For a man who’s been eligible for Saga membership for the past 17 years, Bruce Springsteen still puts on quite a show.
While the days of four and even five-hour concerts might be behind him his recent UK gigs have demonstrated a new maturity and confidence: If performing such marathon concerts used to be a way of divorcing himself from his personal demons, his new laid-back demeanour hints at a man who is now more comfortable in his own skin.
Not that he is taking it easy. His three-and-a-bit hour concerts are a master class in how to control both band and audience with the most subtle of gestures.
A flick of the hand or a sweeping glance is enough to bring The E Street Band to the exact point he needs them to be, no easy task given Bruce’s predilection for changing the set-list according to whim for a Springsteen concert has always been pockmarked with moments of levity and spontaneity.
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Maniacal and mesmerising
Driven by an angst-ridden persona – despite the generally upbeat music, a thread of darkness and anger runs throughout his entire catalogue – his performances always had a maniacal energy to them that was mesmerising to watch.
The mania might have been toned down but the energy is still there in heaps. Anger too; a blistering rendition of Death to my Hometown was followed by an equally heartfelt Youngstown at the Coventry gig, both songs spat out with half-an-eye to the town’s declining manufacturing base.
Springsteen has always been an advocate of the blue-collar worker and little has changed in the five decades he’s been plying his trade.
If elements of the set in both Manchester and Coventry were overtly political, there was plenty of fun to be had too.
At 66, Bruce can be excused for not clambering over pianos any more and if his famous runs along hinterland ‘twixt fans and stage are more of an easy jog these days they are made all the more intimate by a man who seems to derive more pleasure than ever from the interaction.
Friendship and participation
Bruce also seems to be enjoying the company of The E Street Band more than ever.
The deaths of long-time band members Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici served as an untimely reminder that life is finite and there to be embraced; while Danny was always a relatively introspective character on stage (although not in life, as Bruce’s eloquent eulogy demonstrates) Clarence was always front and centre as musical and comedy foil.
That role is now shared between Jake Clemons, Clarence’s saxophone-playing nephew and Stevie Van Zandt, his oldest friend. Bruce must have called “C’mon Steve” a dozen times or more during each concert, pulling his friend near him to play or share the microphone.
For friendship lies at the heart of a Springsteen gig and your presence demands participation: I dance with the E Street Band and almost no one else, if for no other reason than their presence has been the one constant in my life since I was fourteen.
As a teenager his songs unlocked a door to all the hope and promise and disappointment the world would offer, and I listened to his catalogue as my life tracked his with uncanny accuracy, albeit a fifteen-year lag. (I hated the Tunnel of Love album initially; its subtleties and pain lost on my twenty-something self. Then, my own divorce. Boy, did I get it then.)
Perhaps, like Bruce, I’m more comfortable these days. Normally the epitome of the middle-aged, middle-class man content to stand on the sidelines, a few songs in and I’m lost in the moment and the sheer joy of being in the presence of a man I admire. I’m wary of having heroes, but Springsteen comes as close as I’m ever likely to be comfortable with.
Nor am I alone. The crowd was packed with Springsteen’s contemporaries, fans who, like me, have grown up alongside him and if he can still bounce around and sing for three hours then we can too.
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A long ride
This tour is nominally to celebrate and promote the newly re-mastered version of The River twin album alongside a seven-disc box set of outtakes and unused tracks.
The truth is that neither is likely to appeal to the casual fan but then the audience was composed almost entirely of those who’ve been along with him for the ride since the original album was released in 1980, so for most of us its place on the bookshelf is assured.
The set-list for the Manchester gig can be found here, while the Coventry set is here.