It is, I guess, a quintessential Bruce moment. The house lights are on, and as I walk across the floor of the O2 Arena, everyone is bellowing along unself-consciously to “Born To Run”. For the best part of two and a half hours, the E Street Band have played with a thickness, a relentlessness, a charged virtuosity that is pretty astounding. Now, they’re peaking, and it seems conceivable that they could keep going all night.
To a lot of you, I imagine, none of this is news. But somehow, I’ve managed to fluke my way into the Deputy Editor’s chair at Uncut in spite of never having seen a Bruce Springsteen gig. In spite, furthermore, of not ever having liked Springsteen a great deal, if truth be told.
But over the past year or two, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that those ‘70s albums stacked up on my shelves might actually be worth playing. I’ve found myself infatuated with The Hold Steady, and generally impressed by the Arcade Fire, while realising that both bands are almost comically indebted to Springsteen. And finally, I’ve been playing “Magic” to death for the past few months; finally invigorated by this thunderous music.
You’ll have to excuse me, then, for not having much in the way of critical objectivity today. I am, frankly, hopelessly unqualified to write a proper review of last night’s Springsteen show. Instead, I figure that this must be something of a personal epiphany, and an attempt to try and work out why his music suddenly makes sense to me.
My hunch, as I’m transfixed by a bunch of bold, shamelessly epic songs from “Magic” – chiefly “Long Walk Home”, “Devil’s Arcade” and a fabulous “Gypsy Biker” with Springsteen and Miami Steve Van Zandt facing each other off with needling, high-end solos – is that what I like about Springsteen is the big pop imperative. It’s not the rocking – although his band are incredibly well-drilled at doing just that. It’s certainly not the horny-handed son-of-the-soil stuff, the earnest, rootsy singer-songwriter vibes that have sired so much boring Americana over the years – although, again, “Reason To Believe” sounds brilliant tonight.
I think what I love here – and about “Magic” – is that, while there’s real serious substance to the songs, there’s a brassy showiness to the whole thing, wired into a very pop, swinging tradition. From the moment a fairground calliope parps into action to signal the arrival of the E Street Band, it’s the gaudy melodrama which I find so gripping, not the long-vaunted honesty and passion.
Increasingly, the whole myth of authenticity bugs me as bogus and irrelevant, particularly when it’s applied to artists like Springsteen. There’s no doubting his integrity, but what is most impressive is the workrate, the thrilling choreography, the sweat-soaked revitalisation of Phil Spector’s pop masterplan. Springsteen doesn’t talk much tonight – there are no long soliloquies, just some rote bellowing and a couple of brief anti-Bush homilies that are virtually word-for-word identical to the ones Andrew Mueller reported in his thought-provoking piece on the Mid-West leg of the tour in the current issue of Uncut (one of the very best things we’ve printed in 2007, I think).
We can invest any amount of meaning into these songs I’ll be learning over the next couple of weeks – “Racing In The Street”, “Night”, “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day”. But tonight, they’re not stadium rock so much as rock’n’roll theatre, right down to the fatherly nods of admiration Springsteen bestows on Clarence Clemons, Soozie Tyrell, Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren whenever one of them steps up for a brief, meticulous, rousing solo. Not fraudulent, but certainly knowing.
The bandmember I’m most taken with, though, is Max Weinberg: as I watch him play erectly, with a sort of effortless force, all mighty forearms, I finally understand why an old boss – a drummer, actually – used to revere him so much. Like his bandmates, Weinberg seems to conjure up a vigorous spirit of community and celebration, but does so with a fearsome professional rigour.
What else should I mention? A rousing “American Land”, with two accordions. And finally “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town”, delivered in Santa hats, with Van Zandt destroying his Sopranos credibility with some magnificently goofy earmuffs. Why? Because it’s just entertainment, folks, and now I get it – apart from “Dancing In The Dark”, mind.
If anyone would like to file a responsible and more measured review, please do below, and also: where should I start on my hilariously belated voyage of discovery? I’m thinking “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” but, as ever, any advice would be great.