Sunday 25 September 2016

Stadium shows: the toughest gigs of all

Published 22/05/2016 | 02:30

Croker debut: The Boss returns to Dublin after a four-year gap.
Croker debut: The Boss returns to Dublin after a four-year gap.

For Bruce Springsteen's many ardent Irish fans, the countdown to Friday's opening show at Croke Park has truly begun. He bypassed Dublin in favour of Limerick, Cork and Kilkenny in 2013, the last time he played Ireland - which was, indeed, very democratic of him - but there's something truly special about a Springsteen show in Dublin during the summer. And many of us have great memories of several magical nights in the RDS in the 1990s and 2000s, including that wonderful show as part of the Wrecking Ball tour in July 2012.

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This will be the first time he has played Croke Park and, thus, will be his biggest gigs here since his legendary Irish debut at Slane in 1985. On that occasion, riding high on the back of the phenomenal success of Born in the USA, he wowed 100,000 people - the largest number in Slane's history - and this time he will play to 80,000 people at GAA HQ on the Friday and Sunday nights of his two-date Irish stand.

How many others could possibly shift 160,000 tickets for a pair of concerts that will mainly be concerned with reproducing a 36-year-old double album, The River, in its entirety? I could probably count them on the fingers of one hand. And it's likely he could have sold out another Croker show.

Springsteen remains one of the greatest live performers of all time and he's arguably at his very best when playing a mammoth show in the open air. Other performers are diminished by the scale of stadia, but Springsteen - with the phenomenal backing of the E Street Band - appears to grow in stature.

He has been playing massive venues like Croke Park for decades now and has refined the task into a fine art. The River tour has been calling on stadia all over the world and last Saturday, he played Europe's biggest stadium, the Camp Nou at Barcelona, and a number of the reviews I read were positively ecstatic about a set that featured no fewer than 36 songs. Tonight, he's in Real Madrid's massive home, the Santiago Bernabéu.

So why does Springsteen succeed as a stadia performer where so many other great live musicians fail? His charisma alone doesn't explain it because plenty of hugely charismatic singers have struggled to translate their wares on the larger stage: Kanye West, for instance, was truly brilliant when performing with Jay Z in the then O2, but bombed in the open air of Marlay Park, Dublin, a year later.

Perhaps the key to Springsteen's apparent ease with the mammoth show is the anthemic nature of so many of his songs. From early albums like Born to Run through to this recent releases, High Hopes and Wrecking Ball, he has delivered a huge quantity of anthems that sound especially thrilling when performed in front of a large audience who sing the chorus back word-perfect.

The River has no shortage of anthems - including that evergreen live favourite 'Hungry Heart' - but there are introspective moments too and it's truly a mark of the man's gifts for creating intimacy in enormous settings, that they can connect just as powerfully.

U2, too, have Springsteen's capacity to engage on such a huge level although they have long favoured audio-visual bells and whistles to accentuate the theatricality of their shows. Springsteen, by contrast has kept his stage-set up comparatively simple which makes his achievements all the more remarkable.

Still, it would be churlish not to acknowledge that Bono and friends have made an enormous contribution to the art of stadium rock, one that bands like Coldplay desperately try to ape. It says something about the dearth of bands who can play on this scale that Coldplay - hit or miss in huge outdoor shows - have been chosen to headline Glastonbury for a record fourth time later this summer. Mind you, radio listeners in Britain can't get enough of Chris Martin, it seems: the band's 2011 headline set was voted as the best Glastonbury moment ever.

Unusually for U2, they took their most recent tour - Innocence + Experience - indoors, although with an average capacity of 20,000, their arena shows weren't exactly intimate. But few arena tours featured a video wall as spectacular as the one they employed on that tour - it had all the hallmarks of a stadium backdrop.

The concert film-maker Hamish Hamilton, who has directed a concert from each U2 tour since 2001's Elevation, recorded their stirring final show in Paris late last year. The Live in Paris DVD (and accompanying live CD), which is released on June 10, features a pair of songs from Eagles of Death Metal at the end. It was their first performance since the horrific events at the Bataclan in the city a month earlier, and an emotion-drenched performance it was too.

* Those without a ticket for Springsteen's Sunday night concert could do a lot worse than high-tailing it to the National Concert Hall on the other side of the city for a gig of a completely different hue. German-born British composer Max Richter and his ensemble will perform as part of the NCH's superb Perspectives series.

It was my brother-in-law, Jonny, who alerted me to the somnambulant beauty of Richter's most recent work, Sleep. Composed in consultation with renowned American neuroscientist David Eagleman, the piece is meant to be heard while sleeping. Extracts from both it and another recent work, The Blue Notebooks, will be performed on the night.

Richter, incidentally, is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest live broadcast of a single piece of music, when he and a small group of musicians, including a singer, performed Sleep for eight hours one September night last year. The 'concert' was broadcast live, overnight, by BBC Radio 3.

Incidentally, Richter will take part in a public interview at the NCH before his show.

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