s one of my favourites.” I guess it was one the band hadn’t prepared prepared, because Springsteen took an acoustic guitar to the mic and went solo. (“Who’s got the sign with the chords on, so I remember how to play it?”) After the fast-paced first hour it was extraordinary to watch Bruce slowly work out the chords and start in three different keys before finding the right place. “After this it’ll be perfect!” he laughed, and it pretty much was.
In true E Street style the mood switched instantly with Spirit in the Night which featured Bruce downing an entire pint during the instrumental (I repeat: he’s 66). With that it was back to the fun, until the mood shifted back to a political tone with Death To My Hometown and the even more poignant American Skin (41 Shots) which was inspired by the shooting by police of black 23-year-old Amadou Diallo; the police officers were later acquitted despite firing 41 shots, 19 of which struck Diallo.
Given the new mood of the stadium I suspected what would come next but the first echoing harmonies still caused me to well up all the same. This was the song we’d desperately hoped to hear last time and Bruce hadn’t played, but we knew we’d get it this time: The River.
It would be impossible to match to my favourite recording made back in the 1980s (linked in lyrics), but more interesting to me was the different tone the song takes off when being sung by a man in his sixties as opposed to one in his thirties. But then again there are lines – but lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy – which ring true as ever.
But the mood shift again as the band shifted straight into the more optimistic and youthful The Promised Land, Darlington County and Waitin’ On A Sunny Day, performances of which are famed by their inclusion of a kid from the Golden Circle. Bruce’s chosen child had clearly been prepped for the role; as well as an oversized Springsteen top over her dress, geeky glasses and hair separated into two bunches she held an enormous yellow sign which read I have school tomorrow, but tonight I’m waitin’ on a sunny day!
It’s one of those silly gimmicks that the crowd loves – for some reason I always cry – but the moment when she shouted into the microphone “Come on E Street Band!” (5:15) everyone lost it. Her dad must have been bursting.
The next request with “a well thought-out sign” was the beautiful Tougher Than The Rest which, with the words float like a butterfly, sting like a bee Bruce dedicated to Muhammad Ali. A few more crowd pleasers followed before ending the main portion of the show with Badlands, a track which thousands of people clearly hold close to their hearts, myself and my sister included.
Often the Band leaves the stage for a while and has to be ‘Bruuuuuuuuuuce’-d back on for the forty-odd-minute encore, but perhaps as we’d started a little late the transition from main set to encore tracks was almost non-existent. Springsteen picked up the little girl’s sign from Waitin’ and showed the song on the back to the camera: Jungleland.
Jungleland is one of those tracks that you have to dedicate a bit of time to, and it’s never one I thought I’d be lucky enough to hear live given that the album version alone is almost ten minutes long. But they played it – and my god, did they play. It opens with just violin and piano and steadily builds through the lyrics up until an enormous guitar solo. For those on the Backstreets blog, however, it was Jake Clemons’ saxophone solo which was ‘the high point of the London concert.’ Jake is the nephew of Clarence ‘The Big Man’ Clemons, Bruce’s saxophonist fro 1972 until his death in 2011, and although there’s plenty to live up to Jake has really come into his own, and the solo was nothing short of extraordinary.
The encore is normally a long list of crowd-pleasing tracks to dance to and ours ran fairly traditionally with Born To Run, Dancing In The Dark, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, Shout and Bobby Jean getting everyone (even us in the top tier) on their feet. By now the sun had set and the crew could make full use of the light show beneath the clear sky, until after the Band took their final bow and Bruce returned to the stage alone.
He treated us, like last time he was at Wembley, to a solo acoustic rendition of Thunder Road. This had been entirely unexpected three years ago, but he’s been doing it at most shows this tour so it felt more like an old friend than a particularly special moment, but in reality it was one very special moment among thirty-odd others. I don’t think there’s a much better way to bring people together than singing and dancing beneath a sunset to a musical giant like The Boss, and the singalongs continued as the crowds flowed haltingly out of the stadium, down the avenue and eventually into the station and away into the night.
summer days, summer nights is a temporary series documenting my summertime adventures and exploring areas of East Anglia, London and Cornwall in the process.
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