IT’S 60 seconds before showtime. Bruce Springsteen, the E Street Band and almost a dozen additional musicians are huddled in a circle behind a stage in Anaheim, California. A stone’s throw from Disneyland, the full house holds almost 20,000 fans making a helluva noise in anticipation of Springsteen’s arrival.
Holding hands, the band leans in to hear Springsteen offer a few rousing words of encouragement. Mugging for the occasion, Springsteen looks serious and finally comes out of a long pause and grimaces.
‘‘ Twenty-six years ago, Little Steven [Van Zandt] and I came here to visit the happiest place on earth — and they kicked us out for wearing bandanas.
‘‘ Tonight . . . we take our revenge.’’ And that’s what Springsteen proceeds to do: the arena is alight as the man who recently tipped his hat to James Brown by referring to himself as the hardest working white man in show business delivered the greatest rock ’ n’ roll show on earth.
Springsteen has pledged his professional life to his promise and his audience: ‘‘ night after night after night’’. His ticket is his handshake and as the old soul song goes, ‘‘ ninety-nine and a half just won’t do’’. It’s a sentiment echoed by his long-time manager Jon Landau:
‘‘ Bruce always gives 100 per cent of what he has, every day.’’
In his dressing-room a couple of hours before showtime, Springsteen is relaxed in a pale T-shirt and dark jeans. Suntanned and in an upbeat mood, he’s strumming an acoustic guitar and being asked to ruminate on something he has spent almost five decades trying to achieve: creating magic with the songs he has written in front of an audience looking to be uplifted.
‘‘ You don’t want to overthink it,’’ Springsteen muses on what may lie ahead once the tour manager rings the proverbial bell.
‘‘ It’s all about complete commitment when the moment arrives. You can be back here [in the dressing room] feeling like: ‘ I don’t feel so good’; for the show itself, you need to use your mind, but that’s not the moment to be intellectual. I’m out there just trying to see what catches fire. I’m trying to set myself on fire while I’m at it.’’
A high-octane show, the set lists on his Wrecking Ball tour run the gamut of the artist’s career. As the core E Street Band is joined on stage by a small army of brass players and additional singers, Springsteen’s range of material goes back to his 1973 debut Greetings
from Asbury Park, New Jersey through to his latest album, this year’s Wrecking Ball. As at any time during Springsteen’s career, no single show is the same.
As he says, over so many nights on tour, Springsteen wants his audience to exit the arena with ‘‘ your back hurting, your voice sore and your sexual organs stimulated’’.
‘‘ If you’re willing to let things happen ... you don’t know what you’re going to find out there on any given night,’’ says Springsteen as he’s reminded of a moment two nights earlier in Oakland, California, when a fan in the crowd held up a sign that simply read ‘‘ Dance with a Hungarian Girl’’. The Boss complied.
To a man, the E Street Band refers to itself as a bar band. It’s just that the rooms kept getting bigger. After playing stadiums throughout the year in Europe, the bulk of the venues the band will perform in on their upcoming Australian tour are comparatively cosy.
‘‘ It’s all relative,’’ Springsteen explains. ‘‘ After playing in Europe for three or four months, an arena feels like you’re back in the club. The bottom line and the mechanics are the same wherever you are. There are some subtle differences in the way you have to approach your presentation.
‘‘ Smallness allows for more informality, though we’ve gotten very good at creating an enormous amount of informality, even in the biggest places. We have a 16 or 17-piece band up there that turns on a dime. It plays like a three-piece band.’’
As a child Springsteen flirted briefly with folk music. A cousin taught him some rudimentary chords; then he saw Elvis Presley on The
Ed Sullivan Show in 1956 and his world changed. If ever there were a big bang in Springsteen’s youth, that was it. Just as the boy who grew up in Freehold, New Jersey, was inspired to move by Elvis, later he had his mind freed by Bob Dylan.
Now 63, Springsteen has had a long career fusing those twin powers, adding other influences — his own twist — and coming up with something unique. Soul music, rhythm and blues and early rock ’ n’ roll are part of Springsteen’s bedrock. As a writer with a gift for detailed portraiture, he’s an American great ranking alongside Dylan and John Steinbeck. As a performer, there’s no other artist in the world like him.
‘‘ Next year I’ll be doing it for 50 years,’’ he considers. ‘‘ That’s 50 years of not just doing it but studying it and watching — I still watch everything that comes along. It’s an ongoing, an endless work in progress.’’
Musically, he’s partial at the moment to the likes of the Gaslight Anthem and Against Me! He jams with the Roots, and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello is called onstage, tonight, as is Social Distortion’s Mike Ness. Soul music remains a passion and a few nights later he’ll barnstorm the crowd to find an empty seat next to the great Sam Moore (Sam & Dave) to engage in a little call and response.
Backstage the conversation moves to Elvis Presley. Whereas Presley engaged his audience but, largely, kept a regal distance, Springsteen is one of us: the everyman who kicked down the fourth wall; the gun for hire, both the loner and the leader of the gang and myriad other ideals his audience wants to project on to him. Springsteen first saw Presley in concert, before his own fame, in New York City, a few years before jumping the wall at Graceland to offer the King, who was absent, a song.
‘‘ By the time I saw him in the 70s, I was studying everything I saw,’’ he offers. ‘‘ I can be there both as a fan and as a student. When he came out on stage my recollection was he was great. [But] the Ed Sullivan performances were a classic example of how somebody can convert a cool medium into something that delivers an enormous amount of heat. It’s very hard to do. That’s why we stayed off television for a long time. We weren’t on television until 1994, live, because it’s fundamentally a cooler medium and we bring the heat. Elvis was hot; but the Beatles were quite cool and classical. It was all in the math and the beauty of their songs and talent.’’
During the sound check Springsteen arrives on stage busting slow motion dance moves that wouldn’t be out of place on Soul Train. His laugh is infectious and it fills the empty arena. It’s here Springsteen further fine-tunes an arrangement or two.
Unlike any other band with similar stadium drawing power, back in his dressing-room with his notebooks, laptop and lozenges, pre-show, Springsteen handwrites a list of songs to be performed that night, which is essentially a ‘‘ guide’’ for how the concert will play out. The E Street Band calls the missing links ‘‘ audibles’’, which means Springsteen will pull a song out of thin air, or he may spot a sign requesting a tune that’s held up by a member of the audience and launch into that.
It’s seat-of-the-pants stuff, as guitarist Van Zandt says: ‘‘ Bruce tells me, I tell Roy [Bittan] and everyone else fends for themselves.’’ That’s when the band catches Springsteen’s signals and turns on that dime. When it happens, it’s a thing of wonder.
‘‘ What people are paying for is the intensity of your presence,’’ Springsteen says. ‘‘ They want to hear their favourite songs and all that stuff, but I always believe what they really respond to is the intensity of your presence on any given night. If the set becomes too rote you can sort of rest on its laurels [or] you can rest on its form and its formula. I don’t want the band to be resting on any particular formula. We have a general blueprint. Some songs appear in the beginning, some songs appear towards the end. I may switch that completely. Lately we’ve been starting with Land of Hope and Dreams, which we’ve been ending the shows with for the past bunch of years.
‘‘ Sometimes you just turn it all completely on its head and suddenly everything is new again and the band and myself are pushed into the moment, which is where you want to be and what people are coming to see.’’
Like the Rolling Stones, the E Street Band is a magnificent unit built on the sum of its parts. Max Weinberg is a powerhouse on drums. Bittan is virtuosic on piano. Nils Lofgren, in Springsteen’s words, ‘‘ is the greatest, most overqualified’’ second guitarist in the world, and there’s rock-solid Garry W. Tallent on bass. Springsteen’s wife, Patti Scialfa, plays when family life permits and Van Zandt remains Bruce’s best pal and consigliore while earning a reputation as a DJ and an actor in The Sopranos and Norwegian drama Lilyhammer. Sadly missing are organist Dan Federici, who died from melanoma in 2008, and Springsteen’s on-stage foil and soul brother, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who died last year. ‘‘ My relationship with [Clarence] fired my imagination and my own dreams,’’ Springsteen said when Wrecking Ball was launched in Paris. ‘‘ It made me want to write for those sax sounds. Losing him is like losing rain or air — it’s elemental. It’ll take a village of men to replace the Big Man!’’
And indeed it has. Apart from the four-piece horn section on stage each night, Springsteen has called on Clarence’s nephew Jake Clemons to play with the ensemble while taking his uncle’s signature parts in concert staples such as Badlands, Jungleland and Thunder Road.
A key theme of the tour is dealing with loss, honouring the past and walking alongside your own ghosts. Friendship, faith, spiritual rejuvenation and personal renewal are threads that pepper Springsteen’s onstage dialogue. The experience is heightened by the shared experience of the songs between the songwriter and his audience. For Springsteen, the Wrecking Ball concerts also allow his audience to say goodbye to Federici and ‘‘ the Big Man’’.
‘‘ We’ve been on the road for a while now,’’ Springsteen continues, ‘‘ but basically we’re going to every place for the first time. If people have seen the band before they haven’t seen us since Clarence was gone, so we’re trying to help them in just dealing with that experience. I knew [this acknowledgment] was going to be a permanent fixture of the show for certainly this tour. People need a chance to say hello again and goodbye. They need to feel Clarence, both his absence and his permanence. We try to bring that into the show on a nightly basis.’’
While Charlie Giordano now plays organ in the band, Springsteen’s troupe features additional percussion, violin and four heavenly singers who bring a little more gospel to the choruses. In a way Springsteen has moved the band forward by looking over his shoulder.
‘‘ If you go back to the band I had in 1971, before I made records, I had a 10-piece band and I had singers and horns in it. I didn’t have as big a vocal section or horn section but it was basically this set-up. Steve played the guitar, Garry played the bass, and I think Davy Sancious was the organist at the time. We carried that band — couldn’t carry it too long because it was so many people. So in a funny way it’s a very similar set-up that I had when I was very young at one time. It’s a band that can play so many different types of music, from hard-rock music to gospel and soul and some jazz, traditional jazz, New Orleans, it covers so much territory.’’
Already eight-odd shows into the Wrecking Ball Tour, Springsteen is showing no signs of slowing down. At the musical core of the night are Springsteen classics and material from the critically acclaimed Wrecking Ball album. Taking its handle from the few tonnes of mongrel metal that brought down New Jersey’s Giants Stadium, Wrecking Ball ruminates on much that has gone sour with the American, and more broadly, the Western dream in recent years.
When writing the album, the fire in Springsteen’s belly was stoked by the fallout from 2008’s financial crisis; in particular the effect it had on individuals, the loss of jobs and dignity, failure of the system to take responsibility for that collapse and the eventual formation of the Occupy movement.
A highlight in concert, the rousing We Take Care of Our Own, which opens Wrecking Ball, is crucial to the writer’s approach in sequencing an album.
‘‘ If you look at my records, say The River, for example, it starts out with The Ties that Bind and the rest of the record deals with that idea,’’ Springsteen told me before the tour began. ‘‘ If you listen to Darkness on the Edge of Town, the album starts with Badlands and the rest of the record deals with philosophical questions that come up in Badlands. Born to Run starts with Thunder Road, which is two people off on a journey of some sort, and the rest of the record tries to figure out where they’re going. I do it very often in many of my records.
‘‘[ We Take Care of Our Own] in that sense, it was summational, but it also postulated what I was thinking about at that particular moment
Bruce Springsteen today; below left, on
stage in 1995
Bruce Springsteen on the Obama campaign trail this year, above, and left, with his wife, Patti Scialfa; opposite page, with the E Street Band