A FEW years ago, Elvis Costello declared an ongoing fondness for U2. By way of explanation, Costello outlined his admiration for U2’s ability to forge intimacy and emotional connection even in the Enormo-Domes and Mega-Bowls that constitute their tour schedules. At stadium level now, Costello observed, “everything else is bullshit, or a trip to the circus.”
It was an astute summary of the reasons why few sane folk approach a stadium show with optimism. But if one artist might be expected to understand how to except oneself from Costello’s dictum, it’s Bruce Springsteen, who’s been playing stadiums for more than 25 years. These hopes could only be inflated by the dash that the E Street band were cutting on the earlier stages of the “Magic” tour, as they played in mere arenas. Last November, I covered the less glamorous stretch of the American tour for Uncut -– St Paul, Cleveland, Auburn Hills -– and saw, I’m certain, three of the best shows that I ever will. At London’s 02 Arena in December, they’d been no less fantastic, topping the show with an exuberant “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”.
Tonight, though — the first of two shows at the 60,000 capacity Arsenal ground, the first time it’s been used as a live music venue since it opened in 2006 — represents a somewhat baffling failure on Springsteen’s part to confront the drawbacks or the possibilities of the stadium environment.
He’s playing exactly the same show as he was in the arenas -– the only alterations to the set are bigger stage-side screens -– and much is lost in the translation. In an enclosed venue, where the light can be controlled, the conceit of having the band dressed in black worked a treat, conferring upon them a last-gang-in-town raffishness that well complemented the fabulous thrashing they were giving Springsteen’s incomparable catalogue. Tonight, when they take the stage in broad daylight at around 7:30, they’re just invisible.
They’re also barely audible.
It’s not helped that there’s been much to-ing and fro-ing at Islington council, many locals voicing their concern about the potential noise levels, so conditions on these shows taking place included an independent consultant monitoring sound levels, a stipulation that the noise doesn’t exceed 75 decibels outside the ground, and a complaints hotline for residents. As a result, it’s perfectly possible to conduct a conversation during the set without raising your voice — even at the furious peaks of “The Ties That Bind” and “Cadillac Ranch”.
At the arena shows, the unfurling of Steve Van Zandt’s riff at the start of the souped-up “Reason To Believe” that’s been such a highlight of this tour felt something like being in an aeroplane at takeoff, pushed backwards into your seat by an overwhelming kinetic energy. Tonight, even that resembles a dim echo of a party 10 blocks away. The subtler moments, mostly drawn from the new album –- “Magic” and “Devil’s Arcade” especially –- are utterly lost. And it’s little help that a long stretch of the set is selected from somewhere beneath Springsteen’s top drawer. It’s difficult to fathom the logic by which “Prove It All Night”, “Working On The Highway” and “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day” get a run while the likes of “Racing In The Street”, “The River”, and “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” are warming the bench.
Matters do improve as the sun disappears, allowing the lights to confer some drama upon “Long Walk Home” and an especially spirited “Badlands”. And only the most adamantine not-in-my-back-yard Islingtonian could fail to be swept along by the encore -– “Thunder Road”, “Born To Run”, “Glory Days”, “Rosalita”, “Dancing In The Dark”, “American Land”. Ultimately, though, Springsteen and the E Street Band showed up at the wrong address tonight.
In a theatre, you can imagine, this show would have been a plausible candidate for best thing ever. In an arena, this show would have been –- as last winter’s arena shows were –- astonishing. In a stadium, it was uninvolving and impersonal. Just sort of there. The last things anyone should be able to accuse Springsteen, of all people, of being.
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
The Ties That Bind
The Promised Land
Reason To Believe
Prove It All Night
Because The Night
Working On The Highway
Livin’ In The Future
Waitin’ On A Sunny Day
Last To Die
Long Walk Home
Born To Run
Dancing In The Dark