By Ben McCausland
I have been present at Wembley for some special moments: I saw a Roy McDonough-inspired Colchester United triumph over Witton Albion in the FA Trophy in 1992; in 1995 I saw a scrawny kid from Bootle give the finest individual performance underneath the twin towers since Sir Stanley Matthews 42 years earlier; in 1998 I was again lucky enough to again attend the final of the FA Trophy and see a rampant Cheltenham Town swat aside Southport; and most recently I was perfectly positioned behind Tim Howard’s goal to see Wor Andy break Evertonian hearts with one swish of his ponytail – but what I witnessed on Saturday night might just have been the most special of them all. Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for Bruce Springsteen.
Bruce Springsteen stadium gigs are not a rare occurrence – he and the E-Street Band have toured relentlessly in recent years – but what I and 71,000 other people experienced underneath the arch on Saturday felt like something special.
Virtually 11 months to the day earlier, The Rider’s very own Adam Melia and I attended Bruce’s Hyde Park gig which due to “toxic bureaucracy” has since passed into infamy, and despite the council caring more about the Park Road residents than two bona fide legends playing together on stage, it was a fantastic gig, but what we saw on Saturday absolutely blew it out of the water.
I know many people who dismiss Bruce Springsteen as corny, or mistakenly judge him by “Born in the USA” and see him as some jingoistic, flag-waving patriot, but that is so far from the truth. His first 8 albums are all fantastic pieces of work, and his more recent albums have seen a fantastically crafted change of direction that seamlessly fits into his live act alongside the old classics. Admittedly, on-stage Bruce can seem cheesy, but it is all done with such genuine warmth and passion that it never seems like a shtick he is putting on. He unquestionably seems to love every minute on-stage – he doesn’t have to play for over 3hrs every night and he doesn’t have to play the crowd favourites time after time, but he does and the reaction he gets from his crowds is legendary.
We had been warned by the promoters that the man himself would be on stage at 7pm prompt – Springsteen doesn’t need, and indeed hasn’t got time on the bill, to accommodate a support act – so shortly after lunchtime we left the pub on Liverpool Street and started the journey up to the stadium. Springsteen fans are somewhat better behaved than your average cup final crowd, yet the stewards around the ground were conducting themselves as if they were working an EDL tour of Britain’s Mosques. Once inside with the stewards numerous demands still ringing in our ears, we decided against venturing deep into the crowd and risking the wrath of the oft-rabid Springsteen fans and accepted the cards we were dealt towards the back of the crowd (if Bruce was the opposition keeper, we were in the right-back position). Walking out onto the Wembley pitch was quite awe-inspiring – it’s bloody BIG! I cannot even begin to imagine what goes through a players mind as they close in one-on-one with the keeper in this vast stadium, but I know I would make an absolute pigs ear of it and probably also need a change of undies. Shortly after the scheduled time and with no prior warning, Bruce and the entire E-Street Band ambled onto stage, a quick ‘Hello Wembley” and we were away with a typically raucous version of “Land of Hopes and Dreams”. Contrast this to 11 months earlier, when a lone Springsteen opened with an acoustic version of “Thunder Road” and the tone was set for a night of surprises.
Continuing with the unexpected, 5 of the next 9 songs were taken from sign requests in the crowd and songs usually reserved for jubilant encores (“Rosalita”, Hungry Heart”) or poignant set-closers (“Lost in the Flood”) were played to an astonished and gleeful crowd. The following day Adam asked me at what point did I realise I was witnessing something truly special and for me it was during “Lost in the Flood”, with Wembley bathed in twilight and Bruce turning this vast arena into what felt like an intimate club gig I was transfixed for the entire 8 minute epic.
If that felt special, then what came after 10 songs blew everyone away. Bruce, with his gruff, almost unintelligible speaking voice, gave us two choices – he could either keep taking signs from the crowd and treating us to “Springsteen Karaoke” or…. they could play his 1978 classic album “Darkness on the Edge of Town” FROM START TO FINISH. 71,000 people gave him the answer he was expecting and before anyone had time to digest what was about to happen the familiar drum intro to “Badlands” rolled out of the speakers and the excitement crackled throughout the crowd. For the next 45 minutes or so we were as one, joyfully singing along to songs about loneliness, despair and disenchantment. For anyone reading who possibly has not had the pleasure of listening to this album, if you have even a passing interest in rock music, I urge you to give it a listen – it is an undoubted masterpiece without which I don’t think we would have bands such as Kings of Leon, Arcade Fire, The Black Keys and (obviously) The Gaslight Anthem.
With a truly triumphant “Darkness on the Edge of Town” drawing a line under this set-within-a-set, Bruce then returned to more recent releases (“Shackled and Drawn” from his most recent album and “Waiting on a Sunny Day” and “The Rising” from the 2002 album of the same name) to close the first portion of the gig to a close.
24 songs in two and a half hours non-stop, but the 64-year-old Springsteen was far from done. Thankfully we didn’t have to suffer the frankly tedious affair of watching the entire band troop off stage whilst we chant the bands name and then feign surprise and excitement when they come back on. The stage-lights dipped a bit, a few members of the band swapped instruments, the Wembley floodlights were turned on to illuminate the crowd and we were away into Encore #1 featuring the obligatory “Born to Run”, another sign request in “Bobby Jean” and Bruce making not one, but two ladies nights by getting them up on stage to take the Courtney Cox role in “Dancing in the Dark”. Apparently if the council had not pulled the plug last year, the set would have been closed with “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” but it wasn’t to be that night – however Bruce made up for it at Wembley, with a very emotional version performed as a tribute to Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici – E Street Band members who have passed away in recent years. I must confess to having a sizeable lump in my throat as Clarence’s image flashed up on the giant screen behind the stage as Bruce sang about how “the big man joined the band” and Clarence’s nephew Jake (his replacement in the band) launched into the sax solo.
The preamble to Encore #2 was Bruce wondering out-loud if he would manage to make it to the end of this song without the power going. Sadly there was no Macca to help him sing “Twist and Shout” this time, but we all still had a good ol’ fashioned dance to this extended version, during which Bruce and the E Street Band indulged in what could be construed as dance routine, but was all in the name of good fun and the crowd lapped it up. This song also gave all members of the band the chance to showcase their individual talents, and after over 3hrs of non-stop energy and entertainment it was obvious that the show was drawing to a close.
As the E Street Band waved us goodbye and we cheered them off, Bruce reappeared alone and with his harmonica frame in place. The haunting acoustic version of “Thunder Road”, which he opened the Hyde Park gig with was chosen as the final curtain here – Bruce keeping us guessing until the very end.