July 24, 2013

Notes from the road: Cardiff

“There are good Bruce shows, there are great Bruce shows, and then there’s Cardiff!” – to quote my friend Helen Jones who had queued up for three days and was lucky enough to see tonight’s show from the front of the pit. But you didn’t need an up close vantage point to know you were witnessing something extraordinary tonight. As in past tours, as the clock ticks down to the inevitable end, Bruce pulls out all the stops and incites the band to go full out crazy with him. Tonight was such a night.

“Good evening Cardiff!” Bruce called to the cheering crowd as the band took the stage and plunged into “This Little Light of Mine,” taking no prisoners from the get go. Another difference at this show was that, in contrast to the recent outdoor shows in Ireland, this one took place inside a stadium with a closed roof, therefore capping in the energy and letting it ricochet around inside into every single human body onstage and off. Since it wasn’t outside we also got to see once again the full magnitude of the amazing lighting design on this tour.

Grinding his guitar manically against the mikestand, Bruce next plunged into that brutal anthem of teenage angst, “Adam Raised A Cain.” The horn section and the choir added a new and powerful dimension to the song aided by Max’s furious drumming. The audience chanted along with the melody, fully in the zone already by the second song.

After collecting signs from the audience for song requests, Bruce chose “Prove It All Night” to follow next. “We’re gonna do an easy one first.” As the song roared to its conclusion, Nils spun around with his trademark guitar solo, a man possessed.

Flashing a sign for “TV Movie” to the audience Bruce proclaimed, “This has never been played partly because it’s completely ridiculous. I kinda remember how it goes…Key of D!” After teaching the band the chords on the spot he called, “Professor, are you ready? The Professor is very important on this.” They gamely launched into the song and Bruce sang it with a broad grin. “You heard it first! You heard it last!” he called afterwards as we all savored the magical moment of hearing something that had never been performed live before.

Another sign next, this one for “Cynthia.” “These are odd songs! Rarely played!” Bruce commented on the signs he’d gathered. “This is Steve’s favorite of all time!” he told the delighted crowd. “This is for the girls. Let me hear you scream!” Thousands of Welsh females were happy to oblige. “That’s the sound we’re working for!” he grinned as they launched into this rollicking love song which was included on the ‘Tracks’ box set as an outtake from ‘Born in the USA.’

Diverting from the playful mood he’d exhibited for most of the show so far, Bruce plunged into a ruthless version of the classic “Roulette” he had written to perform at the 1979 No Nukes Concerts. Max’s drumming pulsed like a frantic heartbeat for this torrid number which was followed by a ‘Wrecking Ball’ trifecta of “Death to My Hometown,” “We Take Care of Our Own,” and “Wrecking Ball.” And then things got wild, or wilder, I should say.

As the opening chords to “Spirit in the Night” sounded behind him, Bruce slid down and sat on the stage and went into a long reverie before the astounded audience. It could have been 1977 all over again. “It was a summer just like this…it felt like it was hot all the time…and I was fourteen.” The crowd was almost completely silent as he mused about eyeing an 18 dollar guitar in the window of the Western Auto Parts Store in Freehold, and how he managed to get a job painting a neighbor’s house (“in 95 degree heat”) to earn the money to buy it.

Once he bought the guitar he couldn’t figure out how to tune it or play it, so “I just looked at it in my room and it made me happy….it was like this totem of possibilities. It had this big sign on it that said MAYBE…” The strings, he remembered, were like telephone wires, and his fingers bled when he tried to play. He recalled how he then got an electric guitar soon after, and “got in a little band.” “I guess the point I’m trying to make is that next year – next July – is gonna be 50 years since that summer.” The crowd loudly cheered this statement. “I learned that my job – you cannot do by yourself. At the end of the day, it’s a job you can’t do by yourself.” He exhorted the crowd, “WE…NEED…YOU!!…We need for you to make sense of all this shit! So what I wanna know is…can you feel the spirit?!” For this song as well as many subsequent ones this night, he threw himself into the crowd at the front of the stage over and over, as if to physically prove he needed them to lean on.

“Hungry Heart” followed, then “My City of Ruins.” Bruce explained that he had originally written the song about Asbury Park, but since that time it had become about a lot of other things too. It was a thrill to see this back in the set, and it was a wrenching version. “Are we missing anybody?” As the lights went way down and the band played oh so quietly behind him, Bruce stood in the spotlight and sang, his voice full of heartbreak, “Oh they made that change uptown…they made that change uptown now…” over and over before bringing the song to its conclusion.

Next, a real surprise: for the first time on this tour, Eric Burdon came out onstage as a special guest star and Bruce acknowledged that one of the songs he’d learned on that guitar as a kid was “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place.” Eric sang that growling lead as if the record had just come out and the E Street Band more than ably provided the sinuous backing. The entire audience as well as Bruce and the band shouted the chorus. It was not to be believed.

As if things couldn’t get any more intense, Bruce swung into the John Lee Hooker classic “Boom Boom” (a hit in 1965 for Eric Burdon’s Animals) next and truly did us in proper. He had worked himself into a frenzied fever pitch by this point in the show, which is why Helen Jones was so right – there are good shows, great shows, and then there was Cardiff.

“Cadillac Ranch” picked us up off the floor and then a sign request was fulfilled for “Summertime Blues” (always a personal favorite of mine, being the first song I ever saw Bruce and the band perform back in 1978). A truly demented “You Can Look” was next, with Steven playing straight man advising Bruce he could look but not touch as the song burned to its finish. The NOLA/Kansas City stomp “Pay Me My Money Down” upped the ante even further as Charlie on accordion along with the horns joined Bruce on the small stage and went crazy, with the choir’s jazz parasols twirling away upstage.

“Shackled and Drawn” further ratcheted the energy up, always a showstopper with Cindy’s amazing vocals. A small Welsh boy wearing a “Born in the USA” t-shirt was the featured vocalist on “Waiting on A Sunny Day.” “The Rising” invited us to come on up and “Badlands” reminded us it was no sin to be glad we were alive. The crowd chanted the “Badlands” refrain beautifully and melodically as the main set finished and the band took their bows.

“This goes out to Emily,” Bruce said as the encores began with an unexpected and welcome version of “Tougher than the Rest,” to which Soozie contributed beautiful backing vocals. A maniacal “Born to Run” brought up the house lights and Bruce invited almost the entire front row to strum his guitar strings as the song roared to a finish.

“Steve I think I wanna roadhouse!” he screamed into the mike, signaling for the rarely played and much enjoyed “Ramrod.” Steven reiterated that yes, it was Boss Time, and the horns and choir joined the front line downstage dancing and shaking their butts. Wait, are you kidding me? Yes, it could get hotter and crazier: “I’m A Rocker” followed this, during which Bruce kept throwing himself into the crowd.

“Dancing in the Dark” and “10th Avenue Freeze Out” rounded out the encores, which have grown almost to a second full set at this point. “Cardiff!” Bruce chanted over and over as the crowd screamed back, “BRUCE!” and then they went into possibly the most frenetic version of “Shout!” I’ve seen yet, the horns and choir getting down to the ground with Bruce, band introductions, and endless codas.

“This Little Light of Mine” joyous reprise followed and the crowd roared its approval, singing along to this soul stomper popularized by Fannie Lou Hamer. But was he finished with us? No, no, and no. As the band left the stage to rousing cheers, Bruce treated the Welsh crowd to a stunning solo acoustic version of “Janey Don’t You Lose Heart” followed by “Thunder Road.” Diolch yn fawr Gymru – Thank you Wales!\

Holly Cara Price