For the second time in four years, a business trip to London just happened to coincide with a Bruce Springsteen appearance there. My friends and family accuse me of some sort of conspiratorial connivance, but I assure you it's nothing of the sort. As Bob Dylan sang, "I can't help it if I'm lucky."
And lucky I was in 2009, when Springsteen played Hard Rock Calling, in a terrific show that was recorded for posterity on the London Calling DVD. But if I was lucky four years ago, I was positively blessed Saturday night, when I got to see what was one of the best two or three out of the two dozen or so Springsteen shows I've seen since 1984.
For a while there on Saturday, I wasn't even sure I'd make it. I arrived in London at 11 a.m., having only slept a fitull two hours on the plane. And as I waited in the hotel lobby at 2 p.m. to check into my room and watched the rain pour down outside, I momentarily considered a quiet night of room service and bed. A friend's Zevon-quoting text erased any doubt about what I'd be doing, though. I'll sleep when I'm dead, ideed.
The queues for tickets to the pit (called the "golden circle" in this instance) were legendary; I thank my lucky stars (and a good friend) that I didn't have to wait in the rain for the wristband granting me access to the front-of-stage area. But even thought I didn't have to get my pit access wristband until late in the afternoon, I still had to wait in the longest line I've ever been in just to get in the stadium.
No complaints, though; I had to fly 3500 miles just to see a show on this tour (what's up with skipping Milwaukee for the first time since 1975?). And once I got in, I got a great spot in front of the left-hand (stage right) video monitor, and struck up a conversation with a lovely bunch of fans from south of London. We shared the usual pre-show banter; what's the one song you've never heard him play ("Lost in the Flood" for me), if he plays a whole album, which one do you want to hear (Darkness on the Edge of Town was the consesus request, though everyone figured Born in the U.S.A. was more likely, given the iconic 1985 Wembley show on that tour).
All that aside, though, I couldn't help but worry we'd get a pretty-damned-good-but-not-great" Springsteen show, the kind that's typical of the first concert after more than a week off, the first concert in a country on the current leg of the tour. And while the evening's first song suggested I might be right; the second one made apparent that we were in for an evening that would be not just good, not even just great, but something rare and special.
The first song was "Land of Hope and Dreams," a tune that anchored the end of Springsteen's shows in the 1999-2000 reunion tour and frequently showed up late in the set ever since. It's one of Springsteen's great songs, and it's only gotten better with age, particularly with the edgier, harder-rocking treatment it got when it finally appeared in "studio" form on the 2012 Wrecking Ball album.
The second song was "Jackson Cage," and it hinted that tonight would be something more than just a great stadium rock show. While "Land of Hope and Dreams" is about exactly what the title says, "Jackson Cage" is about circumstances as hopeless as a prison cell you share with your lover, but are divided from her by a six-inch-thick glass wall. Whereas "Land of Hope and Dreams" is about the promise of freedom, transcendance, and community, "Jackson Cage" is all about confinement, hopelessness, and isolation.
The last line of the last verse of "Jackson Cage" offers the tiniest bit of light in the darkness, imploring that no matter how trapped you are, you—and nobody else—might be the "hand that turns the key."
So there you have the two extremes of Bruce Springsteen's music: the brightest light and the blackest darkness, the strongest hope and the deepest despair, the biggest spaces and the tightest cages. None of which, of course, are extricable from their apparent opposites. And when he followed up "Jackson Cage" with "Radio Nowhere"—a song that takes the prison of "Jackson Cage" and recasts it in the atomized, media-saturated virtual prison of way more than 57 channels with not a goddamned thing on—it seemed as if Springsteen and the (relatively) newly expanded E Street Band would spend the evening in hard-rocking, inward-looking mode.
Audience requests have filled the backend of Bruce and band's main set for almost half a decade now, but tonight he was going for the crowd's signs before we could even catch our collective breath. The first request was a shocker: the gentle, comforting "Save My Love" was an unexpected tonic after the bitter "Radio Nowhere," but the next song proved that all bets were off for the night. After taking a sign for "Hungry Heart" and rejecting it ("This is too easy!"), Bruce and the band tore into "Rosalita," a song he plays rarely, and even more rarely before the encore. You had the feeling that he might just take requests all night, and you couldn't complain, especially when he followed "Rosalita" with the Born in the U.S.A.-era "This Hard Land."
He took another request, the story of a guy, a Vietnam vet, the kind of guy who might have been the brother in "This Hard Land" if he'd managed to live that long. It was "Lost in the Flood," the one song I've wanted to hear him play (but hadn't) more than any other, more than even "Incident on 57th St." And the renditon was both majestic and harrowing. While I have to admit that my favorite single moment from the entire three-hour-plus show might have been seeing Bruce smile, just a bit, after the line "nuns run bald through Vatican halls pregnant, pleadin' immaculate conception," it was the performance in toto that blew me away. In hindsight, you realize just how much of the next 40 years of Springsteen themes were introduced in that song; in the moment, though, you're just amazed that he delivers it with such unwavering insistence this many years after he wrote it, not to mention that he does it with a blazing, tormented guitar solo, just gunnin' that bitch. It might not have been as good a performance, or even as good a solo, as the version on Live in New York City, but that hardly mattered. It was the one song I wanted to hear more than any other, and it wrecked me in the best possible way.
And then, just when you thought he might play requests all night, he offered the crowd of 71,000 a choice. "We can either keep taking requests," he said, "or we can play the entire Darkness on the Edge of Town album for you." The audience unsurprisingly chose the latter, and if "Lost in the Flood" was on my bucket list, then Darkness was the whole damned bucket. Springsteen himself said that "this album forms the core of what we do every night," and if "Lost in the Flood" laid out many of the themes he'd explore for the rest of his career, Darkness crystallized them. If there's another rock album that both plumbs the depths of despair and reaches for the heights of freedom with such clarity, precision, and honesty, I've never heard it, and Saturday's performance was a reaffirmation of the album's place in the rock canon. And while the core of the E Street Band handled most of the album, several of the songs—particularly "Adam Raised a Cain"—benefitted from the horn section and backing vocals, bringing a gospel vision to the album's blues center. As a friend of mine pointed out after the show, you can see how Springsteen's vision has grown since he's read Craig Werner's A Change is Gonna Come; it was overt back on the reunion tour, but now it's more organic and interwoven in the fabric of everything Bruce does onstage. Whereas Darkness was once a blues album through and through (in spirit if not composition), it became both blues and gospel at Wembley.
Each song's performance was noteworthy, from Bruce's wails on "Something in the Night" (my wife Kris's favorite Springsteen song, which I point out for no other reason than it's one of a million reasons I love her, and if that ain't relevant to this, I don't know what is) to Max Weinberg's thundering drums on "Candy's Room" to Nils Lofgren's guitar solo on "Prove it All Night" to Roy Bittan's piano (alternately gentle and pounding) on "Racing in the Street," which received a performance at least as good as the legendary version from Milwaukee in 2008.
All of which more than made up for the fact that Springsteen played only three songs from Wrecking Ball, and one of those wasn't even that good; "Death to My Hometown" was plodding and draggy, lacking the snap that the album version offers. But "Wrecking Ball" and "Shackled and Drawn" were majestic, bringing together the best of Darkness' hard-rock edge and The Seeger Sessions' swinging spirit.
As for the rest of the show, this review from The Telegraph does a fine job of capturing both the details and the essence. It's amazing to think that a performance as rousing as "Hungry Heart" or "Dancing in the Dark" is simply de rigeur for Springsteen; for any other peformer, they'd be showstoppers. That he closed the main set with a kick-ass "Light of Day" and opened the encore with a Mardi Gras-worthy "Pay Me My Money Down" was just a bonus; I could have gone home after the last piano chords in "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and felt no less fulfilled.