Some of my earliest musical memories are of rocking out with my mum to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born In The USA’ album – volume cranked in the lounge room with limbs flailing in true daggy 80’s style. So as it seems she was at least complicit in the musical corruption that led me to this point in my “taste” it only made good sense that when The Boss announced his inaugural visit to my hometown mum and I had to get along.
Tickets weren’t easy to come by but we managed to score a couple in the nosebleed section of the still-smells-like-new $500 million Perth Arena. We took our seats high up in the cavernous (by Perth standards anyway) complex and as we waited for show time, we watched it abuzz with to-ing and fro-ing activity akin to the inside of an ant’s nest. All demographics were represented among the diverse crowd milling around in excited anticipation, a fair percentage of them in brand new (extremely pricey) Bruce merch. This was an unfamiliar live music experience for me, sitting in such a massive venue (note the “sitting” part – very weird) and witnessing a true stadium performance.
The huge stage below was full of wondrous musical toys of every flavour (two baby grand pianos!?) giving a hint to the scope of the impending performance. The venue was soon packed with the faithful. The following that Bruce Springsteen has built over the decades is filled with devoted disciples and they were here in full force this evening. The anticipation built and built – there was even a Mexican wave – until the houselights finally dropped and the room was filled with a mighty roar.
It was then that the unmistakable opening chords of AC/DC classic ‘Highway To Hell’ rang out into the vast darkness. The crowd bellowed in furious approval and it remained pitch black until the first thunderous beat of the drum, at which point the kit was brightly illuminated. The drum riser was the only lit part of the stage through the verse right up until the famous chorus burst forth and the lights kicked in to reveal Bruce and band in all their glory. What an opening – the sound was sensational and the impressive energy radiating from the stage was returned from the ecstatic audience in kind. For the next three or so hours that extraordinary energy level only dipped when the expert performers desired. The stage was filled with as many as 18 musicians at any given time and every one of them was seemingly a virtuoso. From the drummer who barely let up all night through to the unique and amazing Tom Morello on guitar (who I grew up listening to in Rage Against The Machine) and his brilliant colleagues – headlined by multi-talented Steve Van Zandt – each one had ample opportunities to shine and each pulled off their big moments with aplomb.
A few things became almost immediately evident about Springsteen himself – his voice, his charisma, his musicianship and his total control over every single person in the room – the audience and the band. The man commands attention; he is as striking a stage presence as I have ever witnessed, one of those seemingly born to perform. But there are no airs and graces about The Boss, his everyman persona may or may not be genuine anymore but he still embodies the essence of it perfectly on the stage with the distinct lack of pretense amplifying his magnetism.
One of the things that most attracted me to punk and hardcore shows is the lack of barrier between player and punter, the fact that the performer feels like an equal. Springsteen somehow brought a very similar vibe to a stadium show. Even beyond the physical things – the lack of buffer and barricade between the standing room and the front of the stage – meaning people could literally reach out and touch their hero (or strum his guitar) and the fact he spent a decent amount of time among the audience – including crowd surfing his way back to the stage from the expensive seats – singing all the while. The working class champion; whether consciously or not, employs many aspects of punk ethos and uses them deftly to ensure everyone in attendance feels as close to him as possible.
The colossal ensemble that is The E Street Band expertly executed a set of classic tunes and lesser known (to non-Bruce acolytes like myself) songs. On the rare occasion that a track seemed to drag even slightly the fantastic song writing and playing would soon mean that the drift would be short lived. A few pieces seemed to share very similar tempos or beats but would quickly rise to a bombastic crescendo or drop into a concentrated level of more gentle and deliberate delivery, pulling back to allow subtlety to show through. The set moved by quickly and the smile on my face rarely subsided below cheesy grin level.
It was when the band left Mr Springsteen alone at the piano to serenade us solo with ‘The Promise’ that he truly showcased his vocal control and the beauty within his tough timbre, it was a highlight of the set. Shortly after that the band re-joined him and the hits rolled out. The final quarter of the set contained fantastic renditions of ‘Born To Run’, ‘Born In The USA’ and ‘Dancing In The Dark’ – which included Bruce inviting some very lucky female audience members to live out their Courtney Cox fantasies and join him on stage for a boogie. For me personally the highlight was ‘The Ghost Of Tom Joad’ which featured Morello sharing vocals and also allowed the unconventional guitar maestro an opportunity to show off his freakish skills with his patented style tweaking.
The whole event was an exercise in brilliant showmanship: Springsteen was the undisputed conductor and focal point but his band all shone and displayed their own chops throughout. This was a superstar of modern music playing like he still has something to prove; his voice as powerful as his words poetic, holding 15,000 plus people in the palm of his hand right up until he finished the show alone on stage with just an acoustic guitar and a harmonica for the final couple of tracks. It was a beautifully intimate way to finish the evening.
This kind of stadium extravaganza replete with backing singers, wind section, rehearsed moves, lengthy solos (and an overhead lighting rig that had at least five dudes on it throughout the show!) may not be my normal musical fare but it was pulled off with enough originality and sincerity that it didn’t matter. The 64 year old legend did yeoman’s work, purging every bit of energy he had and feeding on the fuel as it was reciprocated by an adoring audience. He is a veteran who knows his shtick and the people love him for it. It was a great show and I shared it with my mum, which makes it all the more special, there may have slightly less daggy limbs flailing but we both had a blast.