Still The Boss
As I stood in the foyer waiting for Calum a fragment of a lyric came into my mind—‘… thinking that maybe we’re not that young any more …’
There was a lot of grey hair, some walking sticks, and some big bellies—but, to be fair, some youngsters too. All in all a pretty representative cross section of Sydney.
The tickets had been a last minute Christmas present for Calum. The concert had been on sale for weeks beforehand and was almost sold out so our seats were just about the worst possible—in the back row of the nosebleed section and slightly behind the stage. You wouldn’t want to suffer from vertigo. As I surveyed the arena I thought, to reach up, to touch, to connect and unite this disparate mass will be a challenge. Even for Bruce.
It was a beautiful opening. We could see the seven female violinists in their long black dresses going through the rear door underneath the stage and emerging up the stairs to take a position in the back left corner. Bruce and the band came on and after a measured piano intro from Roy Bittan, Springsteen started strumming his acoustic guitar and stepped up to the mic. ‘Billy/ He’s down by the railroad tracks/ Sitting in the back seat of his Cadillac …’
Wow. ‘New York Serenade’ (from 1973’s The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle). That was an unexpected opening but as the story unfolded the sweetness of the strings helped make it kinda perfect. After eleven and a half minutes, it eased to a close and Bruce—ever the gentleman—shook each violinist by the hand as they left the stage.
Out came the fiddles and accordions and wham! … straight into the Celtic knees-up of ‘American Land’, an immigrant song delivered tonight with a special emphasis on the ‘ … MUSLIMS and the Jews’.
Three trusty faves—‘The Ties That Bind’, ‘No Surrender’ and ‘Out In The Street’ got the house a-rockin’ and brought us to the first of the audience requests. It’s become a tradition that those in the front of the mosh-pit hold up placards requesting songs and tonight Springsteen did three. First up was ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’—not a track I was particularly familiar with, but Wikipedia tells me it was an outtake from Born In The USA that was resurrected and became a live favourite in the E Street Band tours of the early 2000s. It crackled and sparked.
Second request was ‘Hungry Heart’. Springsteen exited stage right, made his way up the aisle between the mosh pit and the banked seats on the side and onto the ramp that divided the mosh pit and the seats on the rear of the floor, singing lustily all the way. Then, looking at the stage, he said, ‘It’s a long way, it’s a long way’. The crowd cheered. He then lowered himself on his back onto the upstretched arms of the mosh pit—and in that simple action demonstrated how much he trusted his audience. Singing all the way, he was ferried the fifty metres to the stage.
He held up another placard. ‘Long Tall Sally’. To me it sounded a lot like the Beatles version. And a quote from John Lennon came to mind:
Do we have to divide the fish and the loaves for the multitudes again? Do we have to do the walking on water again because a whole pile of dummies didn’t see it the first time, or didn’t believe it when they saw it?
These are not questions that trouble Mr Springsteen. He divides the fish and loaves every time he mounts the stage. And he walks on the water. Because that’s what he does.
‘Wrecking Ball’ with its chorus of ‘Bring on your wrecking ball/ take your best shot/ and let’s see what you got …’ made me think of Trump. There were no political comments from the stage tonight. There didn’t need to be. The songs did the talking.
The set took a turn into the American hinterland with ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, ‘American Skin’, ‘Youngstown’ and ‘The Promised Land’ and just when the pressure was getting all too much to bear, Springsteen released the valve with the upbeat singalong of ‘Mary’s Place’—the crowd chanting ‘Turn it up!’—segueing into ‘Candy’s Room’ and then ‘She’s the One’.
There were no political comments from the stage tonight. There didn’t need to be. The songs did the talking.
The temperature in the nosebleed section was rising so I went to get some bottled water and took a walk around the upper tier while the band churned through ‘Downbound Train’, ‘I’m on Fire’, ‘Because the Night’ and ‘Badlands’, returning to my seat just in time for the home stretch.
That kicked off with a sublime 1975 triptych of ‘Thunder Road’, ‘Jungleland’ and ‘Born to Run’, and moved into ‘Dancing in the Dark’. A couple of verses in, Bruce sidled up to Miami Steve and chuckling, indicated a couple of girls in the mosh pit. Miami Steve beamed and the onstage camera zoomed in on their placard—‘Sydney girls wanna shimmy with Stevie’. Bruce hauled them up to dance on stage and granted their wish. Three or four other girls—and one boy—followed, selfies were taken and all involved had an experience I’m sure they’ll never forget.
‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out’ was next and at the line ‘the big man joined the band’, the screens flashed up images of the late Clarence Clemons—and a few of the other E Streeter to have passed away, keyboardist Danny Federici. Springsteen went for a wander onto the ramp in the midst of the crowd as Jake Clemons on saxophone channelled his uncle.
Back centre stage, Bruce shouted ‘I want you to shake … I want you to shake … I want you to shake your ass now … Shake your ass now … You know you make me wanna shout!’ and I swear I saw the ghost of Johnny O’Keefe stomping up the back as the band tore into one of the Wild One’s signature tunes. ‘Sydney … Sydney …’ he called and the crowd responded ‘Bruce … Bruce …’.
As Springsteen introduced the band, the crowd was up on its feet. The faith healer had delivered. He had made the lame walk, made the blind see, made the deaf hear and yes, even raised the dead to life.
But he wasn’t quite finished. In a trick borrowed from the late, great James Brown, Miami Steve produced a satin cape and draped it over Springsteen’s shoulders. On the back it said simply ‘The Boss’. Crippled with apparent exhaustion—and who could blame him as the clock inched towards three hours on stage?—he allowed Miami Steve to escort him to the stairs leading down underneath this stage. The band kept playing. He wasn’t gone for long. ‘Bring him back, bring him back,’ Miami Steve exhorted. The crowd roared. And back he came for another round.
And after the final ‘1-2-3-4’ of the night, ‘Bobby Jean’ finally brought down the curtain. No encore. Nothing left to give. Left it all there on the stage.
Show a little faith, there’s still magic in the night.