Thursday 23 February 2017

Music: Springsteen and the ties that bind

John Meagher

John Meagher

Born to gig: Springsteen's name has become a byword for superior live performances.
Born to gig: Springsteen's name has become a byword for superior live performances.

There was a stampede for Bruce Springsteen tickets on Thursday morning - and a second date quickly added - and absolutely no one was surprised. There aren't many people who can pack them into a venue as vast as Croke Park, especially when they're charging 100 quid to stand on the pitch and making it very clear that the bulk of their set will centre on a 36-year-old double-album. But, then, there aren't many like Springsteen.

U2 can unveil details of their first homecoming shows in five years and there's only modest excitement, but Springsteen can announce a stop-off at GAA HQ and social media has a mini meltdown.

It's not like there's been a lengthy hiatus since his last Irish shows - he played Limerick, Cork and Kilkenny in 2013, and Dublin the previous year; the excitement stems from the very simple fact that one of the greatest live performers in rock history is playing in our back yard once more.

Ever since 1974, when the US critic Jon Landau flagged the New Jersey man as "rock and roll future" having seen him play an incendiary show at the Harvard Square Theatre, Cambridge, Springsteen's name has been a byword superior live performances. (Landau, as every Springsteen fan will know, went on to be Springsteen's manager and regular producer.)

On the half-dozen times I've seen him play, he's held me rapt with the intensity of his shows - whether he was rocking out with his E Street Band, or channelling his vision through his covers of Pete Seeger, or stilling the chatter of the old Point Depot with the plaintive, fiercely intimate songs of his Devils & Dust album.

The remarkable thing about Springsteen is how little he has had to rely on the audiovisual gimmicks employed by so many of his peers. That's not to detract from the U2s of this world - their video 'wall' on their latest tour was spectacular and really enhanced the songs from latest album Songs of Innocence - but it highlights the strength of Springsteen's material: he doesn't need bells and whistles to make his music work in large venues.

And, unlike Bob Dylan and Neil Young - to pick just two similarly iconic performers - Springsteen looks as though he enjoys every single minute of being on stage.

It took him 11 years after Landau's much-referenced pronouncement to make his Irish live debut and that show at Slane Castle, part of the Born in the USA tour, has gone into the annals as one of the greatest rock gigs this country has ever seen. Twenty six songs - and two hours, 45 minutes of all-encompassing, panoramic, heartland rock. It would help to put Henry Mountcharles's estate on the map for A-list rockers. (The gig has taken on such mythic proportions in the memory of some fans, that you sometimes hear them talk of a four-hour show - it was long, just not that long. In fact, his concert in Dublin's RDS four years ago was longer - and he included no less than 31 songs in his set). But Springsteen's stranglehold over the Irish was burnished forever on that gloriously hot June day in 1985. It's fair to say that many in the 100,000 in attendance had never seen its like before - and whenever The Boss is back, they're there, too. And they'll be in Croker on the last weekend of May to hear his fifth album, The River, in its entirety.

A sprawling 20-track album that arrived in 1980 between the stark, sombre Darkness on the Edge of Town and the largely acoustic Nebraska, it demonstrated Springsteen and the E Street Band in their pomp. This was a big statement about America and more personal reflections on male identity and relationship woes and it was wrapped in a package of bar-room singalongs, unabashed anthems and classic E Street flourishes, not least Clarence Clemons' trademark sax.

In December, to mark its 35th anniversary, Springsteen released the box-set The Ties that Bind, a lavish affair that showcases the brilliant, if flawed, album. It's named after the first track on the album and is also the title of the original single album he presented to his record company. But no sooner had the then 30-year-old delivered the album, than he asked for its release to be delayed as there were other songs he wanted to include on it - including the haunting folk song, 'Wreck on the Highway', which would be the closing track on The River. One of the greatest tracks in the Springsteen songbook, it's a sobering meditating on the fragility of life, inspired as it was by the singer experiencing what would turn out to be a fatal hit-and-run collision.

While just two songs were played from the subdued Nebraska at Slane, five songs from The River were belted out that day. Many will recall that when the title song was performed, the big screen showed footage of the nearby Boyne river and this film would be used for the remainder of the tour.

A number of songs from The River have long been Springsteen staples - not least 'Hungry Heart' - but it's quite a big ask to make such a widescreen, complex album transcend the limitations of the stadium show. Still, if anyone can do it, this super fit and ever-hungry pensioner certainly can.

* Springsteen won't be the only heavyweight touching down on Croke Park this summer. Beyoncé will be bringing her super-powered brand of R&B-flavoured pop to Dublin 3 on July 9 - and if her appearance at the Super Bowl interval show last Sunday night is anything to go by, she'll have little difficulty having the punters in the Hogan and Cusack Stands eating out of her hand.

Ostensibly a guest of Coldplay, who were given the honour of providing the entertainment for the 50th instalment of American sport's biggest event, Ms Knowles-Carter made the gig her own thanks to a Black Power-referencing performance that highlighted her quite formidable charisma and feel for the big time. Oh, and her latest single, 'Formation', marks an impressive statement of intent.

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