Bruce Springsteen returned to London with his, at last count, seventeen piece Seeger Sessions band. Playing two nights at the somewhat cavernous Wembley Arena, I was afraid that this show wouldn’t translate to this large arena. But how wrong was I. This was perhaps the best live musical performance I have ever witnessed.
Saturday’s show started relatively late for me, I had a seated ticket, so there was no need for stupid amounts of queuing in order to get a good spot. Coming down Wembley Park tube station’s new flights of steps, the stadium looms in the near-distance, all lit up, it looks like some bizarre spaceship has landed in North West London. From the exterior it looks like a truly amazing stadium, I can’t wait to see a band there, maybe even a reunited Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band in 2007 or 2008? Who knows.
To the right of the stadium a white building is lit up by ever-changing coloured lights and it’s only then I realise that this is the arena. They’ve done extensive refurbishment work and even moved the entrance to the other side where a courtyard with a fountain now stands. With roving beer sellers and new beer pouring machines at the bar, queues are minimal and there is much less hassle than there once was. The refurbishment has certainly made a difference to the arena. Although gripes about its size cannot be forgotten about, the surroundings have improved enough for a concert there to no longer feel like an mini-ordeal.
The band came on stage a 8pm promptly. Loud shouts of “Brouuuce” can be heard echoing around the arena. The band file on stage one-by-one for what seems like an eternity as they take their places on the stage. Horns, trombones, trumpets, tubas, fiddles, an upright piano, an organ, backing singers, banjos, guitars, double bass, and a washboard were among some of the instruments used. The sound is like some mad hootenanny band from Mardi Gras at New Orleans mixing folk, rock, gospel, blues and soul and tying them all together to form the most American music possible. Its an amazing sound that blasts from the stage and unlike anything else in mainstream popular music.
Bruce takes to the stage wearing a shirt and waistcoat. No longer is dressed as the working class, blue collar worker of the 1980s or the beat-poet/hot-rod lover look of the 1970s. He now looks like the bastard love-child of Elvis and Woody Guthrie. In many respects this is a fitting look for the kind of music he’s now making.
The majority of the material presented is from Springsteen’s recent album We Shall Overcome. These are predominately traditional folk songs taken by Bruce and given a new lease of life. ‘Old Dan Tucker’ sees the crowd start singing the chorus before the introduction is over. Bruce smiles and comes to the mike snarling out the lyrics in his amazingly American accent. By the time of the musical bridge the horn section kicks in and you really do realise what an amazing bunch of musicians are on stage. ‘O Mary don’t you Weep’ is another one of these songs, the up-right piano sounds like it was stolen from a saloon in some piss-poor Western film and Bruce is an impassioned performer on this one tonight. It almost seems as if his body’s been taken over by the ghost of this traditional music and told to deliver it to the masses. ‘Jesse James’ starts with a brilliant banjo solo that goes on for about five minutes and Bruce again snarls the words into the mike with passion, flair and gusto. ‘Erie Canal’ a song from the late 1800s about mules pulling barges down the canal never felt anachronistic despite its subject matter, it was also helped by the fact that everyone in the audience sang the chorus in unison. Bruce has always had the knack of making large crowds and venues appear intimate through song and with the performance of this new material, it is no different.
As a final song before the encore, ‘Pay Me My Money Down’ saw the entire arena rise to its feet (without prompting) and sing the chorus over and over. As the band filed back stage, a lone tuba player continued to play the song for a while, the crowd continued singing, even continued when he’d finished his bit and joined his band mates. With continuous singing, clapping hands and stomping feet, Springsteen had blown away any sense of British reserve. Music is sometimes a powerful thing.
Other songs were more ‘political’ in their nature, ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ is a chance for some crowd interaction, it is an old warhorse of the civil rights movement in the states. ‘When the Saints’ becomes a soulful gospel tinged tune, brilliantly delivered by the singers and Bruce. ‘How can a poor man stand such times and live’ is Bruce’s song for New Orleans and its victims. I’m sure that there wasn’t a single person in the crowd who wasn’t moved by it.
Politics seems to be important for Bruce at the moment. He’s not been afraid to speak up for what he believes in and there is undoubtedly a political aspect to We Shall Overcome. Tonight he commented on the recent American elections saying that, “some semblance of sanity has returned to the States”. He then told us about going to see Lucinda Williams at Shepherds Bush and how in between the “boozing and the whoring” of his hotel room he had written a new song. And he then proceeded to play it! Taking what many performers would consider to be an incredible gamble, his new song was greeted in complete respect by the audience who remained utterly quiet. It was an amazing and incredible thing to witness. Of course, I had to have the seat in front of the only person determined to speak up. This middle aged lady who obviously had had one too many white wine spritzers, declared that she didn’t want to hear this, she wanted to “rock and roll”. She was quickly shushed by everyone in close proximity.
For this most recent tour, Bruce and the band have been playing larger sized venues, and with this come some responsibilities to his back catalogue. You need to play a few to keep the casual concert goer happy. ‘Devils & Dust’ was still a powerful anti-war, pro-soldier song, made even stronger by the band’s backing. ‘You Can Look (But You never can Touch)’ was also brilliantly performed. However, both songs were very different to their original recordings, something the casual fan might not appreciate. But then again, I think it would be hard to find a single person unhappy with this concert.
The concert ended with ‘Froggie Went a Courting’, an old folk song that is fun little ditty which, of course, required audience participation. The band then lined up in a row and took a long bow. The cheers would ecstatic, everyone was out of their seats, as they had been for at least half of the concert. This was a natural reaction to the brilliance of the performance that we had all just witnessed. It felt like a communal experience, strangers with smiles on their faces hugging each other and people singing all the way to the tube station. This was a once in a lifetime concert experience, although seeing as I was a lucky bugger I had tickets for Sunday night’s show! Sunday night couldn’t come quickly enough.
‘Blinded By The Light‘
‘Old Dan Tucker’
‘Eyes on The Prize’
‘O Mary Don’t You Weep’
‘My Oklahoma Home’
‘Devils & Dust’
‘How can a Poor Man Stand Such Time And Live ?’
‘Long Time Coming’
‘Jesus Was An Only Son’
‘Open All Night’
‘Pay Me My Money Down’
‘Gonna Be a Long Walk Home’
‘You Can Look (But You Never Can Touch)’
‘When The Saints’
‘This Little Light of Mine’
‘Froggie Went a Courtin”
Sunday started earlier. My friend and I decided that as we had standing tickets we’d like to get to the front of the standing area. It was incredibly well organised with people handing out special wristbands for those who had got there earlier. With our coveted wristbands we decided to hit the pubs. Although this being Wembley there seemed to be no pubs around. We eventually settled for the Hilton Hotel bar and Hotel Ibis bars. Not the ideal preparation for a concert, but until the construction work around Wembley is completed and the new proposed leisure facilities finalised, there isn’t much choice for early concert-goers.
Re-hitting the queue at 6.30pm, we got talking to two groups of fans from Oslo and Holland. Both had travelled extensively to see the mighty Seeger Sessions Tour this time around and both groups were extremely happy at the thought of another night in the presence of the Boss. We spoke of Bruce, of our hopes for the E Street band and of the differences between a Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen show, the half hour or so we were in the queue simply flew by. When we got in, we went straight to the standing area (well not before we got some pints in) and secured ourselves a place about eight or so people from the front of the stage. This was better than we had hoped and a nice surprise. The atmosphere down the front was electric and the anticipation on people’s faces was a delight to behold. Things got even more frenzied when people noticed that Sting had just taken his seat a few metres up from where we were standing. He was accompanied by his wife, all I could think about was tantric sex.
But as the lights went down all thoughts of tantric sex were blasted out of my mind. What hits you first from this distance is the sheer force of the music. It hits you like a heavy metal band’s music does, but they’re playing weird and wonderful instruments (in popular music terms at least). The horn section blasts out of the speakers and the fiddle is more emotive than any singing by the Boss. In fact the sound at both nights was fantastic, where as Wembley Arena had in the past a few problems with sound, on the evidence of these concerts, they seem to have fixed it.
From where I was, the view was incredible, one could see the sweat pouring from Springsteen’s brow, the energy and passion that he exudes on stage. Of course we’re a long way from the levels of energy and dexterity of his heyday but he is a relatively old man now, and a calmer performance is to be expected. But he didn’t shy away from hard work. He was a generous performer, playing for two and a half hours with passion, much more than other classic artists usually tend to do.
Tonight the setlist didn’t seem to work as well as the night before, although it was still excellent. The show didn’t seem to have as much momentum as it did on Saturday either. That’s not to say it was bad, it was far from bad, it just didn’t seem to gel as a whole as well as the previous night. Tonight’s highlights were more about his past songs. Surprises and songs that we thought we’d never hear, like ‘Does this Bus Stop at 82nd Street’ from his 1973 album Greetings From Ashbury Park. ‘Johnny 99′ from 1982’s Nebraska was completely transformed into a rollocking song and was absolutely amazing. ‘Bobby Jean’ from his most popular album Born in the USA was also very different, a far cry from the bombastic Springsteen of the 1980s. However, the highlight was definitely ‘The River’ from the 1980 album of the same name where the entire crowd cheered as if it were welcoming a long lost old friend. The audience sang along, knew every lyric word for word and it was an amazing thing to experience. Bruce was in the spotlight pouring his heart out into the microphone, eyes closed as he took himself back to the emotional place where he wrote this song, some twenty six or so years ago. It was a true performers tour de force and an incredibly moving moment as this bittersweet, melancholic song of love gained and love lost brought a tear to my eye and reminded me of how powerful and amazing a song it is. And how gifted a songwriter Springsteen really is.
The We Shall Overcome songs were as amazing as they were on Saturday. ‘Jessie James’, ‘Old Dan Tucker’, ‘Erie Canal’ and ‘Mrs McGrath’ are songs that I consider to be among his best (even if he didn’t write them!). They work incredibly well in this context and only true hard-core E Street fans could hate them! The concert ended with a traditional English folk song, ‘The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze’. It was amazing to see Springsteen pay tribute to English folk music in the way that he has American folk music. A lovely touch and a fitting end to his short London residency.
Overall, how would I assess the two nights? I was completely blown away. By the passion of Springsteen, his near perfect rock voice that simply cannot be beaten, by his performance. As a performer he is better than Dylan, Bono and even my stadium favourites the Rolling Stones. Quite simply put there is not another live performing artist on this planet who is fit to lick his boots!
The Seeger Sessions Band come as a breath of fresh air, in our currently highly polluted musical marketplace. Playing older songs and reinvigorating life into them with passion, flair and gusto in a completely different way to most artists. Springsteen took an incredible artistic gamble playing these songs in this manner. He’s reinvented himself, found the spark that made him start performing in the first place, and all the while is making beautiful, happy and moving music that is completely original. He made me feel as if I’ve known these songs all my life, as if they’ve been inside of me all of this time waiting to come out. It was also probably the most smile inducing event to have ever taken place at Wembley Arena, although Teletubbies live would probably be in competition, but to be fair they are targeting a different and easier to please audience.
I am so completely honoured to have been able to witness two nights of incredible music and see his gamble pay off. Please come back to London soon Mr Springsteen. Whether it be with the E Street Band or as a solo artist, it will have to be one hell of an amazing concert to top what I witnessed this past weekend with the seventeen piece ‘Rock ‘n Folk’ band.
‘Blinded By The Light’
‘Does this bus stop at 82nd Street?’
‘Further On (Up The Road)’
‘‘O Mary Don’t You Weep’
‘How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?’
‘Long Time Comin”
‘Open All Night’
‘Pay Me My Money Down’
‘Land Of Hope And Dreams’
‘You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)’
‘When The Saints’
‘This Little Light Of mine’
‘The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze’