Friday, 22 June 2012

Bruce Springsteen, Stadium of Light , Sunderland. June 2012

I've had a long held affinity for the music of Bruce Springsteen and respect for the man himself. Although it's easy to write it off as part of his image, he still thinks about and writes about 'the man on the street'. His latest album, Wrecking Ball, is his best for a couple of decades in most people's opinion, filled with songs about immigrant workers, 'robber barons', bankers and the title track itself is a poetic paean to the hopes, dreams and memories that people associate with sport, in this case the demolition of the Giants Stadium in New Jersey where "all our little victories and glories, have turned into parking lots". There are some people who spend a lot of their time following Brucie live, and there were plenty of middle aged men in Sunderland's Stadium of Light last night proudly wearing their campaign t-shirts to prove their loyalty. There was also a lot of young people there too, and with fashion having come full circle, many of them looked unintentionally the double of Courtney Cox in the Dancing in the Dark video from 1984.

I came to Bruce Springsteen via my mum's Born in the USA album, then worked backwards collecting everything else he had done, preferring the stripped back, small town tales of thwarted dreams. My vinyl collection, including my Pink Cadillac picture disc, is gathering dust in the garage.

The first time that I saw Springsteen live was in 1993, on the Human Touch/ Lucky Town tour. Despite expecting a mega-performance I was really disappointed. He had split from the E-Street band and the backing band seemed like disparate session musicians, he seemed to be going through the motions and even stopped halfway through to do a song live for Top Of The Pops, making me in the audience feel like an extra in a promotional event. After that I drifted away from Brucie and stopped buying everything he produced. He seemed to 'find his muse' again with the 'Ghost of Tom Joad' and the 'Seeger Sessions' albums. Now with the Wrecking Ball album and the E-Street Band back together his music seems more heartfelt again, and his energy and enthusiasm for playing it shines through.

His UK dates unfortunately didn't include any Scottish venues, so on a Thursday morning we trekked down to Sunderland to see them play. All week the forecasters predicted torrential rain and on the road down it duly arrived, making us cancel plans to have a wee wander on Hadrian's Wall on the way there. We sat in The Town Wall pub in Newcastle watching the water cascade down the streets and onto the heads of a few miserable looking Japanese tourists. The middle aged men with stars and stripes bandannas on were already milling about the station as we headed off to Sunderland. Bizarrely I ended up standing alongside David Milliband at the Metro station platform, who is the MP for South Shields and seemed less awkward in the flesh than he does on TV, just a big drip really.

The River. Fog on the Wear
Sunderland itself looks like its best days are behind it, a visit to the local museum catalogued all the local industries which don't exist anymore, including one display titled "Who were the miners?". I hadn't realised they were extinct! England feels very much like a foreign country just now. We were in a Sunderland pub but couldn't bring ourselves to eat as we would get a St George's flag with our table number on it. I think if they actually DO win Euro 2012 England as a nation may spontaneously combust with excitement (if the rain lets up).

By the time we walked over the Wear the rain had changed to drizzle and fog, and it never got beyond that so we avoided the promised downpour. Anyway I can tick The Stadium of Light now off my list of football grounds to visit. I like that, as next time I see them on TV I can understand the context within the town around the ground and the scale of it. Still on my 'to see' list of footie teams though.
"It's rainin' but there ain't a cloud in the sky. Must of been a tear from your eye"
With no messing about with support acts he came on stage at 7.10pm with 14 musicians in support including the surviving members of the E-Street band.
They started with Badlands, one of my old favourites, then straight into We Take Care of Our Own and Wrecking Ball, two of my current favourites. That was the pattern for the rest of the gig. Bang, bang, bang. One song after another from a phenomenal back catalogue and lots from the current album. Bruce holds all the attention stomping about the runways at front of stage, back and forward, extricating himself from the hands of those in the front rows. He is a true pro. When he was doing an earnest bit of balladeering in centre stage, to Spirit In The Night I think, and the crowd "whoop" as the cameraman whose pictures are up on the big screens, pulls away from a girl up on someone's shoulders just as she goes to whip off her t-shirt, "There's some things you can't compete with" he acknowledges as he lets the earnest mood pass. (Turns out she had a stars and stripes bikini top on she was dead keen to show off). Death to my Hometown, a funked up versions of Johnny 99 and finally hearing The River live were highlights for me, as were the 5 piece brass section, and the violin and accordion playing from Soozie Tyrell and Charles Giordano deserve special mention.

Bruce always treads a fine line, objecting to unfairness and injustice, but apolitically and avoiding preaching, which is a shame to be honest. The Steve Earle concerts I've been to end up like rallies with this speechifying and the crowd lap it up. Bruce I think fears that's not what they come for whereas I think he's wrong - that's part of his appeal. If they didn't come for it then I think it would do some people good to have some politics shoved down their throats, to avoid us all becoming spineless David Millibands. Some drunken Geordie lass kept grabbing my arm to say 'D'you know he's a Socialist?' Although I fear she may be overstating it a little, it certainly was a reason why she was here. I think the current economic woes needs people to support those affected, but also to kick out those who brought us here rather than let neo-liberalism take the high ground and tell us its their way or the highway.

They played for over 3 hours and it flew past, the band were tight and impressive, he lead from the front throughout, no long instrumentals to go off for a lie down like Gary Glitter did when I saw him (that was a good few years ago, before that thing he did). He played all the big numbers with gusto, a crowd-pleasing performance. I would have preferred seeing him in Glasgow. Not only would getting home have been easier than the 90 minute wait at the Metro station and the 3 hour drive next day, but the crowd always seem more engaged and knowledgeable in my parochial opinion. There was raucous crowd singing round about us, but mainly with Scottish accents. Also I'd love to see Brucie ease off on the subtlety and give the people the characters in his songs are crushed by, both barrels when he's talking, as when he does it gets attention. First and foremost though he's a helluva songwriter,  musician and performer. Special mention must go to Jake Clemons on saxophone. He has particularly big shoes to fill, but as the nephew of Clarence Clemons I am sure that he is aware of that more than anyone. The on screen and musical tributes to "the Big Man" were nice, but sadly completely over the heads of some of those I was standing near. So next time Brucie - play Glasgow.

The morning afterwards we headed home, successfully dodging the Olympic torch route. Newcastle I'm guessing is hosting some Olympic football as they, like Glasgow, have been blessed with a set of rings, which I spotted next morning when I was out for a wee run trying out some of the Great North Run route, which will be the reason for my next trip to Newcastle.
My next dose of Springsteen will be at the Edinburgh Festival, as now that I'm home I've just ordered a ticket for self-confessed Brucie groupie Sarfraz Manzoor's show 'The Boss Rules'.

Good luck to those in Manchester if the rain we drove through on the way home is on its way to you tonight. We arrived home to a Glasgow thunderstorm in which lightening hit a tree outside our son's school and we had water "racing in the streets" so maybe Glasgow doesn't make the perfect venue after all.

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