February 2, 2014

Notes from the road: Johannesburg

It sometimes pays to be the early bird. Delighted fans who were already inside the stadium and seated at 5.30pm – around three-and-a-half hours before Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band walked onto the stage for their set – were treated to a spontaneous, three-song acoustic solo set by The Boss, who walked out with his guitar, welcomed everyone and sang “Working On The Highway”, “I’ll Work For Your Love” and “Growing Up” before disappearing backstage.

When Bruce and the full band returned after a slight technical delay following a blistering set by virtuoso guitarist Dan Patlansky, the support act, they began with The Special AKA’s “Free Nelson Mandela”, an unexpected (most of the crowd appeared to think it was more about adding local interest than a tribute to the song’s Struggle credentials) though welcome choice that had an ice cream vendor believing it was the Eighties all over again and doing a traditional dance down an aisle as he went to restock his ice-box.

During the following song, “Land Of Hope And Dreams”, Bruce went down to the front of the stage – one of many such excursions during the show – to take a banner from a fan, which he brought back to a camera so that the whole crowd could see the message painted on the card: “I was your first black South African fan.” That “banner cam”, utilized several times during the evening, was also responsible for providing many dramatic views of Bruce backed by a huge audience, stretching to the edge of the space illuminated by the stage lights.

One-on-one crowd interaction was one of the features of the concert and other banners passed over heads to Bruce read “Seed” and “Cadillac Ranch”, prompting Bruce & The E Street Band to deviate from their original setlist (the first of many such off-the-cuff updates) and play those songs instead.

By this point (it does take a while), fans had had an opportunity to count all the E Street Band members. There were 17 not counting Bruce, including long-term guest guitarist Tom Morello, who edged ahead of Stevie Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren in the solos count, but not by much (though purists may differ; both veterans received huge cheers when enjoying the spotlight on their own). On a relatively small stage (in FNB Stadium terms – it’s a cavernous venue), such a big crowd should have been tripping over each other, but there was still enough space under the lights for fans to notice Patti Scialfa’s unexplained absence.

Keeping such a massive outfit in check needs a strong hand, and while Bruce’s nickname “The Boss” applies across the board where his band his concerned, it is drummer Max Weinberg who was the immovably solid foundation for the whole concert. Every close-up of Weinberg’s face showed the sort of focused expression usually only seen on Olympic sprinters and world chess champions. Three hour-plus sets; stadium-level background noise; 17 colleagues milling around in front of him – nothing distracts Weinberg, and at 62 his stamina has yet to drop a notch.

One of the most powerful moments in the show was “American Skin”, an older song off new album High Hopes that underlined the sad worldwide relevance of its subject matter (it tells of an American man shot 41 times by over-zealous police; South Africa is currently experiencing a run of strikes in various industries in which protesters are being killed). And as that relevance was being processed, it began to rain.Up to that point, some of the live Twitter feedback from concertgoers had suggested that the Springsteen experience had perhaps not lived up to expectations, as some people had come for the hits and nothing more.But the weather and its impact on those caught in it, including the Golden Circle punters who’d paid the highest ticket prices, gave Bruce the chance to connect with his audience in a way that made it easy to understand why he has the enduring reputation he does as a performer.

His endless energy is what drives his enormous band and lengthy sets, and during “Johnny 99”, some 16 songs in, he led his horn section down into the rain on a little runway jutting into the crowd, where they gleefully kept the song going through multiple Mardi Gras-style false endings, with the musicians getting soaked to the skin. This solidarity with the fans changed the mood in the stadium from “merely appreciative” to “completely devoted”, setting the scene for the second half of the show.

A brief off-mic discussion with a guitar tech a couple of songs later saw Bruce handing his instruments back before venturing out into the rain again (perhaps there’s more than one Boss?), but there was no dampening of the on-stage mood, with 14 of the band members getting together for a line dance during an exuberant take on “Shackled And Drawn”.

Introducing “Waiting On A Sunny Day”, Bruce looked up at the sky and yelled: “We play this and the rain’s gonna stop!”He paused, fiddled with his guitar, looked again, and grinned before shrugging and shouting, “Maybe not!” Towards the end of the song, Bruce invited a young girl out onto the stage and gave her his microphone. Understandably, faced with a full stadium, she sang one line of the chorus and then froze. He bent down and whispered in her ear, giving her one phrase at a time, and as the music faded out and applause began, he gave her one more message, and the child turned and said, “Come on, E Street Band!”, with Weinberg’s thundering fill beginning almost before she’d finished talking.

Bruce’s microphone died in “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” – a possible casualty of all his wandering out in the rain – prompting an improvised instrumental break while it was fixed. The band then played “Badlands” before convening for their famous E Street bow as the main set ended to a standing ovation.They’d hardly left the stage before Bruce returned alone for the encore.

“Like America, South Africa is a land full of ghosts,” he said, as part of an introduction to John Fogerty’s “Who’ll Stop The Rain”, written about persistent social decay – but also apposite when it’s still drizzling.“Born In The USA” got everyone in the venue back on their feet and “Born To Run” kept them there as Bruce and the band rounded off the show with “Bobby Jean”, “Dancing In The Dark”, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”, “Shout” and “Thunder Road”.

There was no Pete Seeger tribute at this show (Bruce honored his late mentor and friend at the second Cape Town concert), but there was just about everything else. Some Johannesburg fans had waited decades for this gig and went home feeling that their patience had been rewarded, their high hopes realized.

Bruce Dennill