Monday, July 01, 2013

All for show: Bruce Springsteen at the Stade de France, Paris

© Simon Poulter 2013
The French have gone from being one of Europe's most contented nationalities to one of its gloomiest. A recent survey of the nation française revealed the national spirit is at an all-time low, gloom has set it amongst the Galls. Though not all of them.

The 75,000 who piled into the Stade de France on Saturday night screaming "Brooooooooooooce!!!" were clearly in the mood to have a good time. And a royally good time they had.

This was a night of consumate showmanship on both sides of the English Channel, a contrasting tale of two cities - one made of light, the other built of tents. 

In Paris, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were giving the sort of industrious performance for which they've become reknown, an exhaustive 42-year compendium of the American heartland, of cars, Saturday night sweethearts, screen doors and auto shop grease, all to an infectious stomp that barely stopped from start to finish.

442 kilometres away (or 275 miles, if you care about such things), in an unexpectedly dry Somerset field, The Greatest Rock And Roll Band In The World™ were working their way through a half-century repertoire of interpreted Chicago Blues, music steeped just as equally in American toil, but which had worked its way up the Mississippi River from the sweat-riven cotton fields of the South.

The Stones are, still, a force to be reckoned with. In Mick Jagger - who turns 70 in four weeks' time - they have a leader who prepared for Glastonbury with, according to The Times, a "gruelling" fitness regime of running, kickboxing, cycling, gym work and ballet. And in Keith Richards, the beating heart of what it is to be a Rolling Stone, they have a guitarist whose Glasto preparations were "making sure all my lighters have been filled".

At just 63, Bruce Springsteen is still the young pretender, but if the Rolling Stones have, over 50 years, set the bar high, Springsteen is clearly capable of leaping even higher over it. "Le Boss" gave a masterclass in entertainment on the largest of scales. Three hours and 20 minutes of it, to be precise. Springsteen and his stage-filling, 17-strong 'family' providing an utterly compelling demonstration of how to do this stadium thing properly - straight-forward, old-fashioned rock performance at its very best.

© Simon Poulter 2013

A band of seasoned performers, who have been touring the globe since 1972 like a giant circus troupe, each member with their own distinctive act. You had Stevie van Zandt, who'd just flown back from James Gandolfini's funeral, a semi-comedic Richards to Springsteen's Jagger, with his manic Keith Moon eyebrows and protruding bottom lip amusingly out of sync with the video screen to the extent that he actually looked like the The Sopranos' dream sequence fish. 

And in Nils Lofgren we had an equally gifted guitarist, whose extended sideburns, diminutive stature and stunted stovepipe hat gave him the appearance of a rock'n'roll leprechaun. At the back behind the drumkit for almost the show's entirety was Max Weinburg, looking more like a New York lawyer rocking out as a weekend hobby, but barely raising a sweat as he held everything together, much like his English countpart Charlie Watts over at Glastonbury.

The E Street Band are a tight crew. The deaths, in 2008 of keyboard player Danny Federici and, in 2011, of legendary saxophonist Clarence Clemons, have perhaps made them tighter, as they would any family, and especially a travelling family such as this. Thus, the sight of Clemons' nephew, Jake on saxophone raised as big a cheer as any of the other leading members of the band. 

© Simon Poulter 2013
This was my first ever experience of Springsteen live. I knew of his reputation, of stamina-testing shows and of superlative stagecraft, but nothing could have prepared me for the non-stop enjoyment. Anyone mad enough to have been watching me rather than the show would have seen the same stupid grin from start to finish. It was so good I just couldn't stop smiling. Or stamping my right foot.

Opening with Badlands from Darkness On The Edge Of Town, the crowd may have been at risk of peaking their excitement early. The River's Out In The Street followed, prompting the first outbreak of mass participation (there would be many more), before the ensemble on stage snapped into an energetic cover of Little Richard's Lucille - the first number of the night to be selected by Springsteen from hand-written requests held aloft on bits of cardboard by hardcore fans down the front.

On Wrecking Ball Springsteen convulsed through his latest album's title track and its commentary on the times: "I was raised out of steel here in the swamps of Jersey, some misty years ago. Through the mud and the beer, and the blood and the cheers, I've seen champions come and go", before adding the album's vitriolic Death to My Hometown to the evening, his face contorted like Schwarzenegger's in the Martian scenes of Total Recall as he rasped out the song's sharp commentary on American heartland decay.

© Simon Poulter 2013

After restoring the party spirit somewhat with a rousing Cadillac Ranch, Springsteen then announced - in, apparently, perfect French - that the band would work its way through the Born In The USA album in its entirety. 

Plenty of bands on the heritage trail have done this, sort of thing of course, but for the Paris crowd it was an unheralded surprise. It was, Bruce told them, 28 years to the day that he'd brought the original Born In The USA tour to Paris and that the band wanted to commemorate that special night in 1985. 

Even after this many years of being hijacked by idiotically misinformed politicans, the vituperative anger of "BARN in the yoo-ess-ay" still cracks like a pounding wound as Springsteen unleashed the first verse and those lines: "The first kick I took was when I hit the ground/You end up like a dog that's been beat too much/Till you spend half your life just covering up". The mood shifted with a positively beautiful I’m On Fire, a darkly passionate love song that just shouldnt have rendered a concrete bagel like the Stade de France to silence, but it did. 

More they followed - No Surrender, Bobby Jean, the singalongaspringsteen Glory Days, and then Dancing in the Dark. Last week I heard it given the bluegrass treatment by Ruth Moody, Mark Knopfler's support act, so it was odd so soon to hear the original performed by its originator. We all know it to be a song with a questionable history - that video, with a young Courteney Cox being plucked from the audience by a jiving Springsteen - being generally regarded as one of the horrors of the MTV era. Here it turns the stadium expanse into a giant high school prom, Bruce inevitably picking incredulous fans from the front row to frug with him onstage.

After that, we all needed a rest. My Hometown, the moodily bittersweet recollection of a segregated '60s America cut poignancy through the perfect summer's evening in Paris, a dark azure falling over the floodlit stadium as Springsteen intoned to an imagined son: "take a good look around - this is your hometown".

The emergence of Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers, and their cod Celtic jiggery has raised the duster of critics who find it all a bit faux 'Oirish. There's no denying that such music, when cranked up, can be dangerously infectious, however, but the Mumfords and their lind are, alas, late to this particular céilidh. Listen to Springsteen'swonderful  Live In Dublin album from 2007 and you'll hear it all done properly, by a New Jersey native of Dutch, Irish and Italian heritage. 

© Simon Poulter 2013

And thus, on the last day of June, Paris turned into the 17th day of March, as Pay Me My Money Down and Shackled and Drawn prompted arms to be linked and strangers to dance merrily about. It was as entertaining a spectacle to watch as, I suspect, it was to participate on the pitch below.

By this stage we were still only two-thirds of the way through the show - 21 songs in, to be precise. It was at this point that Springsteen refocused attention on an event that changed the world forever, an event that impacted the very people of his own New Jersey community, his neighbours and his schoolfriends: 9/11. 

Springsteen was in the midst of writing the album that would eventually become The Rising when New York was attacked, just across the Hudson from his Jersey Shore home. He recalls seeing the pall of smoke coming from the site of the Twin Towers.

As such, Waiting On A Sunny Day wasn't actually written about the attacks, but like the rest of the album, it took on a different meaning in their wake, it's bouncy hook speaking of the simpler world we all enjoyed before the dreadfiul events in 2001. To underline the pre-9/11 innocence a young girl is pulled out of the crowd and handed a microphone to sing the chorus which she does, totally unfazed by  the Enormodome audience before her.  Call it a hammy moment if you want, brand it ever-so-slightly corny, but the collective "Ahhhhh.......!" from the audience tellingly informed that in a beleaguered world that might otherwise find such a moment cynical, there is still enough humanity left regard it genuinely cute.

© Simon Poulter 2013
From the potentially sachrine to the actually moving: The RisingWith planes taking off behind Stade De France from Charles De Gaulle Airport - a powerful metaphor for that horrendous Tuesday morning more than a decade ago - a song about a fireman fatefully heading back up one of the towers.

The Rising has become an emotionally charged, but resiliently uplifting anthem, no less for Springsteen himself who pumped his Telecaster like an angry blacksmith hammering away at molten iron.

Three hours in it is time for that love it/hate it moment of pantomime where the band goes off for "light refreshment" to retun to a foot-stomping, wolf-whistling, frantically clapping audience for one last hurrah. In the case of the E Street Band, their departure is both understandable - given the hour - but brief: after what must have the most momentary of towel-downs, back out they came to the appropriatelty-titled We Are Alive, Wrecking Ball's homage to those who gave their lives in the construction of America.

Then, with barely a second for anyone - especially the audience - to catch its breath, the massed guitars of the E Street Band are thunking out the opening riff of Born To Run, the song from the album that transformed Springsteen from scruffy struggler to producer Jon Landau's claim that he'd seen "rock'n'roll's future - and it's name is Bruce Springsteen." 

There isore poignancy as Jake Clemons blasts out his uncle's sax solo with relish before Springsteen recovers the baton to scream: "The highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive". Never before has stadium rock sounded so big or so appropriately staged. And somewhere in the middle of it all, New York-born, Paris-dwelling rocker Elliott Murphy makes an appearance, much to the locals' delight.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Ramrod, next, gives Springsteen's comic theatricality a joyous outlet, as he and Van Zandt goof around, mugging for the cameras like a Three Stooges tribute act missing a critical third. However, if there was any doubt about it, it's clear that all 18 people on stage are having as much fun as the audience.

The party storms on with Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, the story of how the E Street Band formed in the first place, the LED video screens fittingly filling with the huge image of the band's deceased sax player, just as Springsteen delivers the line "...the Big Man joined the band", to rapturous (and even tearful) applause.

© Simon Poulter 2013
It almost seems too much. It isn't, of course. Like a party you leave not realising how late it is because you were having that good a time, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band finish up, fittingly on the Saturday before July 4, with American Land. It's the unashamed Stars-and-Stripes-waving Wrecking Ball track which reminds us that, for all its ills, America has not only drawn all and sundry to its shores, but has welcomed them.

"They come across the water," Springsteen sings, "a thousand miles from home, with nothing in their bellies but the fire down below". It is one last opportunity of the night for the crowd to jig about, link arms with strangers and soak up the spirit of "There's treasure for the taking, for any hard-working man...". 

At its close, one hard-working American man applauds his band off stage, one-by-one slapping them on the back as they disappear down a tunnel after a truly awe-inspiring spectacle, one I'd imagined, even expected, but had little real understanding of without experiencing it first hand.

With the E Street Band gone, it is left to Springsteen, alone, to strap on an acoustic guitar and affix a harmonica brace around his neck. There have been goose-pimple moments, but not quite like this one. He strums, he breathes into the harmonica, and then.... "And the screen door slams, Mary's dress sways. Like a vision she dances, across the porch." Yes, Thunder Road

This is the America of romantic ideal, which may or not have existed for real, and may or may not exist still today. This is Springsteen's America, of sweethearts in the moonlight and the skeletons of burned-out Chevrolets. And it is a moment to savour.

The end is palpable. As if we have both - artist and audience - arrived at the same conclusion. Exhausted but elated, as if we've all been on an epic journey of our own, from Badlands to Thunder Road, highway heroes all, on a last-chance power drive.


© Simon Poulter 2013

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