The Springsteen effect
Finding a signal in the noise around the latest Bruce Springsteen Irish shows
At some stage of the game, at some juncture in the near future. someone will come up with a reason which makes sense. There has to be one. There has to be some rational explanation why a visit by Bruce Springsteen to Ireland becomes a reason for the country to go gaga. We’re big fans of event gigs here, but Springsteen shows are event gigs and then some.
For long-time Springsteen watchers, it’s a bit of a strange turn-up for the books. Back in 2003, when he played the RDS in Dublin on “The Rising” tour, you could feel the stirrings of a new day after a blockbuster show, but you never expected anything like this to occur.
Back then, Springsteen was still a niche mainsream taste and didn’t command the kind of attention which is now commonplace. Now, though, it’s hold-the-front-page. It’s gone from a single night to two nights and even three nights at times at the RDS. It became a barmy five night tour in sports fields around the country to accommodate the 240,000 people who wanted to see him. And, finally, it became two nights at the big stadium on the northside of the capital.
Croke Park is a big, strange, uncomfortable place for rock gigs with 80,000 odd people watching the action on Hill 16 from various vantage points. It’s not like a match where the action is all over the pitch; here, your attention span depends on how far you’re from the stage.
Then, you’ve all the distractions which come with these big shows. There’s an air-guitaring government leader (Irish Times air guitar expert Ronan McGreevy judged Enda Kenny’s twirl to be a two out of ten performance) and a walk-on appearance by a tax-iffy Irish rock star. There are a lot of people at Croker who are there for the event and gawking at who’s in the VIP section of the stand and all that nonsense rather than the show. Then, there’s the off-stage bullshit around Springsteen working out in a gym or Springsteen having a pint in a pub. Parsing the show becomes as much about trying to find some sort of signal through all of that noise as anything else.
It doesn’t help things that the sound sucks on this occasion. Stadium shows, and particularly Croke Park, are notoriously hard to get right from an audio point of view, but it was a huge surprise to find that the experienced Springsteen team couldn’t get it spot on. I was in the lower part of the Hogan Stand for a spell and then on the pitch for the rest of the show last night and the sound was often muddled or downright terrible. It was if they didn’t have enough power in the PA, or even enough PA, to drive the show.
But there were still moments which shone like diamonds, when everything clicked and you got the shivers down your spine and the goosepimples on your arm. One of these was “Independence Day”. As is now the norm, Springsteen had pulled a bunch of song request signs from the audience and held up one of them which asked for this song for someone in the audience celebrating their 18th birthday. Aside time: one of the best things about Springsteen shows in recent times is that the audience, certainly on the pitch at any rate, seems to be getting younger with every passing show.
Before he and the E Street Band played the song, Springsteen talked about what he was like when he wrote the song, the ache of being 18, the tension between someone on the threshold of adulthood and your parents as they are now and as they were then. It made you think anew about the song and how lines like “there’s a lot of people leaving town now, leaving their friends, their homes” resonated in a country where so many have come of age and departed for elsewhere within a quick few years. It makes you think about how Springsteen has gone from writing songs from the point of view of kids about to boldy take on the world to performing them from the point of view of an adult watching kids of his own move into the big, bad, brave world. The circle of life in the performance span of just one song.
The double whammy of “Death to My Hometown” and “Youngstown” were well-chosen soulmates, songs which spoke to the local as global, moments which shared sweat and tears. “The River” sounded timeless, a track which is the reason for this current tour in so many ways and a track which captures for many the ties that bind to the folks onstage.
“Waitin’ On A Sunny Day” has become a sparkling piece of Springsteen show theatre over the last while and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to beaming when the singer dragged an awestruck youngster from the audience to share the microphone. “Born to Run” remains the moment when 80,000 people get giddy, throw their heads back and roar with abandon into the night sky. “Shout” is a full stop at the end of the hoopla, a track where the years fall off the E Street Band and they’re back pirouetting in their dreams in some Jersy Shore dive again.
But there’s a coda tonight and that coda is worth putting up with eejits like Bono and people glued to their phones when the singer stands singing his head off three feet away. The band leave the stage and Springsteen salutes them off one by one. He then picks up a guitar from his guitar tech Kevin Buell and walks back to the front of the stage for “Thunder Road” painted bare and pulled back to the roots and bones.
It’s a process which makes lines like “so you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore” strike a deep chord on this summer night. A song about freedom and fear and faith and redemption, a song with the killer tender Tinder line “you ain’t a beauty but, hey, you’re alright”, a song which burns bright and sends you home tingling. On nights like this, you’ve still got reasons to believe in a singer with a song like that.