Bruce Springsteen can, in my eyes, do no wrong. Let me make that plain right off the bat. (Anyone in any doubt of his genius, please watch – plucked from hundreds of examples I could have offered you – this heartbreaking kitchen performance of his break-up song ‘Brilliant Disguise‘.)
No one comes close to pulling off – as Springsteen has – the combination of consummate songwriting craft, consistently thrilling live performance, and a heart-on-sleeve integrity that persists over decades of success, fame and wealth.
I appreciate that some people don’t get Springsteen, perhaps misled by the way Reaganite America misinterpreted ‘Born in the USA’ as a headbanging jingoistic anthem when it was something altogether darker and more complex. Or maybe he really does come across as bit too serious for some.
But as far as I’m concerned, if you have a problem with Bruce it’s your problem. He’s never let me down, across a succession of unparalleled records and occasional live shows that leave every other act I can think of gasping for breath in their energy, variety and emotional intensity. I saw him twice when he toured in 1981 and nothing has ever come close. I’ve seen him play in the years since, and he was still miles ahead of the rest. So, for me he’s infallible.
At least until now.
This week I saw him play at Wembley, the first UK date of his ‘Wrecking Ball’ tour. No one else would even get me to Wembley for a rock concert. It isn’t, to my mind, a suitable venue – too big, too ugly, too far gone in its rampant corporatism (you want beer – it has to be only one brand of generic lager, and it will cost you). But this was Bruce, and if anyone can get hold of a stadium and make it rock, he can.
He did everything right. Starting at a level most bands would hope to reach by the encores, with a rousing, gospel-inflected version of ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’, Springsteen and the E Street Band played a three-hour set that was impressive in its power, poise and showmanship. Springsteen hollered out the hits, prowled the stage working the crowd, and danced and threw himself around in a way that would be impressive in a man half his 63 years of age. He plucked requests on placards from the people at the front of the stage and led the band through a thrillingly varied and immaculately-played set.
He also, having consulted the crowd first, included in the set a complete performance – first song to last, in order – of the album ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town, the 1978 classic that first drew me into his music, and which remains my favourite.
So what’s not to like? Reviews in the Press are claiming it as a triumph. But there is a tiny clue to what went wrong for me in Michael Hann’s piece in the Guardian, which referred to only one song suffering ‘a little with stadium sound’. Michael also admits that he was in the ‘pit’, with a few thousand privileged fans in front of the stage.
Unfortunately, I was up in the seats to the side and the sound was dire for most of the gig; subject to massive echoes from the delay towers, muddy and lacking in definition, with drums louder than anything else.
And this was the view:
So, hard as Bruce worked, and frenzied as the crowd down by the stage became, I spent most of the night watching the big screen and feeling disconnected. (And I wasn’t alone in this: at one point the person to our left, the one to our right and the man directly in front were all absorbed in looking at their smartphones rather than watching the stage. When people are more interested in following a concert on Twitter than watching the performance take place in front of them, you have to think something’s going wrong.)
Of course, great art makes its own rules (and ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town is great art, trust me). And no one could fault the effort, commitment and skill that Springsteen and the band displayed. He came closer than anyone else could to making a stadium rock like a sweaty club. But I fear Wembley remains no place to watch a rock concert.