Arts Thoughts

21 Mar

Gig Review: The Stranglers, Sub 89, Reading, 8 July 2014

Stephen : July 9, 2014 12:35 pm : Art, Music

How are The Stranglers doing these days? Pretty darn good, as it happens.

Still going strong without the 75 year old (!) Jet Black on drums, they treated a packed and bijou Sub 89 Club in Reading to a fabulous set list and a performance that made the Germany vs Brazil match irrelevant.

‘Welcome to, err, someone’s living room?’ opined Baz Warne. ‘Reading on a Tuesday night’ as he surveyed the sweaty fifty-somethings before him, ‘ain’t you got jobs to go to?’.

 The Stranglers were never a ‘punk band’ in the sense that even in 1977 although they had a ‘fuck you’ sensibility, they could actually play.

In Dave Greenfield and Jean-Jaques Burnel they have talent and depth, and both are on display this evening, assisted by a PA and sound which gives each instrument and voices room to breathe and clarity. Burnel’s snarling bass and Greenfield’s ethereal keyboards give the Stranglers a unique musical signature, evident on opener ‘Toiler on the Sea’, followed by killer versions of ‘(get a) Grip (on yourself)’ and ‘Skin Deep’.

 I find myself smiling like a chimpanzee, drinking in the ageless sound of a great rock band playing a small venue. The front section of the crowd sings along raucously and jumps up and down in time with Warne’s singing and Burnel’s obvious love for his people. Gone are the days of menace and introspection, The Stranglers are clearly enjoying themselves in their senior years.

 The set rattles effortlessly through the gears: Always The Sun, Curfew, Death and Night and Blood, Nice N Sleazy, Duchess and a peerless cover of Walk On By……the show is peppered with songs from Black and White and Rattus Norvegicus IV and the sparse newer material blends in nicely without being overdone.

Most people in the crowd want the classics, although a surreal moment occurs when Warne tells the crowd they can vote by applause on the choice of ‘Golden Brown’ or ‘La Folie’ and the latter wins by a distance. These are hardcore fans.

 I baled out early to catch the last Oxford train before midnight, but relished the chance to catch up with a seminal band on top of their game. Keep on Stranglin’…….


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4 July 2104: Black Sabbath, Soundgarden, Motorhead….

Stephen : July 7, 2014 7:10 pm : Art, Music
Heavy rock works best in the dark: that’s just empirical observation. Shady music, minor chords and ghoulish lyrics, grandiose audio-visual effects, a genre which flirts (often laughably) with the powers of darkness…… how would this work in the blazing sunshine of Hyde Park? 
The answer is pretty well.
The British Summer Time festival on Friday 4 July kicked off with Soulfly, the US based thrash band fronted by Brazilian Max Cavalera. Soulfly, are, bluntly, not my cup of tea, with impenetrable lyrics delivered in the growly/grunty/shouty register favoured by too many nu-metal bands and, in my honest opinion, over-compensation for a lack of vocal talent.
There, I’ve said it.
SF tried hard, threw in a blast of Symptoms to tickle the Sabbath fans but they didn’t hold my interest. Meh.
Next on were the band whose motif sums up what they’re about. ‘Everything louder than everyone else’. Motorhead.
Lemmy seems to operate on his own time zone, about half a second slower than everyone else. You can hear the peculiar diction of someone with a mouth full of false teeth, which makes him sound like the pensioner which he most assuredly doesn’t look like. Dresed in wrap-around shades and US cavalry hat, he leads the most unsubtle band on earth through an hour and a bit of their canon. Stay Clean, Killed by Death, Over The Top, Damage Case, an excellent Going to Brazil and others, topped off by a roaring and snorting version of Overkill.
There isn’t much stage patter, Lemmy concluding with ‘we are Motorhead, and we play rock and roll’. A consultation with Mr White leads me to believe that the last time I saw them play was 1982. Love them or loathe them, they’ll probably survive a nuclear armageddon.
The sun continued to beat down and on the Hyde Park stage, something very odd indeed was happening: a crew of roadies dressed in white bolier suits were turning all of the back line and side of stage white, while another set were busy bring on a few thousand  pounds worth of fressh flowers and putting them stage front. This heralded the arrival of Faith No More, a band I knew nothing about.
Seriously, the depths of my ignorance about them are as yet unplumbed. Don’t own a single one of their records, didn’t even know they were from the States. (For some daft reason i thought they were from Sheffield.) Anyway, on they came, all five dressed as priests and, well, they, er, tore it up. In Mike Patton, they have a front man of genuine charisma, huge stage presence and no little vocal talent, but for a band supposedly inactive for 2 years, they were as tight as a drumskin. 
It was hard not to pay attention and in fact they got the first encore of the day, well-deserved and  a set which, I’m told, featured 2 new songs and all their biggest hits. I may well check them out, solely on the basis of a great set full of hooks and clever melodies, delivered with passion and energy. Top notch.
The unseasonal sunshine provided penultimate act, Soundgarden, with a challenge which Chris Cornell, on tremedous form, acknowledged as he led the band out to a thunderous welcome. The band were going to play the entire ‘Superunknown’ record, including miserablist classics like Fell On Black Days and Black Hole Sun, in the bright evening sunshine. How was that? Superb.
I was looking forward to seeing them when the line-up was announced and they didn’t disappoint. In Ben Shephard, they have one of the coolest bass players around. Fretting high and playing low, Shephard wanders around with a casual air of menace and didn’t miss a beat.
Spoonman is one of my favourite songs and to hear it live again was joyous, and my only criticism was that by confining themselves to one album they were compelled to play the handful of place-holder songs instead of raiding the band’s excellent back catalogue. 
But as the dusk arrived and the rain threatened – hooray for British weather! – it was time for Black Sabbath, who hit the stage at 8.45 with Ozzy peeking round the corner and the air raid sirens preceding ‘War Pigs’ cranking up the volume.
The huge set and wonderful AV came into play  now, vast screens playing a montage of Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, George W Bush and Kim Il Sung and images of war and conflict as the band blasted it out like a jet engine. New drummer Tommy Clufetos makes them sound like a rocket barrage and has breathed new life into the old dogs.
‘Into The Void’ followed the opener and the clear difference from seeing them in December and now was that Ozzy’s voice was stronger and in tune – the benefit of not ending a tour having thrown everything you have into it.
After Tony Iommi’s fight with lymphoma, he looks happier and more centred than ever, mugging with Ozzy and smiling like a child given free chocolate.
And after the sang froid of Ben Shepard came the focused hammer punch of rock’s greatest bass player, Geezer Butler, the king of cool.
Watching Osbourne, Butler and the incomparable Tony Iommi play is a tonic for the soul - and the new material from 13, especially Age of Reason, stands up well enough against the classics which landed one after another: Iron Man, NIB, Behind the Wall of Sleep, Fairies Wear Boots, Snowblind…… the time Children of the Grave and Paranoid brought the show to an end at 10.30am sharp, the vast majority of the 60,000 crowd were ready for home – dazed, deaf and happy.
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Stephen : November 26, 2013 11:01 am : Art, Music

Whatever happened to the heroes?

It would be a stretch to call Hugh Cornwell a national treasure but the lead singer/guitarist on the first ten Stranglers albums is iconic to us ‘men of a certain age’.

 Even in his mid-60’s and in a suit, blue open neck shirt and resembling a fashionably dishevelled accountant he retains strong hints of a submerged menace – at one point lasering in on a guy laughing at a story which wasn’t funny and asking him why. Rather him than me……

Cornwell left The Stranglers in 1990 and his extensive solo catalogue gets aired tonight via the device of a song from every record.

But it’s ‘Goodbye Toulouse’ from sublime Stranglers debut Rattus Norvegicus IV opening the proceedings as Cornwall prowls around a big circular Persian rug on centre stage, rattling his acoustic guitar and punctuating his chronology of songs with understated anecdotes.

In their heyday the Stranglers were genuinely scary, terrifying the then-powerful music press by relentlessly targeting hacks foolish enough to give them a bad review. Little of that was on show in the vignettes about songs, venues and events from the mid-70s onwards, as Cornwell shed light on his song writing craft and the stellar producers he’s worked with.

And starting his set with ‘Goodbye Toulouse’, ‘No More Heroes’, ‘Nice and Sleazy’ and ‘Nuclear Device’ reminds us that this guy wrote some of the most significant music of mid and late 70s, even at a time when innovation and creativity were stellar.

Supported by one-man orchestra Dave Ford, Cornwalls tarted at 9 and played solo for an hour and 40 minutes, successfully striking a balance between well-known cuts and his more obscure offerings.

‘Deca-dance’, ‘Story of He and She’ and ‘Nerves of Steel’ were compelling, as was unlikely but heartfelt tribute to Robert Michum, ‘The Big Sleep’.

As my (reluctantly attending) wife pointed out, this was a set for enthusiasts and not passing observers but nevertheless, where else do you hear songs about Leon Trotsky’s ice-pick, Lenny Bruce and the Premier of Queensland who sold part of his territory to Japan?

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Gig Review: Paul Weller, Hammersmith Apollo, 19 October 2013

Stephen : October 21, 2013 8:43 am : Art, Music

Paul Weller and Ronnie Wood on stage @ Hammersmith

Paul Weller at the Hammersmith Apollo: a sell-out home town gig on a Saturday night, last show of the tour and Ronnie Wood on stage with him. That should have been a special gig but it just…wasn’t.

Cherry and I left disappointed so I’ll get the whining over to start with. Far too much mediocre paint-by-numbers rock, an overload of newer material, very little rapport with the audience and only playing for an hour and 40 minutes.

Do I feel better having got that out? No I don’t.

Weller is one of the quintessentially great British songwriters. The Jam’s back catalogue overflows with songs seared in the collective musical consciousness of the UK’s forty and fifty somethings.

Eton Rifles, Going Underground, Town Called Malice, That’s Entertainment, In The City, Strange Town, A-Bomb in Wardour Street, Start!…….the guy had a seemingly inexhaustible creative wellspring and his output with the Style Council and as a solo artist still impressed.

30 years after pulling the plug on The Jam and despite that 3 decade solo back catalogue , Paul Weller somehow failed to do it justice on Saturday evening at Hammersmith.

The last 3 records were plundered for this set and it sounded like he was going for a Radiohead vibe. Who’d have thought this was the guy influenced by the Kinks, the Small Faces and the Who…..

Patches and flashes were still there: ‘Peacock Suit had the place bouncing, ‘Sunflower’, ‘Changing Man’, ‘Wake Up the Nation’ and ‘Floorboards’ likewise – but 6 or 7 songs in an hour and 40 minute set just isn’t enough.

The middle section sagged like a cheap camp bed and looking round the audience I wasn’t alone in thinking that. Cherry said it felt like he was playing in his living room and he wasn’t helped by the sound, which sounded like it was strained through a sock.

Too much bass, minimal high-end, vocals obscure and excess echo and reverb. We were centre stage about 25 feet ahead of the mixing board so – Lord help us – that was the house mix we were getting.

Weller’s daughter appeared to duet with him (pleasingly) on Wishing On a Star and it was joyous seeing Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood on stage, but it wasn’t enough to lift things.

Yes the band were good, even with a percussionist serving no useful purpose, but overall the gig had a disturbingly mediocre feel about it.

And no Paul, playing Start! And a Town Called Malice wasn’t enough.

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Film Review: ‘Springsteen & I’

Stephen : September 17, 2013 11:32 am : Art, Uncategorized


Hyde Park 2011 - I'm on the left near the front...

I wasn’t sure how a film composed of five minute interviews with fans of Bruce Springsteen was going to work, but it did. Ridley Scott put together something much more than the sum of it’s parts, not simply an hour and a half of Bruce fans from all over the world telling you how they’ve loved his music since (insert age) and loved X concert and Y record.

 Instead we had cameos from people sharing intimacy and connection: a twenty-something American-Asian truck driver with a Masters degree and a quietly stated belief that Springsteen spoke not only to but for her; the groundkeeper at Copenhagen’s Parken stadium, John, who saw the Tunnel of Love tour aged 9 and been a fan since; the Manchester couple with the woman interviewing her partner, him telling how he couldn’t really be bothered with the music, wanted the concerts to be shorter but went all over Europe because his wife was a fan; the fifty-something American man calmly describing how Springsteen’s music had been a part of his life for four decades and then breaking down as memory and emotion overwhelmed him; the young guy told his relationship was over the day before a gig, who held up a sign asking for ‘I’m Going Down’ and who ended up on stage with Bruce, being hugged…… revealing insights into the human condition as much as a film about Boss fans.

 Interspersed were precious clips of Springsteen and the E Street Band playing, mined from the Thrill Hill archives and a joy to watch. The film, seemingly, ended with footage of the man and his band across four decades, playing ‘Born to Run’ and as the credits rolled to ‘We Take Care Of Our Own’, some Witney cinema goers headed for the exit.

 What they missed twenty seconds later was ‘bonus footage’ of Springsteen & The E Street band playing half a dozen songs from Hyde Park in 2012, the concert where Paul McCartney joined them on stage for ‘Twist and Shout’ and ‘I Saw Her Standing There’.

 The cinematic scope and volume was akin to being there and the version of ‘Because the Night’ the best I think I’ve ever heard – and I’ve heard dozens. And there was more.

 The Epilogue featured four of the film’s participants brought together for a concert and meeting Springsteen and Jon Landau after. The guy from Manchester’s face was a picture, the overwhelming feeling of the whole film being a sense of connection and shared space: a guy from New Jersey who writes songs that speak to people across the globe and forms part of their lives.

 Yes the guy is a musician and yes, you can just like the music but for millions of others, including this writer, Bruce Springsteen is more than that. This film shows you why.  

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Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band: Coventry Ricoh Arena, 20 June 2013

Stephen : June 25, 2013 11:29 am : Art, Music


Another couple of hours spent queuing in the Coventry rain secures wristband for front of stage area and a date with Freehold New Jersey’s finest son and his Band. Zak asks why I’d go see the same act twice in a week and I answered by saying that over the course of 2 gigs, Springsteen and the E Street Band played 61 songs – only nine of them on both nights.

 In recent years Springsteen made ‘Badlands’ a regular opener but tonight a solo Bruce with acoustic guitar and harmonica strolls on stage and delivers a quiet call to arms in ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’.

 It’s part of the man’s enduring appeal that his body of work encompasses rock, folk, country, blues, ballads and R&B and ‘Ghost’ draws on the Woody Guthrie/Pete Seeger strain with a bleak critique of the modern America ignored by mainstream Hollywood:

 ‘Man walkin’ down the railroad track; goin’ someplace and there’s no goin’ back: Highway Patrol chopper comin’ up over the ridge; hot soup on a campfire under the bridge. Shelter line stretchin’ round the corner, welcome to the New World Order; families sleepin’ in their cars in the South West: no job, no home, no peace, no rest.’

The concert itself is interactive: you don’t just ‘watch’ this Band play, you are asked, invited or cajoled into singing, dancing and getting involved.

And if you’re near the front of the pit and have a song request, the world’s most expensive interactive juke box band may just play your song.

In Glasgow, Springsteen took a cardboard sign from a young woman who’s Dad had died in March, asking for ‘Tougher than the Rest’. The band played the song and Bruce then trooped all the way back over to the crowd and returned the sign to her. That’s a man in touch both with himself and his crowd. Tonight ‘Seeds’, ‘Trapped’ and ‘The River’ are all done via requests.

‘Long Time Comin’ was a stage premiere for the E Street Band, the duet of ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’ and ‘Two Hearts’ was just awesome. Thirty songs played  in all.

American Land

The Springsteen fraternity is vast: so after meeting Phillipe the bootlegging Parisian who follows Bruce and Co all round Europe in sunny Glasgow, Rich and I get into the front pit at Coventry and met Andy and Lesley, a couple from Chicago on holiday taking in a couple of E Street shows.

Andy is a full-on Springsteen fan and we share a high five and joy absolute when, in tribute to the late James Gandolfini, the Boss announces they’ll play the album ‘Born To Run’ from start to finish. Tony Soprano would have approved…..

BtR opener ‘Thunder Road’ benefits hugely from not being rattled through near the end of a show and the other 7 songs are given time and space to breathe, with Jake Clemons playing a soaring note-perfect saxophone solo in stand-out ‘Jungleland’.

A lively ‘She’s The One’ gets everyone singing and jumping along and the sweeping emotional grandeur of ‘Backstreets’ brings a tear to the eye.

I’m about 40 feet away from Springsteen, Van Zandt, Bittan, Tallent, Weinberg et al, as they play one of rock and roll’s great recordings in its entirety.

‘Happy’ doesn’t even touch the sides….

 The Ghost of Tom Joad (acoustic)

Long Walk Home

My Love Will Not Let You Down (sign request)

Two Hearts

Seeds (sign request)

Trapped (sign request)

Long Time Comin’

Wrecking Ball

Death to My Hometown

Hungry Heart

The River (sign request)

‘Born to Run’:

Thunder Road;

Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out;



Born to Run;

She’s the One;

Meeting Across the River;


Pay Me My Money Down

Shackled and Drawn

Waitin’ on a Sunny Day

Lonesome Day



We Are Alive

Born in the U.S.A.

Bobby Jean

Dancing in the Dark

Raise Your Hand

American Land



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Gig Review: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Hampden Stadium, Glasgow 18 June 2013

Stephen : June 23, 2013 10:09 am : Art, Music

Murder Inc.

The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves: like a vision she dances across the porch, as the radio plays; Roy Orbison singin’ for the lonely, hey that’s me, and I want you only…’

The opening lines of ‘Thunder Road’ are some of the most evocative in modern music and tonight in Glasgow they bring an absorbing 3 and a half hour show to emotional conclusion. Four years since his last rain-soaked Hampden appearance and Bruce Springsteen leads the E Street Band through a live experience which entertains, engages and enthrals in equal measure.

There are thirty one songs delivered in spite of a PA system which took half a dozen songs to get some sort of equilibrium, shamefully reducing the searing riff of ‘Radio Nowhere’ to a volume which could be played at 4am to nervous sleeping kittens.

Luckily I’m in the front pit/golden circle and can still hear back-line and monitor feed, but I’m told that the stadium sound was awful for almost the opening third.

After a rare outing for 2nd song ‘The Ties That Bind’, Bruce goes straight to the audience to pick up cardboard signs with requests, making the gig some sort of virtual juke-box. This delivers an obscure ‘Joel Blon’ and, joyously, ‘It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City’ from his first record in 1973.

After this, the 17 piece E Street Band move effortlessly through the gears across a vast back catalogue, from the raucous hooliganism of ‘Badlands’, through the sadness of ‘My City of Ruins’, to the life-affirming ‘No Surrender’, and all points west, with Springsteen (‘I’m sixty-fuckin-three!’) constantly engaged and mugging with the crowd or, literally, getting in next to the hardcore stage-side punters.

Hampden in sunshine

My friend has written one of his best pieces looking at why a Bruce Springsteen concert is a genuinely extraordinary event: above all it is being in the same postcode as a musician, performer and songwriter who cares about what he does and what we think of it.

There is nothing faked or contrived here: in a world awash with faux cynicism, jaded commentators and mediocre artists with a sense of entitlement, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band love what they do - and don’t care who knows it.

Simple and sweet.

Set List:

1. We Take Care of Our Own

2. The Ties That Bind

3. Joel Blon (sign request)

4. It’s Hard To Be a Saint In The City (sign request)

5. Radio Nowhere

6. No Surrender

7. Wrecking Ball

8. Death To My Hometown

9. My City of Ruins

10. Spirit In The Night

11. E Street Shuffle

12. I’m On Fire (sign request)

13. Tougher Than The Rest (sign request)

14. Atlantic City

15. Murder Incorporated

16. Johnny 99

17. Open All Night

18. Darlington County

19. Shackled and Drawn

20. Waiting on a Sunny Day

21. The Rising

22. Badlands

23. Land of Hope and Dreams

24. Born To Run

25. Rosalita

26. Dancing in the Dark

27. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out

28.-30. Twist & Shout/LaBamba/Shout

31. Thunder Road (acoustic)


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Why I Love…….Black Sabbath

Stephen : April 30, 2013 12:16 pm : Art, Music

Frank Zappa thought ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ but the prospect of the first Black Sabbath album since 1978 featuring Iommi, Butler and Osbourne has got me genuinely excited.

Bill Ward, Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler, Tony Iommi.

Sabbath 2013 - now missing a drummer

There exists a musical Pantheon, a highly select group of musicians who influence all those who come after them. Even if you don’t like them personally, you can acknowledge this, as I do with for example Led Zeppelin and The Smiths, bands I can take or leave.

In the early days of rock and roll, trail-blazers were Little Richard, the Everley Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and Elvis; in the 1960’s the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, the Who and Bob Dylan. But any list of bands from the 70’s which doesn’t include Black Sabbath isn’t worth the energy it took to type it.

I’ve got eclectic musical taste: a random flick through my MP3 player produces: Judas Priest, Sex Pistols, Rolling Stones, Thea Gilmore, X Ray Spex, Kraftwerk, The Jam, Jimmy Cliff and The Hold Steady.

But when I was a teenager I was a metalhead and the tenth band on the MP3 player, Black Sabbath, invented heavy metal. I’ll say again: ‘invented’. Four boys from Brum invented an entire genre of rock music as popular today as it was in the 1970s.

From a deprived, bleak suburban area of Birmingham called Aston, the four members of Black Sabbath started playing blues-based heavy rock as Earth, then turned the volume up and the tuning down.

If it hadn’t been for guitarist Tony Iommi’s industrial accident taking the tips of two fingers off, we might not have the chilly, grinding, bottom-heavy sound now de rigeur amongst rock guitarists. Not wanting to let something as trivial as losing a couple of fingers from his right hand affect his guitar playing, and having problems using plastic prosthetic tips to fret chords, Iommi experimented with his guitar tuning, took it down 3 semi-tones, and the unique guitar sound of Black Sabbath emerged.

Not that Sabbath’s influence is just down to Tony Iommi’s masterful playing.

Having rock’s finest ever bass player next to you kinda helps: Geezer Butler as main songwriter and anchor ensured Black Sabbath was more than just a heavy rock and roll band. More has been written about John Osbourne than almost any other rock musician but Ozzy’s singing, phrasing and above all electric stage presence took this band to the stratosphere. Held together by Bill Ward’s jazz-influenced tub-thumping, Black Sabbath from 1970 to 1978 changed the face of rock music.

Don’t take my word for it: listen again and remember that ‘no-one had gone before’.

Below are ten songs giving a flavour of what makes Black Sabbath so significant.

I’ve loved this band since I first heard them in the mid-70’s. December can’t come quickly enough….

1. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

2. Snowblind

3. NIB

4. Hole in the Sky

5. You Won’t Change Me

6. Symptom of the Universe

7. War Pigs

8. Hand of Doom

9. Children of the Grave

10. Supernaut

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Review: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Etihad Stadium, Manchester 22 June 2012

Stephen : June 27, 2012 1:03 pm : Art, Music

And so to the Etihad/City of Manchester Stadium, or Home of the Champions as it is known to the sky blue half of the city. No respite from the Biblical rain and therefore a much reduced crowd of Springsteen enthusiasts queuing , which turns out to be good news as once again I get a wristband for what a steward calls the ‘golden circle’.

No such luck for Dougie though, travelling down from Falkirk and stuck at Picadilly bus station waiting for a taxi as I vainly try to persuade a steward to keep one back for him. Richard and Carley fare even worse, being caught in the usual nightmarish Friday traffic and only getting in fifteen minutes before Bruce and Co hit the stage and fire into ‘Badlands’ with gusto and verve.

If anything, the sell-out crowd is even louder that at Sunderland, thumbing their collective nose at the conditions and determined to enjoy what turns out to be a 30 song show coming in just short of 3 and a half hours.

Having waxed extensively about Sunderland, I’ll confine myself to stand-out songs and rarities.

Set List:


No Surrender

We Take Care of Our Own

Wrecking Ball

Death to my Hometown

My City of Ruins – written about New York in the 9/11 aftermath, an uplifting gospel-based song which Bruce sang with understated and emotion, asking the crowd rhetorically if we were missing anyone tonight. Brought a lump to my throat.

The E Street Shuffle- Yes! Never seen it performed live before, a second album cut and a joyous horn-filled shuffle showcasing the jazz and soul vibe which characterises the pre-Born To Run Springsteen sound.

Jack of All Trades

Atlantic City

Prove it All Night – introduced as ‘a request’ with an extended guitar intro and a favourite of mine anyway. The first verse is distilled, bottled, story-telling genius, atmospheric scene-setting in a very few words:
“I’ve been workin’ real hard; tryin’ to get my hands clean; tonight we’ll drive that dusty road, from Monroe to Angeline. To buy you a gold ring, and a pretty dress of blue, Baby just one kiss, we’ll get this fixed for you, a kiss to seal our fate tonight, a kiss to prove it all night…’

It speaks of love, aspiration, desire, secrecy, intimacy, longing…..

Two Hearts – a showcase for Steve van Zandt, duetting on the middle and end sections with the Boss.

You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch) – not a favourite of mine, but called by Bruce off the cuff in what looked like an attempt to keep a reluctant Miami Steve front and centre.

Darlington County

Shackled and Drawn – notable for trumpet player Curt Ramm sliding inelegantly and falling badly as he came to front stage. I didn’t think Springsteen, Van Zandt and Gary Tallent were going to continue, they were laughing so much….

Waitin’ on a Sunny Day – Aren’t we all…

Save My Love – Incredible. An ultra-rare outing for this one and performed beautifully. The band were tight and on top of this all the way through.

The Promise – Everyone was shooed off stage as Springsteen took over Roy Bittan’s piano and sang solo, hushing the crowd and sharing an intimate glimpse into his songwriting.

The River – Stunning. Many of us would like to see him play more harmonica, and this is one of the main reasons why.

The Rising

Out in the Street

Thunder Road

Born to Run

Bobby Jean

Cadillac Ranch – used to be a live favourite with the Band hamming it up front stage, great to see it reappear. A feel-good song about a funeral hearse? Go figure.

Dancing in the Dark – like reality TV: I hate it, but recognise it makes a lot of people happy.

Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out – When Springsteen says “a change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band’ everything stops, and film of him and Clarence throughout the 40 plus years they played together is shown on the backdrop. You’d have to be made of concrete not to be moved.

Twist and Shout – Three and a half hours after starting, Bruce ended the gig with ‘We gotta go now, before someone get hurt.’ It ended another great night with 16 great musicians led by a peerless songwriter and performer. If you haven’t seen him play, don’t miss him next time round.


Review: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Sunderland, Stadium of Light, 21 June 2012

Stephen : June 25, 2012 4:35 pm : Art, Music

Bruce SpringsteenAfter the premature death of original E Street keyboard player Danny Federici, Bruce Springsteen stated his intention of touring the world, playing live as often as possible and has been as good as his word. Since then the UK has witnessed the ‘Magic’ tour, ‘Working on a Dream’ tour, and here in June 2012 we’re slap bang in the middle of ‘Wrecking Ball’.

Last Thursday I headed north to catch up with the Boss in Sunderland, before following him to Manchester on the Friday, driving through monsoon-type rainstorms and wondering what life with Springsteen and the E Street Band would be like without larger-than-life sax player Clarence Clemons, cruelly taken from us last year. (The answer was ‘radically different’. Uplifting, like the greatest wake you’ve ever been to, sad and simultaneously sweet.)

Sunderland’s Stadium of Light was a waterlogged windy place last Thursday, and arriving there mid-afternoon my heart was warmed to hear the band sound-checking ‘Spirit in the Night’. Que bella fortuna!

Having checked tickets were still on sale I haggled with a tout for £25 for a spare standing ticket, took my place in the queue and lucky enough to snag a wristband which got access to the ‘pit’, the front of stage area where the hard-core congregate. This was in no small measure due to the rain keeping most of the 40,000 plus crowd at home, dry and warm until gone 6pm, while eejit Bruce fanatics like me queued for hours to get in early and secure a good spot. I should explain that these prized wristbands allow about 2,500 lucky punters access to the restricted front area and that once you have one, you can come and go as you please – in my case going to the stadium concourse to eat, drink coffee and dry off before the unusually early 7.05pm start.

As has now become customary, ‘Badlands’ jump-started proceedings with the huge crowd roaring their approval. The E Street Band were augmented by a four person horn section and three backing singers, offering depth and complexity to an already rich mix of three guitars, violin, Hammond organ, bass, piano and drums.

My musing on how Clarence would be replaced was answered two distinct ways: the first was that he wasn’t replaced per se, his stage right berth left vacant: some shoes are too big to fill. The second was the sax player chosen to pick up slack from rear stage: Jake Clemons, the Big Man’s nephew and already a fearsome player in his own right. More than once there was a tear in the eye as Jake came to front stage and played songs his Uncle helped make famous, memorably as he geared up to play the sax solo in ‘The Promised Land’ looking up and blowing a kiss with his fingers towards the rain-soaked Sunderland skies. I know you’ll think I’m a knob, but I teared up writing that….

Musical taste is about opinions and if people don’t like Bruce Springsteen that’s fair enough. Some see him as bombastic and overblown. But what can’t be denied is that even at 62 the Boss and his band are one of the best value live acts on the face of the earth. The crowds, the sheer epic scale of events, the fact that these shows have such a variety of music on display….can’t be ignored. They don’t have a support act; gigs are three hours plus and invariably sell out; the crowd is involved at every gig; we are asked to participate in the show and engaged, not only by Springsteen’s regular forays into the crowd but by having the absolute undivided attention of a charismatic man who many, many years ago stopped ‘having to do this’.

Wealthy beyond measure, with a teenage family and now over 60, there are a hundred reasons for Springsteen to just stay home in New Jersey or California rather than spend three hours in a wet Mackem football stadium communing with his people: but he does.

It’s one of the reasons he inspires such loyalty. He’s a Marmite artist and you either get it, or you don’t.

Anyway, to songs from the three hour show. Seven cuts from the new ‘Wrecking Ball’ spread throughout the set, culled from an eclectic album railing against injustice, full of righteous anger and thick with Biblical language and imagery.  ‘Death to my Hometown’ was exceptional, as was ‘We Are Alive’, which starts off with just solo voice and acoustic guitar, features a Johnny Cash ‘Ring of Fire’ riff and ends up as a jump-up-and-down country style hoe-down.

‘My City of Ruins’, ‘Spirit in the Night’ and set closer ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’ were an ongoing homage to Clarence Clemons; ‘Youngstown’, ‘Johnny 99′ and ‘The River’ all full of resonance, played on Wearside and on the site of a former mine and in the midst of an area laid waste in a previous recession, politically and economically abandoned by the rich South.

A nine-song encore of classics drew events to a close, but not before we’d witnessed an ultra-rare outing for the forty year old (!) ‘Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?’ and for us anoraks a wonderfully melodic and softly-delivered ‘Point Blank’ which held the stadium rapt as Bruce ended the song, moving slowly further away from the mike and becoming quieter to let the sad, poignant tale of lost love fade into the damp summer air. Wonderful, moving stuff.

I’ll leave you with words from “We Are Alive”, capturing both the spirit of the gig and the uplifting, enduring message from this remarkable man from Freehold, New Jersey:

‘And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark, our souls and spirits rise, to carry the fire and light the spark, to fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart’.


Set List:

We Take Care of Our Own
Wrecking Ball
Death to My Hometown
My City of Ruins
Spirit in the Night
Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?
Jack of All Trades
Murder Incorporated
Johnny 99
Working on the Highway
Shackled and Drawn
Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
The Promised Land
Point Blank
The River
The Rising
Out in the Street
Land of Hope and Dreams

We Are Alive
Thunder Road
Born to Run
Hungry Heart
Seven Nights to Rock
Glory Days
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out

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Stephen Smith: writer

Rants, rambles and other assorted thoughts

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