Friday, 29 March 2013

26 March 2013 (Day 85) – Gig # 700 Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band

I awake.  It takes a nanosecond to realise what “M” has been referring as “Bruceday” has arrived.

As we’ll be operating under a tight time frame after work, I set to work on a range of what are effectively last minute actions – locate my tickets, gather my digital camera, check and double check its batteries are fully charged, find my ear plugs, etc.  In the car to work “M” and I discuss our strategy for dinner, travel to the gig and parking without resolving anything.  I drop her off at work and continue to mine thinking about the coming show.  Specifically, I wonder whether Bruce has any memories about his previous gigs in Melbourne…

Tonight will be my fifth Springsteen gig all of which have been in Melbourne during the current and 3 previous tours.  So far the most memorable were the two of the three shows at the intimate Palais Theatre in February 1997 on the Ghost Of Tom Joad tour.   These were solo acoustic shows, each magnificent demonstrations of Bruce’s songwriting and his rapport with the audience.  The audience at both, comprising the hard core Bruce fans, were awestruck.
That tour marked the only time I’d had any form of contact with The Boss.  Having received a tip, I stuck around in the stalls after the final show.  After most of the audience had departed, Bruce peaked out from behind the curtain returned to the lip of the stage and greeted us.  I had my vinyl copy of the Born To Run cover and a biro hoping for an autograph.  Bruce reached out to me first and stuck out his hand and I shook it, marking the only few seconds we have met on the road.  He then reached to the guy next to me, who held a marker pen and the Darkness cover, and signed THAT.  (Memo to self and you out there: if you want an album cover signed, ensure that it is of Darkness.  And take that marker pen.)

Yet, however memorable the acoustic gigs were, Melbourne and Bruce and the E Street Band have had, what I would term, an interesting relationship. Initially it was notable for how long it took for that relationship with the both city and the nation to be consummated. 
Bruce’s first tour of Australia was in 1985 meaning Australian audiences had missed out on previous tours, especially the epic ones in support of Born To Run and Darkness.  As a result, rabid fans like me and the-Bruce-fan-formally-known-as-MJ (he now wants to go under the name of Mulder) missed out on all of the thrills with which he made his reputation as a live performer.  For all our devotion we had not witnessed the piano only versions of Thunder Road, or the 20 minute plus versions of Kitty’s Back, or the Detroit Medley or the version of Prove It All Night with the lengthy intro as played on the Darkness tour.  Rosalita never came out.  All we were left with were bootlegs, the live footage from the No Nukes film and that single filmed performance of Rosalita which we’d all watched incessantly once the VCR was invented.
My thinking was then interrupted by my arrival at work.  Fortunately I had a few meetings during the day including a lengthy one off site to keep my mind occupied.  But these initial thoughts influenced the selection of the one album I played in total during the day:

(242) Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – Hammersmith Odeon, 75
The origins of this album go back to a film of Bruce’s first show on his debut European tour which finally surfaced as a DVD on the 30th Anniversary release of Born To Run.  This CD version was released a few months afterwards.  It is a marvellous document of the band during that era containing, yes, the piano Thunder Road, a lengthy Kitty’s Back, Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) and the Detroit Medley.  Other mainstays of the era including his cover of Gary U.S Bonds’ Quarter To Three, Jungleland and Backstreets are also included.  The DVD version in the box set though is the way to experience this performance.

Yet, despite the magnificence of the live performances I’ve heard or seen from around the world over nearly 40 years, unfortunately, the two gigs I’ve seen with the band raise mixed emotions. There are a number of factors that account for this, only some of which were out of Bruce’s control.  Put another way, I’d always felt that something was missing.
The first band show I attended was the second (and last) Melbourne date on the Born In The U.S.A. tour on 4 April 1985. (In an amazing coincidence to this year, it occurred just a month or so after the epic debut Neil Young/International Harvesters/Crazy Horse gigs.  Another coincidence with this year:  the 1985 shows also occurred in the week leading into Easter.)  This tour occurred at the absolute zenith of Bruce’s fame here and the demand for tickets was intense. Despite being just about the first act to charge more than $20AUS for a gig, the first night – 50,000 tickets – sold out in less than 2 hours before I got even close to the counter at the ticket office. 

Therein lay a couple of issues; first there was then no concert venue in Melbourne capable of holding such a crowd given the unavailability of the 100,000 seater Melbourne Cricket  Ground and the 75,000 seater (now demolished) VFL Park owing to the start of the Australian Rules football season.  Instead the shows were held at the Royal Melbourne Showgrounds in the middle of residential Flemington and to which strict curfews and noise limits applied.  In Springsteen history, the two Melbourne shows were, I think, only the third and fourth occasions the band had played a headlining gig outdoors and the first gig was probably the biggest crowd they’d played before up to that point. And to make things harder for the Melbourne audience to bear, the Sydney based promoter scheduled additional shows there at the indoor Sydney Entertainment Centre.
The Melbourne crowd was filled with people who become fans solely on the strength of the Born In The U.S.A album and knew little of the rest of his catalogue apart from the Born To Run, Hungry Heart and The River singles.  This meant the set list was compromised in their favour with even Born In The U.S.A. B-sides played in preference to earlier material.  It is arguable whether this won them over in any case.  I remember, for example, some new fans dressed up as though they were going to a disco chatting to themselves at interval and comparing the show unfavourably to Spandau Ballet who were in town that week.  In terms of epic tracks, the last thing I expected, or as it turned out wanted, was a 10 minute version of Cover Me.  A total of only two tracks (Born To Run and Thunder Road) was played from the first three albums including nothing from the first two.  Bruce’s decision to drop Rosalita as a permanent fixture from his set started with that Australian tour.  Surely he could have waited?  Covers of Trapped, Can’t Help Falling In Love, Twist And Shout and Rockin’ All Over The World were nice but they essentially couldn’t disguise this was a band coming to grips with a larger, outdoor stage and a less than fanatical audience whilst still in the process of integrating Patti Scialfa and Nils Lofgren.  It was a great show by many standards but only a good one by Bruce standards.

But the 1985 gig was nothing compared to the relative disaster that was the 20 March 2003 show on The Rising Tour at the Telstra Dome (now known as Eithad Stadium).  Melbourne's only gig that tour occurred in a 54,000 seater stadium with a retractable roof and the tour was booked by the same Sydney based promoter as before who, this time, scheduled smaller, multiple indoor shows in Brisbane as well as Sydney. A massive A Reserve was erected on the arena surface and priced out of the range for the average fan.  The remainder of the arena and the grandstands, all a considerable distance from the stage, were priced more modestly but the venue ended up being, at best, only two thirds full. 
This time I was better prepared and was able to get tickets for myself and Mulder 30 seconds after they went on sale.  We were in row AA which we assumed was front row, only to turn up on the night and discover we were in the last row of the A Reserve.  As I watched the reserve fill up, I started to get an uneasy feeling.  There were an awful number of people arriving wearing suits; I saw a couple arrive dressed as though they were going to the opera complete with binoculars.  A fan next to me alleged that the promoter had placed the A Reserve tickets on sale for his company’s shareholders before the general public.  I’ve never been able to have this claim proven (in other words, I am not saying the promoter did this) but, if true, it would explain the curious lack of passion or energy from the audience in front of me that night.  Meanwhile I could hear the roars from the B Reserve behind me throughout the night  (actually I could hear them twice due to the echo caused by the largely vacant upper level) who were having a great time despite being so far away from the stage.

If all that wasn’t enough, about 5 hours before the show started, American troops invaded Iraq.  This clearly played a role.  Audience members were understandably wary about what this meant and going to a gig that night as a war began to which Australian troops were going to be committed and killed didn’t seem like a good idea.  (I’m pretty sure it killed off last minute ticket sales as I don’t remember queues at the stadium for them.)  It did result in a memorable opening to the show with an acoustic Born In The U.S.A giving way to a mighty version of Edwin Starr’s War (“War what is it good for/Absolutely nothing”).  But the setlist problems continued.  Although I’m probably wrong here, the set felt as though it was the 1985 show revisited, this time with tracks from The Rising replacing those from Born In The U.S.A.  Once again, the first two albums (Rosie included) were ignored and although we had the pleasure of hearing Backstreets and seeing Miami Steve, you could sense that Bruce was distracted by Iraq.  After this single gig, the band continued to Sydney including the infamous outdoor gig where the power cut out 4 times in the one show.  My smug sense of satisfaction turned to abject depression when I read that the crowd got a performance of Rosalita as compensation.
Thus as you can see, in my mind I had not yet experienced the full Bruce live experience.  But my hopes had been raised immeasurably for this tour.  This tour is under the control of a Melbourne based promoter which accounts for the 3 shows at Rod Laver Arena and the two on the edge of town at Hanging Rock.  To mind this is the sort of set up you’d expect for Melbourne.  After all, it is the city that traditionally embraces the type of music that Bruce has always leaned towards, more so than Sydney, a city notorious for taking aboard and discarding the dominant musical trend or act of the moment.  Moreover, the arrangement is fairer to Bruce’s fans in South Australia and Tasmania, where he’s never played and who can get to Melbourne far more easily.  I’d imagine that quite a few South Australians will be making the 700km road trip from Adelaide to Melbourne for an Easter holiday gig at Hanging Rock.

But, from the moment the shows were announced, I only had eyes for the three shows at Rod Laver Arena aka Centre Court of the Australian Tennis Open.  To me the E Street Band is one of the very few which could take on and defeat this 15,000 seater, Australia’s largest, premier and regularly used indoor concert venue.  (It is also a venue that would be regular member of the world’s top 10 concert venues by attendance and takings if not for the 5 weeks it’s out of commission every summer owing to the tennis tournament – and even then it sometime gets in.)  A gig at Rod Laver, is effectively the closest anyone in Melbourne is ever likely to see this band in something approaching intimate mode.
Finally, there is an even more significant personal reason for wanting the true experience.  This is the first time Bruce has been to Melbourne since “M” and I got together and I’ve always promised to take her.  To date the shows we’ve attended together are those she’s wanted to see.  This is the only act I’ve wanted her to see.  If I was still a bachelor there is not the slightest doubt that I would have gone to all three nights.  Instead I’ve taken the risk of buying two tickets for the same night, one for “M”, and hoping I got the right night.  (Or should I say, hoping Mulder got the right night as he bought them this time.)  Actually, I had a choice of only the first night or tonight because I’m off tomorrow to see the only Melbourne date of the only other act on the planet who could conceivably keep me away from Bruce.  After seeing the set list for opening night, I’m reasonably confident that I’ll get the better of the two nights.

And so, after picking up “M” from work, we dash back home and, in tribute to Springsteen’s Italian roots, whip up an batch of gnocchi for dinner.  We wolf it down, I collect everything assembled in the morning and we head out.  I’d devised a clever driving route where I go against the Melbourne peak hour traffic to arrive at my favoured parking spot alongside the Yarra River.  When I arrive there, all the spots are taken; the one thing I’d forgotten was that Chris Isaak is playing the Myer Music Bowl on the other side of the river to Rod Laver.  Fortunately, some joggers having completed their run around The Tan, return to their car and so, holding up traffic, I wait for them to leave and take their spot.  It’s now 6.20 pm.  “M” and I walk along the river, taking in the smell of all the barbeques taking place, cross the Swan Street Bridge and head into Rod Laver.
Our tickets are pretty good; five rows from the bottom of the lower level of seats, more or less, where coaches and family sit during the Australian Open.  The venue is set to just about maximum capacity; seats behind the stage have been sold, general admission applies on the first half of the tennis court with the back half comprising a raised seated area. Mulder joins us with his partner who I shall call Scully. It is her first Bruce gig too. Mulder and I talk about the opening night; he is convinced we’ve got the better night.  We note that Spirit In The Night was played marking the end of the ban of tracks from the first two albums.

It is now 7.50 pm and E Street Band members start to enter the stage.  I fumble for my camera and wonder whether I’ll finally experience the true Springsteen live show;
Gig # 700 – Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band, Rod Laver Arena, National Tennis Centre, Melbourne

Bruce Springsteen is last to step on the stage.  The packed house rises to their feet and does its best to blow the retractable roof off.  Already it’s clear that front of stage, indeed the whole arena, is full of the true believers (and partners), no fair weather fans, corporate shareholding theatre going types or Spandau Ballet apologists among them.
In complete contrast to the infamous 2003 gig, Bruce stifles a laugh whilst yelling, “Melbourne… Bums off seats”.  A count off and the band roars into a full bodied Badlands, the perfect opener with house lights up as per standard operating procedure. It segues beautifully into We Take Care Of Our Own, played with appropriate intensity. 

After that, the band starts to idle, and some musical cues suggest Adam Raised A Cain will be next.  Bruce holds up the band, heads to the audience, plucks a song suggestion and reveals it to the crowd as Cadillac Ranch turning the audience into a state of absolute frenzy.  This turns out to be an astute choice as next up is the title track of Wrecking Ball, delivered flawlessly.  Bruce then returns to the crowd and selects another request.  This time it’s Downbound Train, practically the only track from Born In The U.S.A. he didn’t play in 1985. (Has he finally checked the set lists for his previous Melbourne shows?) The ensemble playing on the song’s outro is impressive and I wonder why he doesn’t play this more often.  Death To My Hometown comes next and I’m starting to notice the impact of Tom Morello (aka The Nightwatchman, aka the guitarist from Rage Against The Machine), Miami Steve’s temporary replacement for the tour whilst filming in Norway. 
Hungry Heart follows with “M” singing along.  Bruce takes to the audience, moving along one side and then across a narrow catwalk between the general admission and court seated fans.  From there he stage dives into the audience who carry him back to the stage whilst he finishes the tune.  On the way, a fan gives him a beret, exactly like the one he wore in the early years.  “I’ve got the cap.  I may as well play the song that goes along with it”, he declares and the band launches into Spirit In The Night.  Mulder and I high five and are practically in tears as a lifetime ambition is realised.  Bruce then attempts to put everyone in tears with a mournful yet beautiful rendering of My City Of Ruins during which he implored those present to think of their own lost souls.  Undoubtedly some in the audience think this is a reference to Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons but their names are not invoked.

A funky Morello riff whips me out of wistful mood and into ecstasy as I realise the next track is The E Street Shuffle.  It is a mighty version, with the arrangement making full use of the talents of the 5 man horn section, three backing sessions and percussionist.  The instrumental coda at the end is nothing short of astonishing.  But something even more astonishing is to come as Bruce plucks two requests from the audience.  He shows them to the band and asks if they could possibly play it and then informs the audience he had noticed this request during every date of the Australian tour to date.  It is for Red Headed Woman from Human Touch, close to my least favourite song in his entire repertoire. He starts it as a solo number in, if my memory holds, “The key of C, the people’s key”.  A borderline delta blues interpretation, the arrival of Soozie Tyrell’s fiddle heralds its mutation into a country style hoedown with everyone joining in.  It’s an unexpected triumph from a most unexpected source.  
The audience (“M” included) then erupt when the familiar cords of Because The Night follow on its heels, the arrangement sticking fairly close to Patti Smith’s original interpretation.  A tremendous version of She’s The One is next followed by the night’s sole number from Nebraska.  This is Open All Night but played in the wonderful arrangement pioneered by Springsteen’s Sessions Band on the Live In Dublin album.  The party atmosphere unleashed by this is then sustained by the neighbouring Born In The U.S.A tracks, Working On The Highway and Darlington County.  Shackled And Drawn from Wrecking Ball follows, giving the extended band another chance to shine.  Hot on its heels is Waitin’ On A Sunny Day, another chance for a singalong.  During this number, Bruce plucks a young fan from the audience to sing along, a cheesy moment for sure, but one which has the audience roaring its approval.  Just before returning the boy to the audience, Bruce hoists him atop his shoulders.  The reason for his selection becomes apparent as it reveals not only was he dressed in a white T-shirt and blue jeans, the boy also had a red baseball cap dangling from his rear pocket.  Sound familiar?

Then comes the highlight of the night as Bruce starts The Ghost Of Tom Joad. With Nils Lofgren sitting in on lap steel guitar, initially it sounds like its going to be a straight band version. After the first couple of verses, Tom Morello joins in on vocals turning it into a duet.  (We should have seen this coming.  After all, Rage Against The Machine covered the tune on their covers album.)  From there the tune gains in intensity until exploding into a guitar orgy with Morello incorporating his trademark Rage Against The Machine scratchings.  The audience roar at its end was testament to the magnificence of the version. 
Very few songs could possibly hope to follow this.  Something special was needed and duly delivered in the form of Thunder Road with the audience singing at full throttle for the entire track. It was here that Clarence Clemons’ nephew Jake shone, delivering the sax solo with a power and tone almost identical to his uncle.  It’s so strong, I wonder whether he is using Clarence’s saxophone.

At this point, the band took their bows and the encores began without anyone leaving the stage. We Are Alive was up first in the "encore", being the final of the modest total of 5 Wrecking Ball tracks delivered on the night.  Another lesson learnt from previous Melbourne shows perhaps? Unquestionably the best version of Born To Run I’ve heard live  – the song that probably means more to me than any other -  is next with Jake again starring.  This leads into Dancing In The Dark utilising the version seen on the Live In Barcelona DVD.  Jake comes down again for the sax solo and the night’s ritual selection of the audience member to dance with The Boss but a curious thing happens.  Bruce plucks out a request from the audience, turns to Morello and calls out something. Eventually, Morello nods in agreement and Bruce plucks out a girl.  As he does so, Morello takes off his guitar and the girl runs to him.  They do 50s style dancing, shimmys and bum dancing.  Bruce, not to be outdone, selects his own dance partner.
The song ends and the girls are returned to the mosh pit.  Bruce motions to the band that he wants to select another request.  He plucks the card he wants and with a triumphant cry of “One time for Melbourne” reveals it to be Rosalita (Come Out Tonight). I unleash a primal roar I didn’t know existed within me as all those years of yearning for this one moment comes true.  Mulder, even more uncharacteristically, starts singing along and in tune to boot.  We HAD got the right night! It’s a fairly straight forward rendition of the standard but we don’t care.

By songs end, Bruce was just about gone and hams it up.  He lays on the stage, leaving Nils to collect a giant sponge and soaks him with it.  The band then launch into a superb version of Tenth Avenue Freezeout with the horn section really making its presence felt.  Then came the emotional moment; at the line where “the Big Man joins the band”, everyone on stage stops and looks toward the video screen.  Footage of Clarence Clemons is shown and the audience roars and applauds in tribute.  Someone in the Bruce organisation had also done their homework and remembered Danny Federici had also died since the last Melbourne show and ensured he too is cut into the tribute.  The audience greets his appearance with similar favour.  After another expedition into the audience (his third), the tune and gig is wrapped up and the house lights come up.  The audience is still on its feet applauding.
Despite the general euphoria, the last number was a sobering one.  It was a reminder that the end of the road is looming for band members, many in the audience and Bruce himself.  His songs are beginning to address this issue but that’s a thought for another day.  At this exact moment, everyone is stunned but happy.

I’m very happy.  I finally had my reservations about the previous Melbourne gigs vindicated and seen Melbourne’s reputation of Australia’s Bruce capital finally put in its proper place.  I’ve finally experienced what it’s like to be a real Springsteen gig and in the right venue.  I award the, dare I say it inevitable, perfect 10  I’ve always wanted to a Springsteen show placing Bruce in the top rank of all the acts I’ve seen.   But most importantly of all, I shared it with “M” and converted her to the cause as well. 
Thanks Boss.  We’ll see ya down the road.

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