Friday, March 21, 2014

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Brisbane Entertainment Centre 26 February 2014

There are times when you know what’s coming, and this was definitely one of them. Of course, it has a fair bit to do with getting there early, which I tend to do for my own reasons, but I’d eaten down in the courtyard and made my way into the venue proper with a good hour and a half before the scheduled start when I recognised a familiar theme in the dull roar emanating from the main arena.

Familiar, yes. Fan-miliar, not so. Saturday Night Fever summarised everything I cordially loathed in the disco-dominated pre-punk era, when Bruce, along with Southside Johnny and Graham Parker were some of the very few lights on the musical horizon.

But it was definitely Stayin’ Alive, and they were definitely putting in the work to ensure they got it right, because, having done two complete side to side sweeps around the corridors I decided to grab a seat near Door Twelve and watch the parade rather than being part of it myself. That was around six-twenty-five, and you could still hear that familiar chorus, with lengthy pauses in between.

At this point, you’re forced into two conclusions. First, the show won’t be getting away on time, and Second, it’s probably going to start with Stayin’ Alive.

You didn’t need to be a genius to figure that out. In between Sydney and Brisbane Bruce had done two shows in the Hunter Valley, opening with Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee O-Dee and Spill the Wine. What they’d just been working up had been a rather tricky little arrangement, so you’d probably tend to start with it fresh in the memory banks rather than try to wing it somewhere further down the line.

We weren’t going to be starting at seven-thirty, either. Not that it was ever likely, though as I pointed out to the couple on my left once I’d claimed my seat, he had kicked off Sydney last year a fair bit before everyone had found their places.

It was comfortably after eight (8:05 or thereabouts) when the show started, which was (sort of) fine with me provided things ran long (tick, nearly midnight when it ended), and the neighbours were talkative (tick, both sides). The couple on my right were Festival Hall veterans, but Bruce virgins, so there was plenty to discuss that way, and the woman who claimed the seat on my left had been to all the shows on tour, and was progressing on to Auckland in the morning.

There was a voice in the dark thanking Australian audiences for their support this time around before a spotlight picked up an acoustic-strumming Bruce and trumpeter Curt Ramm. Well you can tell by the way I use my walk

So we were right there. What I hadn’t entirely expected was the thunderous swagger as the rest of the band kicked in and the horn section went into overdrive, and the string section…

There, on the riser behind Max Weinberg’s drum kit was a formally dressed eight piece string section, sawing away on the violins. Students from the Conservatorium, you’d guess, more than likely on the experience of a lifetime. Not sure how it’ll look on the old classical music CV though.

Stayin’ Alive a la E Street Band hit a monster Motown derived groove, apparently got a tick of approval from Barry Gibb via Twitter, and looked set to get the farewell party well and truly under way. It was followed, semi-perversely by a quartet of songs from Greetings from Asbury Park that sort of put the kibosh on earlier theories that the first album was too obscure to get the full album treatment.

Four out of nine is close to half way. Blinded by the Light (twice last year), Mary Queen of Arkansas (not since 2009), Lost in the Flood (played in Melbourne, second show) and For You (last played Perth, 5 February) crop up in the rotation from time to time. The Angel (played just three times since 1972) is probably the only real obscurity.

So as they worked their way through It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City (great version, stinging back and forth guitar licks between Bruce and Miami Steve) and a downright funky Does this Bus Stop at 82nd Street? There was an inkling of a suspicion we were getting a Greetings album show by stealth. No one around me seemed to be objecting.

There had been a fair bit of Bruce sits down to tell us a yarn action through Sydney and Melbourne, and we got it again at the start of Growin’ Up. This time around it took the form of a meditation on teenage life, sitting in a bedroom dreaming of being a superhero in between sporadic dates with a certain Mister Trusty, which is far as the sex quotient goes.

The conclusion, of course, is that it’s all part of Growin’ Up, but it left this listener marvelling at the man’s ability to come up with a fairly coherent off the cuff rap on a regular basis (if three out of four shows qualifies as a regular basis. He’s always been known for story-telling, and he’s built that into some fairly monumental ones through the roll those tapes, bootleggers era (Pretty Flamingo being one) but now that we’re in the business of selling official concert downloads one assumes he’ll be needing a new one each time he sits down.

Figuring that out is just another pre-concert task, along with all those other little matters that need attention, like spending three-quarters of an hour in the sound check sorting out Stayin’ Alive…

He was back in storyteller mode at the end, cutting back to the starter with something along the lines of staying alive isn’t that easy … how do we stay alive?’ How do you stay alive inside?

He’s building to something, and it’s fairly obvious that something is Spirit in the Night, and that was the way it turned out.

But even where you think things are getting a tad formulaic there’s room for something new. Spirit in the Night gets regular airings in concert, and where the venue configuration gives Springsteen a walkway between the pit and the rest of the floor he’ll more than likely crowd surf back to the stage as Jake Clemons wails out a carbon copy of Uncle Clarence’s sax lines.

So he does. When he’s safely back on stage, he noticed something unfamiliar in his back pocket as the percussive lead in to High Hopes starts up. It’s someone’s mobile. He’s landed a stuffed kangaroo as well, but this one’s got him intrigued. That's a first. … I didn’t feel a thing. And in true show biz connect with your audience fashion he can’t get the thing to work. He hasn’t sorted out the intricacies of his iPhone either, and he never reads instructions.

That revelation came out earlier, but it’s more than relevant here.

With someone else this bit might come across as forced or staged, but with Springsteen, as with Joe Camilleri when I saw him with the Falcons in Townsville back around ’78 there’s an overarching enthusiasm for the job at hand that’ll have most of the audience willing to suspend disbelief.

But we are talking show biz, and there’s a new album, which means you get High Hopes and Just Like Fire Would around this stage almost every night. This is where I’d like to see an actual setlist as taped to the floor before the show begins. Just to see how structured these things are, and what goes in the spaces, you understand.

Around this point, however, it’s fairly obvious that plans are likely to be going out the window. There’s a fair bit of grab the sign action, with four or five hauled in, though you can’t actually see what they are. That’s the way I remember it, anyway, typing away a fortnight after the event listening to the download.

But you know there are four or five. You’re just not sure what they’re calling for. Other shows he’ll wave one. and it shows up on the big screen. Jolie Blon, for example. Here, you can’t see the detail, but you know there’s a bit of set list shake up on the horizon.

So what do we get?

You Can Look (But You’d Better Not Touch) with plenty of Bruce/Steve mugging action.

A great Sherry Darling with Ed Manion blasting away on lead sax.

Save My Love, originally recorded for Darkness on the Edge of Town and released years later on The Promise.  That’s pretty obscure. It was just too fucking happy to get on that album.

Fade Away, with the revelation that it’s Miami Steve’s favourite song and needs to be played somewhere along the line every tour to keep him happy.

And then we reach a critical turning point. It’s obvious the original plan was to run through The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, and you’d guess the string section had been called in because they’d be needed late in the piece. But the Greetings material earlier on mightn’t have gone down as well as expected, the signs are delivering an interesting mix, so which way to go?

The actual issue, and I’m being just a tad cynical here, might have been a curfew, but Bruce has been known to flout those. But it might be too late in the night to run through the album, presumably on the basis that he’d need a certain amount of usual suspects time to wind things up and send the punters away happy.

Maybe just the second side. That’d be fine with me since it’d guarantee a Rosalita. Added benefit: would mean the string section gets to come back to do the job they’d probably been hired for, assuming Stayin’ Alive was an afterthought. Yeah, we could do that, and the strings would fit in nicely, sort of thing.…

So there’s a choice. The second album, or the signs? You decide.

Now, from where I was sitting, the response to each question was pretty much the same, which is why I suspect we ended up getting the second run through the album in E Street Band history. Hard core fan heaven, and in Brisbane, of all places.

And so we’re off and running with a  rousing The E Street Shuffle and a tender 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy), both pretty much the way they should be. An orchestrated Kitty’s Back swings mightily, a real treat, and then there’s another. Wild Billy’s Circus Story. Bruce: Before we had horn players Garry Tallent played the tuba, and he does, since the tuba part is a key ingredient of the song. He’s a bit rusty, and who wouldn’t be. Wild Billy last got an airing in Dublin in July last year. Before that, you need to go back to 2009. (twice), 2008 (once) and a string of airings in 2005. Interestingly, according to Brucebase it wasn’t played at all between 1974 and 1990!

And then it’s time for the second side, which is, in a word, magnificent. A stately Incident On 57th Street, a rumble through Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) and the string section back out to wind things up on New York City Serenade. Put that way it mightn’t sound that good, but I’d simply point The Inquisitive Reader towards the recording and remarks on the Bruce’s Place email list that this was, possibly, the greatest Springsteen show ever. And the run through The Wild is a key part of the performance.

And, quite possibly, an explanation for what comes next. That album’s not likely to be over-familiar to much of the crowd, and that factor might have put the question mark beside the idea of doing it at all. In any case, having done it, and devoted some forty minutes to something that mightn’t have gone down that well with a fair chunk of the audience, the stops got pulled out for the next bit.

A string of guaranteed favourites, with Bruce doing the walk around bit in Darlington County, a
Waitin’ On A Sunny Day that features the bit I personally could do without but the crowd invariably love. The Rising is impassioned, The Ghost Of Tom Joad intense, and, again, Morello points to the Aboriginal flag on the shirt on that line.

The roar of the audience singalong on Badlands is as impassioned as any I can recall, a joyful, fist-pumping Glory Days gets them in again, and the anthemic Born To Run rolls majestically.

Playing through the recording again, Bobby Jean swaggers, Dancing In The Dark swings mightily, and Jake wails away through the play out that, as usual, has a good dozen people hauled out of the pit. You can hear the upswells of audience noise in the background.

But then it’s the final leg, with a Tenth Avenue Freezeout that takes Bruce through the audience one last time and a Highway To Hell that brings Eddie Vedder out on stage. He’d apparently spent the show watching from the Pit, seems, um, well lubricated, but is definitely there to have a good time. As, of course, is everybody else, so why wouldn’t he?

But the house lights are up, as they have been since around Born to Run, and there’s still time for one more.

Actually, in official terms there isn’t, but curfew time was studiously ignored a fair way back and Bruce isn’t going anywhere. He’s already done the Food Bank pitch, just before Highway, but he’s got a bit to say about the beaches south of Surfers Paradise (I’m guessing Kingscliff as the actual spot referred to) and one more track to play, Thunder Road, the last of (count ‘em) 118 songs played over eleven nights around Australia.

And it’s arguably the highlight of the four shows I managed this time around, stripped back, minimal acoustic guitar with the crowd in full voice. A magnificent end to the best show of the four.

But you can always find something to gripe about, and in this case it’s lack of consideration shown by two girls who decided to stand up during 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) and Kitty’s Back.
That’s not a crime in itself, and you mightn’t have objected if they’d got up to dance. But they were right in the front row of the floor section right behind (and above the level of) the pit. It’s not like there was anything in front to block their view. No one else standing anywhere on either side. Just two inconsiderate people who didn’t give a hoot about those immediately behind them…
End of rant.

Stayin' Alive
It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City 
Does This Bus Stop At 82Nd Street? 
Growin' Up 
Spirit In The Night 
High Hopes 
Just Like Fire Would 
You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch) 
Sherry Darling 
Save My Love 
Fade Away 

The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shufflerun through:
The E Street Shuffle 
4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) 
Kitty's Back 
Wild Billy's Circus Story 
Incident On 57th Street 
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) 
New York City Serenade 

Darlington County 
Waitin' On A Sunny Day 
The Rising 
The Ghost Of Tom Joad 
Glory Days 
Born To Run 
Bobby Jean 
Dancing In The Dark 
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out 
Highway To Hell (With Eddie Vedder)
Thunder Road

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