Rock ‘n Roll Pilgrimage ( In Wellies.)

25 Jul

My wife Chris and I are sitting on a bench in Hyde Park, London. We are sipping a cup of tea but nervously keeping an eye on the grey clouds above. It’s been one of the wettest British summers on record. ( 2012)  We wear our rain gear and our Wellington boots. Past us marches a constant stream of people in a dazzling array of wellies — green, blue, pink, red, black, polka-dot, flowery and union jack patterned. Hundreds turn into thousands, turn into tens of thousands. It is like a vast rubber-booted pilgrimage, everyone marching towards the same hallowed goal. We finish our tea and join the throng. In the end there are 70,000 of us, all gathered to see the greatest live rock show in the world — Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. It turns out to be a fantastic 3.5 hour party.

  I first saw “The Boss” and his band at St James’s Park, Newcastle upon Tyne in June, 1985. A colleague, Ted, had a spare ticket and I took up the option despite having taken only a passing interest in Springsteen in the 1970’s.( career, marriage, babies — I have plenty of excuses!)  Part of my reason for going to this gig was to get even with my then wife, Annie, who had been lucky enough to see Bob Dylan at the same venue the previous year and had left me child minding and marking my school books. So I was a bit equivocal, more curious than excited, as Ted and I wormed our way into the huge crowd gathered on the football pitch. However, as soon as the opening chords of “Born in the USA” boomed out across the stadium and the crowd went wild, I knew I was in the right place. For 3 hours I was transported into another world and grew to understand that, although Bruce’s albums are all very good ( and “Born to Run” is a stone cold classic), it’s his live performances that are the key to understanding his phenomenal appeal. He is especially good when he is with the E Street Band.

  The music ranges from the grandiose and epic to the quiet and intimate. Yet at no moment, from the first note to the last, does it lose its intensity or feel-good factor. The whole gig is like an ecstatic party, the audience bonded by common love of the music into one huge Springsteen family. Back in 1985, as I watched Bruce and his charismatic saxophone player Clarence Clemons ( “The Big Man”) run up and down the stage extensions that snaked out into the audience, I joined the clan and have been in it ever since. Bruce helped to bring Chris and I together. It’s only when I told her that I had just been to see his ” Rising Tour” gig at Crystal Palace, that she decided to give me half a chance! We have now been to three Springsteen gigs together — all of them excellent, although I didn’t totally appreciate his Seeger Sessions phase. That makes 6 gigs in total for me. They are the best gigs I’ve seen and I’ve been to a lot of  superb music concerts in my time.

  Bruces’s music embraces a whole variety of styles, incorporating: rock, pop, country, folk, gospel, R and B and blues. His concerts offer an intoxicating, seamless mix of the whole lot. Coming from New Jersey, a state often blighted by unemployment, poverty and deprivation, many of his songs deal with social, economic and political issues. In this sense he is following in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. Recently, especially since the sad deaths of two long standing band members, the keyboard player Danny Federici and the mighty Clarence Clemons, his work has also taken on a spiritual dimension. For instance, his rendition of “We Are Alive” from the recent “Wrecking Ball” album, was preceded by a story of when he was taken to visit a graveyard as a kid and felt he was in contact with the people inscribed on the headstones. In an earlier gig he had declared of his departed band colleagues: ” If you’re here and we’re here, they’re here.” The performance of ” We Are Alive” moved from an acoustic ballad to a rousing foot-stomper. In a way this was a micocosm of the concert and of Springsteen’s music as a whole. He reaches the parts that most other musicians never reach, and he can do it in just one song! He has collected 20 grammies and sold 120 million records, but as I said, it’s his dynamic live performances that are the essential Springsteen. They grab you by the throat and the heart and don’t let go!

  In his own words, Bruce’s songs aim to ” measure the distance between the American dream and American reality.” He growls, snarls and hollers about the exploitation of the working man and the destruction of communities by the ” corporate jackels” and “greedy thieves.” He has previously been dubbed a “blue collar rocker” but that is maybe a bit too simplistic. His music has multiple subjects and dimensions. It can be angry and scathing, but it can also be joyful and uplifting. Much of it is anthemic, with hook-lines, call and response and repetition to draw the audience in. In the end, with thousands of people punching the air, jumping up and down and singing loudly along, it’s like being part of an enormous, celebratory family.

  I have never seen or heard of Springsteen and the E Street band give a bad show. The level of musicianship is superb as is the choreography of the entire concert. Every tune is performed with verve, brio and 100% commitment. Bruce and the band play each and every show as if it could be their last.

  The E Street band’s mission has always remained the same — ” To take the glorious power of music and shoot it straight into your heart tonight.” At Hyde Park in 2012, Bruce, at 62, showed no signs of slowing down. His declared intention was to leave the audience with ” your feet hurting, your hands hurting, your voice hurting and your sexual organs stimulated!” As usual, he delivered, despite an anticlimactic  and unexpected finale, when the organisers pulled the plug one song before the end to honour contractual obligations. To see and hear the E Street band is to experience the transcendental power of music.

  Springsteen treads the boards, his fendor guitar hanging loose on his back, gripping his mic tightly, spitting out the lyrics as if his life depended on it. It’s raw, exhilerating and inspirational stuff. The music is grandiose, heroic, with more than a nod towards Phil Spector’s legendary ” wall of sound.” The set rises and falls dramatically, carrying the audience on an exciting journey. The band moves with him, adapting to every mood and moment. Beneath the passionate vocals, the music constantly shifts and swirls. At times I  think a Springsteen gig is like a cross between a rock ‘n roll party and a religious revivalist meeting. A lot of Bruce’s stage mannerisms are borrowed from the world of charismatic preachers. His voice soars up and down — exhorting, appealing, cajoling, persuading. He controls the band with the neck of his guitar and conducts the audience until thousands of voices become one.  It’s like being in a vast choir. Everyone ends up feeling part of something much bigger than themselves. In some ways, it’s like the feeling one gets in a large football crowd at a big, dramatic match.

  Few singers deliver such long, intense performances. Bruce gives his all — physically, mentally and emotionally. He stands there, legs apart, delivering hit after hit from his huge back catalogue. He clambers down from the stage and surfs the pit, reaching out, pressing  flesh, thrusting his guitar amongst the upraised hands, choosing a girl to dance with him, choosing a teenage boy to sing along with him, making himself accessible and showing that he totally trusts his fans. Sometimes he takes guitarist Steve Van Zandt down with him. On this occasion, Jake Clemons, the late Clarence’s nephew, also came down, sax in hand, reminding us of the Big Man himself. Bruce and Jake sat on the steps in mock relaxation, chatting and laughing as if they were on the back porch at home. OK, it all may be planned and rehearsed, but it helps to break down the barriers  between artist and audience. Bruce is constantly building bridges between himself and his fans.. It is what makes his shows so special.

  Hyde Park, 2012 was as good as any Springsteen gig I have seen. It built up to a fantastic crescendo with Paul McCartney on stage with him and a spectacular firework show accompanying a rousing “Twist and Shout.” Then the plug was prematurely pulled and it was suddenly, abruptly over. Feeling bereft, we stood there in dazed disbelief. Then we all trudged off into the night in our multi-coloured wellies. It had been another epic night.

  PS —- I apologise for the hyperboles in this post. It’s difficult to describe a Springsteen show without going over- the- top. Much better to go to one!

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2 Responses to “Rock ‘n Roll Pilgrimage ( In Wellies.)”

  1. jarvisandbeetle July 25, 2012 at 8:17 pm #

    I completely agree – Springsteen proved what an outstanding performer he was and the E-street band are at Sunderland as well – despite the rain – think he may be glad to leave the UK!

    • scrapstu1949 July 25, 2012 at 9:16 pm #

      Glad you’re in the fan club and have seen him live

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