February 22, 2014

Notes from the road: Hunter Valley #1

Look out of your car window in the Hunter Valley and you’ll see miles of vineyard and rolling hills. One of Australia’s most popular wine regions, tonight, eighteen thousand people, have turned up to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play outdoors. Five songs in, the sun has dropped like a dollar coin in a parking meter and the band are in full flight. With his customary waistcoat, collared shirt and tie absent, Bruce manages to look a million bucks in a black t-shirt and jeans.

Opening the set with a rollicking remake of Stick McGhee’s honky tonk classic “Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee” Bruce adjusts the lyrics to suit his Australian surroundings. The capacity house is on board with the sentiment immediately. Bruce then tears into “Badlands” and follows it with “No Surrender“. ‘We learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school.’ Amen to that.

Bruce’s intention is obviously to set the house alight early. “Two Hearts” is next and, for a bit of theatre, Bruce pounds out his frustrations with two fists on Steve’s chest. Next comes the chiming intro to “Bobby Jean” and it’s ‘game over’ … and we’re only thirty minutes in.

In 2014 Springsteen is pushing the boundaries of rock and roll. No one expects a show like this from the Rolling Stones, U2 or even Paul McCartney. Bruce is playing a rock set, peppered with everything from soul to Dixieland and playing it with a jazz sensibility. No set list is written in stone and Springsteen is 100% committed to bringing his audience into a ‘moment’. And that ‘moment’ can be everything from the topical to the nostalgic, the confrontational to the euphoric. The set list, which can travel down many roads, as it does tonight, embraces a natural arc that supports the artist as storyteller.

High Hopes“, which features Tom’s clarion call guitar lines, is next, and is followed by another highlight from the High Hopes album, Just “Like Fire Would“. As the latter fades Bruce heads into the crowd to gather up sign requests. As the Mighty Max keeps the beat rolling, Bruce holds up ‘Murder Incorporated’ and the drummer changes the groove and snaps the song into being. It’s followed by the most intense “Wrecking Ball” played on the tour so far with the crowd singing the chorus back to the performer with vigour.

As the stage falls into darkness, twin spotlights find Steve on acoustic guitar and Bruce on harmonica and pair begin what becomes a gorgeous reading of “The River“.

Garry’s bass drives a mesmerising “American Skin (41 Shots)” and the mood of night shifts again. Because “The Night” appears and suddenly you’re veering into another zone: such is the ebb and flow of what becomes one of the most memorable shows of the tour.

Working On The Highway” sees Bruce grabbing a straw cowboy hat from the audience and wearing it with swagger. As fireworks appear in the distance “Darlington County” lights up the crowd. “Shackled” And Drawn holds it’s place as a centrepiece of the set and Cindy knocks us out with vocal improvisations guided by the hand of Bruce.

Waitin’ On A Sunny Day” has Bruce roaming the catwalk before plonking himself in the cameraman’s chair for a little ‘up close and personal’ mugging for the lens. Juxtaposing “Waitin’” is “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” that is delivered with ferocity. Taking the song to a whole new place, Tom Morello literally crouches on the stage to manhandle his guitar pedals. With a Spector-esque “Wall of Sound“, “Land Of Hope and Dreams” closes out the main set.

As Bruce admits, he’s ‘famous for writing songs about my father’, but tonight he plays a song inspired by his Mother that’s ‘100% true’: but not before he tells an hilarious anecdote about buying his Mom a new iPhone and being on the receiving ends of very early face-time chats. The song is a solo acoustic take on a sign request for “The Wish“.

With the band back on stage they launch into a glorious cover of the Easybeats’ “Friday On My Mind“. Absolutely terrific, Curtis, Michelle and Cindy should take another bow for their bv’s. Before the dust settles, the band is tearing into a thrilling “Born To Run“, which is followed by an exuberant “Dancing In The Dark“. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” sees Bruce literally dancing atop Roy’s piano, before the great man calls for an ‘Eb’ and leads the troupe into a frenetic reading of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout“.

The show closes with a stunning full-band “Thunder Road“. As Jake delivers a wonderful solo you can’t help but spare a thought for his recently departed father and the Big Man himself.
Again, Bruce has brought a show that somehow veered into interstellar overdrive: taking an audience where no front man has been before… and staying twice as long. We salute you.

-Sean Sennett