Talking about Bruce

Bruce Springsteen.

We need to talk about Bruce. I was in Auckland last Friday night for Bruce Springsteen's second New Zealand concert, the final show of the tour, and writing this I'm still buzzing from the incredible energy he puts out.

If you haven't had the live experience it's hard to explain exactly what makes a Springsteen concert so special. It's not just the songs or the spectacle or the amazing musicians, it's more that Springsteen manages to make each concert into a celebration and affirmation of the whole shebang, the whole idea of rock ‘n' roll, of music, in some way being transcendent and able to inspire everything from rising above hard times to genuinely changing the world.  

That was true of Saturday night's concert. There were sore feet and ringing ears and a whole bunch of silly grins on faces from sheer musical exhilaration.

The big question

But I was left wondering…I'm lucky to have seen The Boss a few times and this show never really answered the question someone asked in the car on the way: “Why is Bruce touring?”

Last time here it was part of a grand blow-out. He had a new album, extra horns and backing singers, and was collaborating with guest guitarist Tom Morello. Each stop featured a specially-rehearsed opening song –from ‘Royals' in NZ to ‘Highway To Hell' and ‘Staying Alive' in Oz and ‘Free Nelson Mandela' in South Africa – and at many shows he played complete albums in their original order. In Auckland one night we got ‘Born In The USA'.

Since then he's released the anniversary collection of ‘The River' and toured to support that. But this time there seemed no reason for a tour and effectively nothing new in the show. There were, of course, many highlights, but all the “bits” – the band clowning, the tribute to Clarence Clemons during ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out' – had been seen before.

A difficult transition

I think Springsteen finds himself in a difficult transitional period. Two important things have happened since the last tour. He released an autobiography; and Donald Trump has been elected.

I think it would be a mistake to underestimate the seismic shock from that second event. Springsteen has not really addressed the issue yet and many people await his response to America's lurch towards xenophobic fascism.

He campaigned for Hillary Clinton. No surprise there, Bruce has long been on the side of Democrats and the working class. The conundrum for him is the new Idiot-in-Chief was elected on the backs of exactly Springsteen's prime demographic, the white working man.

And although Springsteen said not a single political word at the Auckland show it was hard not to spot a theme to the central section of the concert. The opening eight songs came in a breathless rush without pause between tracks ‘Glory Days', ‘Hungry Heart' and other favourites galvanising the crowd. The first break was before ‘My City of Ruins' brought tears to a thousand eyes. Then the show became subtly more sombre, not in tempo or energy but in message: ‘Wrecking Ball', ‘The River', an electric ‘Youngstown' and ‘American Skin'. That's a pretty bleak run and Springsteen pointedly followed it by leading a massed chorus of ‘I believe in a promised land' from ‘Darkness At The Edge of Town's most optimistic song.

What comes next?

But where to now? Energiser bunny though he is, Bruce clearly doesn't move like he did 10 years ago. At 67 his manic stage sprints have become jogs. The band isn't getting any younger either...

An autobiography suggests perhaps solo shows with more stories and less running.

And he has to rediscover his place in modern America. After 9/11 Springsteen reconnected through his ‘Rising' album, redirecting retributive wrath towards emotional and physical renewal. How he approaches the ugly anger of Trump's constituency is anybody's guess.   

So ultimately this was just a great show, no more, no less. And if they're taking a break I'm grateful to have had what was possibly a final opportunity to witness three hours of hi-energy brilliance from a stage of legends, the majestic E-Street Band.
But what I really want to know now is what Bruce is going to do next...


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