July 21, 2013

Notes from the road: Belfast

Belfast was treated to a pre-show five-pack of stunners by Bruce on solo acoustic guitar: “Surprise, Surprise”, “Maria’s Bed” (sign request), and “Growin’ Up” opened the set, followed by another sign request, a gorgeous partial rendition of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” and “This Hard Land.” “See you in a little while!” he told the ecstatic crowd before heading backstage.

The main event tonight stayed close to the set list, though not entirely of course. Belfast was treated to an unusual show studded by several classics from the Nebraska album as well as The River. The festivities began with Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get A Witness” playing as the band took the stage, seguing smoothly into “This Little Light of Mine.” “Good evening everybody! We’re so glad to be here tonight!” Bruce shouted to the capacity crowd which stretched as far as the eye could see.

“The Ties That Bind” next featured Jake, warmly cheered on the sax. On the heels of this was an intense “Jackson Cage” with a blistering Little Steven guitar break. The intensity of the show was assured as the percussive “She’s The One” was next, Bruce punctuating the song with yips and yelps, a man possessed. This song, early on in the night, clearly established the showmanship of this extraordinary band.

Bruce went out into the crowd to collect song request signs and stacked them up on the stage, grabbing one and placing it in front of his mike stand: “Reason to Believe.” Steven’s guitar shored up the Bo Diddley-esque melody as Bruce growled “make it dirty” before launching into his harmonica solo. It was a strong, slamming version of this classic, further upping the ante and assuring us all we were in for quite a night.

Another ‘Nebraska’ song followed, “Johnny 99,” featuring Soozie on violin, Clark on trombone, Curt on trumpet, and Jake on sax. The horns joined Bruce on the small front stage roaring as the song reached its impassioned climax. The ‘Nebraska’ mini-set continued with “Atlantic City,” the audience lustily singing along.

At this point Bruce grabbed another sign and showed it to the audience: “Nebraska” at which a collective appreciative sigh went up. There was near complete respectful quiet during this solo acoustic version of the velvety voiced tale of Charlie Starkweather’s murder spree.

Another sign request thrilled the crowd, “Prove It All Night (78 version).” This song almost more than any other really exhibits perfectly the resplendence and transition of the 1978 E Street Band to the 1984 E Street Band to the current E Street Band. Making the leap from 1978 to the current tour, “We Take Care Of Our Own” was next, followed by “Wrecking Ball.” “So raise your glasses Belfast! Let me hear your voices call.” This was succeeded by the fierce rallying cry of “Death To My Hometown.”

“The River” came next, chillingly beautiful on this weather-perfect summer night as many thousands of Northern Irish voices sang along with the lyric. Steven’s acoustic guitar strummed as Bruce exquisitely keened the melody at the end, followed by a harp solo that could break your heart.

The genius of this artist, this band, and this show is that each succeeding song almost wipes away what came before in pure awesomeness. Explaining that many fans follow the tour from city to city, Bruce said, “we try to do something we haven’t done or that we haven’t done in a long time. This is Steve’s favorite song!” At that they went into a stone-cold perfect version of the rarely played (even during ‘The River’ Tour) “Fade Away.” You would have thought it was 33 years ago, so closely was this nailed. Charlie shone on organ, a fitting tribute to the much-loved and missed Danny Federici.

As we all caught our breaths, “Open All Night” provided a dramatic change of pace with its psycho swing by way of Kansas City arrangement. Roy’s piano and the horns were true standouts on this one, which also featured a call and response with the audience. “Hey Ho Rock and Roll deliver me from nowhere!” Bruce chanted and one could only think truer words were never spoken.

Next we rolled into a “Born in the USA” trifecta: the ultimate road trip song “Cadillac Ranch,” the rollicking “Darlington County,” and the beloved “Bobby Jean.” On the heels of these classics was “Shackled and Drawn” from ‘Wrecking Ball’ and, but for the fact that the show was outside in a huge open field, the house was effectively brought down.

“Come on Belfast – help me out!” Bruce called as they next swung into “Waiting on A Sunny Day,” tonight’s guest vocalist being a tiny girl in a pink and white hat with a marvelous lack of stage fright. “The Rising” exhorted us all to come on up and “Badlands” ferociously ended the main set. As the band took their bows, the “Badlands” chant was ferociously continued by the crowd.

Stating, “this goes out for Belfast,” the band eased into the neo-spiritual “Rocky Ground,” showcasing the incredible Michelle Moore on vocals, the crowd swaying and singing along to this beautiful song that has more than earned its true and rightful place as a prodigious Bruce Springsteen anthem.

The encores went full throttle with “Born In The USA”, “Born to Run,” and “Dancing in the Dark.” As the familiar notes of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” started Bruce jumped around the stage like a boxer ready to hit the ring, his energy at a fever pitch, feeding off the crowd. “Belfast! Belfast! Belfast!” he screamed before a frenzied reading of “Shout!” containing band introductions.

“Belfast!” he called and the crowd yelled back “Bruce!” to which he responded, “You’ve just seen the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, love-making, legendary E STREET BAND!” As “Shout!” roared to its conclusion Bruce roared, “I’m just a prisoner – of rock and roll!” Thousands of Northern Irish hands were raised in the air, testifying.

“This Little Light of Mine” reprised the beginning of the show, after which the revved-up crowd returned to the “Badlands” chant. One more treat for Belfast: Bruce on solo acoustic guitar performing “Thunder Road” sent them into the night, fortified with the magnificent power of rock and soul music.

– Holly Cara Price