1st June 1985. In a career heavy on mythological moments, it’s nevertheless a date that is burned onto Bruce Springsteen’s memory – his first European outdoor show and the start of his life as a truly global phenomenon. It’s an evening that he recalls fondly at this, the penultimate night of the main body of a tour that began on March 18th 2012, prompting a declaration that Ireland feels like a second home – a platitude that we’ve heard trotted out by a succession of artists over the years as they swoop in and out of Dublin for one night, yet carries a good deal more weight here. What other act could or would undertake a five date stadium tour of Ireland, avoiding the capital in the process? It means that Springsteen and his huge touring company find themselves in the decidedly old school surroundings of Nowlan Park for two nights, a world away from the state of the art locations that form much of their touring schedule. Adverts for Glanbia and Avonmore Milk are the only suggestions of corporate sponsorship and the route to the venue is flanked by locals drinking in their front gardens and local kids selling sandwiches and packs of Tayto.
Odd as it may seem, this actually fits the spirit of one of the top grossing tours in the world. A Springsteen show manages to balance to the slick (superb sound and video) with the atmosphere of an intimate club show, something no other act seems to manage. Arriving on stage at a little after 7pm, there’s no option of a dramatic entrance. Instead, the E Street Band amble into view, some deep in animated conversation, before the man of the hour follows. There’s no bombastic musical opening either, the band instead opting for the gospel tune ‘This Little Light Of Mine’ – all seventeen members lined up across the front of the vast stage in a show of artistic democracy.
It’s perhaps this that makes a Bruce Springsteen gig of this nature so startling. His may be the name at the top of the poster but he is by no means the only star of the show. Every E Streeter plays their part, as do the audience – sending the set in unexpected directions thanks to a sea of cardboard signs that give a strange impression of Winning Streak The Stadium Show. Tonight’s surprises include a Sam Cooke cover that takes a few moments working out and a stunning version of Devil & Dust’s ‘Long Time Comin’’. The mixture of subject material leads to a few awkward gear changes yet, while it’s the back slapping, upbeat American rock end of his canon that draws in the casual listeners (of which there are plenty dancing around at the back, never too far from the bar), it’s the weightier end of his songwriting that provides the real highlights.
An economic situation that provided backdrop for the excellent Wrecking Ball record is not a new inspiration, with Nebraska’s ‘Johnny 99’ equally a character on the edge as that of last year’s ‘Jack Of All Trades’, a dramatic, stark reading of which leads into ‘The River’ in one of the night’s highlights. Storming versions of ‘Death To My Hometown’, ‘Land Of Hope And Dreams’ and ‘Wrecking Ball’ itself complete a frustratingly brief round-up of the present, yet it can be no coincidence that these acclaimed live shows come on the back of his finest album for years.
The night’s centrepiece comes from the past, however, as Springsteen’s Slane recollections lead into a complete run through of Born In The USA. The pounding drums of the title track stir our friends at the bar into action, Stars ‘n’ Stripes bandannas and all (a feat repeated by ‘Glory Days’ and a spirited run through of the rather insipid ‘Dancing In The Dark’) but the best moments come when you remember what great songs have been forgotten from the album, especially ‘No Surrender’ and ‘I’m Goin’ Down’. There’s no time wasting pretense of an encore, a quick bow leading straight into another six songs that begins with the reappearance of support act Glen Hansard, grinning from ear to ear and acquitting himself superbly on ‘Drive All Night’, before the celebration of ‘Born To Run’, ‘10th Avenue Freeze Out’ and a reprise of ‘This Little Light Of Mine’. Finishing where they started, the E Street Band depart one by one, their leader thanking each in turn. He’s not quite done though, pausing at the top of the stairs in a moment of pure theatre, before turning with acoustic guitar and harmonica for a solo version of ‘Thunder Road’ that sends tingles down your spine. After three and a half hours of music, it’s proof that sometimes all you need is heart and soul and just perhaps a hint that, when he finally does return, it may be in a different guise altogether. The last we’ll see of Bruce Springsteen with the E Street Band for a while, a long while even? If so, it’s been an honour and a privilege.
Photo: Paulo Goncalves