Bruce Springsteen — a first-timer’s thoughts

Bruce Springsteen live in Auckland

Bruce Springsteen live in Auckland

I’m not entirely sure why it’s taken me this long to see Bruce Springsteen play live. He’s 67; I’m 49 — there must have been opportunities that I’ve missed somewhere in there. But no matter — last night, at Simon‘s urging, I came to Mount Smart Stadium to see the final date in Bruce’s The River Tour, and I found myself wondering, as I left after a superb three-hour performance, what had taken me quite so long.

I missed the first opener, Marlon Williams — a shame, as I’d heard great thing about him. I caught the second half of Jet’s set, a rough, hard-rocking twenty minutes from a band who once looked like they could be a worthy successor to AC/DC, and then promptly faded from the spotlight. Are You Going To Be My Girl, the song that made their name when it featured in an early iPod advert, had all the energy of its studio original, with a pleasingly soulful and bluesy edge added to Nic Cester’s voice. I’ve not listened to Jet in many years; I shall have to revisit them soon.

At a little before the published start time of 7:30 — none of your contempt-for-paying-fans late starts for Bruce — the show kicked off with Darlington County, the first of three effortlessly crowd-pleasing rockers from Born In The USA and a gloriously energetic way to launch into a powerful, engaging performance. Springsteen himself, after four decades and more of playing live, still has the energy of a man a third of his age, and while his voice has aged, it might be fairer to say it’s matured — there’s more gravel in there, more rasp, than once their was, but this simply adds character and dimension to what switched effortlessly between the whispers of My City Of Ruins and the roaring anger of Youngstown.

The set was standard Springsteen — open up with the singalong rockers, ease into the social-conscience deep cuts, then bring it back up again for the greatest hits at the end. I’m not a lifelong Springsteen fan (that’s Simon’s bailiwick), so I wasn’t familiar with songs like Johnny 99 or Candy’s Room, but I could still feel the raw emotion that the songs bring. Youngstown, in particular, the story of a town in eastern Ohio not far from where I once lived, came alive on the stage, Steve van Zandt’s mandolin rounding out the sound of a story of a dying community sung with anguished power.

Van Zandt was, perhaps, the star of the backing band, a total tart, a showboater who knows the audience love him. In many ways he’s the Keith Richards of the E Street Band — perhaps even uglier than Keef, he’s a fan favourite, but he allows Nils Lofgren to do much of the heavy guitar lifting much as Richards now defers to Ron Wood. It’s hard to pick a standout performance from the rest of the band, so tight were they all, but worth a special mention was Max Weinberg’s drumming, sharp and precise, the interplay between him and Springsteen visible as Bruce conducted the band during the playouts that ended most of the up-tempo numbers in the show.

Three hours is a very long time for a rock concert, and there were times when the show dragged very slightly. Perhaps a more hardcore fan than I might disagree, but songs like Hungry Heart and Dancing In The Dark are, for my money, rather generic mid-paced rockers, and slightly dull with it. But the same could not be said of American Skin (41 Shots), a heartbreaking tribute to Amadou Diallo, murdered in 1999 by police in New York. Springsteen skipped Born In The USA last night; maybe this is the song that now reflects his thoughts on America.

It’s hard to know, though, what Springsteen was thinking during the concert. There was surprisingly little chat with the audience through the show — lots of shouts of “Aaaauuuuckland!” suggested that he knew where he was, and there were passing references to New Zealand and “Christ Church,” with the emphasis on the second syllable in the way only Americans insist on renaming the city. He did talk about the Auckland City Mission, as worthwhile a cause as exists in the city, but it was quite obvious that he was reading from an autocue as he did so.

So was I glad I finally made it to a Springsteen concert? Yes, most assuredly.

Steve was busy enjoying the show, so guest photographer Georgia Schofield shot Bruce and the band for Crave!

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