February 26, 2014

Notes from the road: Brisbane

The house lights are almost up and Bruce Springsteen is alone, on stage, singing Thunder Road. He’s taken the verse melody on a subtle change of route and now the capacity house are singing the chorus in unison. The final wave of applause hits the performer and he passes his harmonica brace to a fan in the first rows. It marks the end of an extraordinary night and an extraordinary Australian tour. Tonight, in Brisbane, Springsteen shows, again, that he’s not prepared to allow anything about his set list to become rote.

Let’s go back to the beginning. The show starts with the stage in darkness and Bruce is singing the opening lines of the Bee Gee’s disco hit Stayin’ Alive. For a moment you wonder if he’s going to deliver it as a bare bones slice of blue eyed soul, but then the band kick in, the lights are up and the party has started. Putting heart and soul into the lyric, Bruce sounds terrific, while Curtis, Cindy and Michelle are the physical manifestation of soul heaven. While the horn section – well, tonight they’ve got more a little swagger, and they play it out multiple times during the course of the evening. But… that’s not all. Adding a sweet topping are an eight-piece string section. The results are sublime.

So where to from here…? Bruce goes way back and the band tear into It’s Hard To Be a Saint In The City. The song is given a little extra muscle, with some stinging guitar lines traded between Bruce and Little Steven. Then there’s Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street? The horns are out front and the show is downright funky. The Entertainment Centre now feels like a very large bar circa 1973. Next Bruce offers a meditation on the life of a teenager sitting in a bedroom and dreaming of being a super hero. Sex is impossible and all you can rely on is a date with ’Mister Trusty’. He says ‘staying alive isn’t that easy to do … how do we stay alive?’ and then launches into Growin’ Up. Spirit In The Night is next and Bruce gets a wild surf back to centre stage … somewhere along the way someone slips a cell phone is his pocket. Another first!

High Hopes and Just Like Fire Would remain staples and drag the audience back into the now. The show is starting to feel edgy and Bruce is prepared to tear up the set list. Looking for signs he grabs one for You Can Look  (But You Better Not Touch) (which features lots of mugging from Steve), his frat rock classic Sherry Darling and Save My Love. He admits the latter didn’t make Darkness ‘because it’s too fucking happy’. He admits he had plans for the set list and ‘none of them are happening’. Finally he sees a sign for Fade Away. It’s Steve’s favourite and Bruce admits he plays it once a tour to keep him happy.

The set is now at a crossroads and Springsteen reveals he was considering playing The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle. But now it might be too late in the night. Maybe he should just take sign requests? Maybe he should just only play the second half of the album? Finally he decides to put it to an audience vote. He weighs up the applause and decides to play the album, in full, for only the second time in the history of the band. Hard core fans are in heaven. Time to buckle up.

The music, littered with killer lyrics and clever instrumentation held the room largely spellbound. It’s hard to pick highlights: because everything had highs. The E Street Shuffle, with its Major Lance style riff, is off the chart. 4th Of July Asbury Park (Sandy) is gorgeous. Kitty’s Back features lots of that stinging guitar mentioned earlier.

“Before we had horn players Garry Tallent played the tuba,” Bruce informs us as Garry does just that on Wild Billy’s Circus Story. Next comes one of the greatest finales of all time. You flip the album over and Bruce hits us with Incident On 57th Street, which rolls into a barnstorming Rosalita (complete with Italian flag underwear worn by Bruce as a hat and lots of Three Stooges style moves for the camera) and the return of the strings for New York City Serenade.

At the album’s close Bruce shifts into a new gear and hits the stalls to shake a few hands, plant a kiss on the woman in the balcony and delight us with Darlington County. Waiting On A Sunny Day keeps the mood upbeat. The Rising is one of the nights many standouts and The Ghost Of Tom Joad is played with a zeal that clearly impresses as the audience bellow the hook line louder than any other audience in the county. Badlands is next and if you were in the pit and you thought an audience member was banging an extra tambourine, you were right. Eddie Vedder was right there shaking his tambo as hard as he could. Glory Days (with a ‘let’s twerk’ adlib was next).

Born To Run, Bobby Jean and Dancing In The Dark were joyful and showed the dexterity of Bruce’s work when compared to the main body of the set. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out illustrated again what a terrific soul singer Bruce is. Bruce thanked the audience for their warmth over two summers and advised us to keep Australia a secret for as long as we could. Eddie Vedder came on for a scorching Highway To Hell and Bruce closed the set with Thunder Road. 118 songs were played over 11 nights. Four albums were played in their entirety and Australian covers were learned and performed in rapid-fire time. Bruce, you came, you saw and you totally rocked. A sign from the Hunter Valley sums up all of our feelings. It read: ‘Thank You Brother’.

-Sean Sennett