Thursday, 29 May 2008

A Musical Conversion

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Boss

Tomorrow night I’ll be standing on the pitch at the Emirates Stadium watching Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. It will be the seventh time I’ve seen him perform. Ten years ago I’d never have predicted I’d ever write those last two sentences. But that was before my conversion to The Boss.

With hindsight I’m surprised it took me so long to come round to Bruce. I think the main reason is that I couldn’t shake the image of a denim-clad rocker plucking girls from the crowd to sing Dancing in the Dark. How ridiculous could you get?

Unlike many Springsteen detractors I knew Born in the USA wasn’t the tub-thumping anthem Team Reagan wished it to be. After No Depression listed Nebraska as one of its hundred essential albums I bought (but rarely listened to) Springsteen’s bleak, stripped-down 1982 LP. Still, even hearing him pay tribute to Woody Guthrie, cover Tom Waits or write songs inspired by one of my favourite books wasn’t enough to convert me. The scales only came off my eyes after witnessing the full-on live power of Bruce Springsteen and the “house rockin', pants droppin', earth shockin', hard rockin', booty shakin', love makin', heart breakin', soul cryin', death defyin' legendary E Street Band”.

In 2003 my friend Dave Mynard, a man for whom a Springsteen gig is a generation-spanning family outing, suggested that I join him, his sisters and his mum and dad to see the Boss on the May bank holiday weekend. The Rising world tour was coming to the distinctly unglamorous destination of Crystal Palace athletics stadium. Tickets weren’t cheap, but Springsteen’s new album had good reviews, Dave is an incredibly enthusiastic individual and curiosity must have got the better of me.

Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. It was if Bob Dylan had been crossed with both the 1950s hip-shaking Elvis and the crowd-pleasing, over-the-top incarnation of his Vegas heyday. There was absolutely no sense of irony as Bruce slid across stage on his knees, sparred with bandana loving guitarist Steve Van Zandt or gestured wildly at the crowd. All that concerned him and the band was entertaining thousands with the best rock ‘n’ roll show in the world. In the Guardian’s review of the show Alex Petridis wrote that “the on-stage antics at a Springsteen concert, should be painfully embarrassing. However, the singer exudes an appealing earnestness that lets him get away with hokum”. That perfectly summed up my feelings. I was captivated.

I recall reading that after Springsteen and the E Street Band’s first ever London show at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1975 John Peel sniffily dismissed them as little more than jumped-up Yankee throwbacks. I think that's unfair. At Crystal Palace Sprinsgteen channelled all of his classic American musical influences – soul, rock’n’roll, folk, girl groups, country – into something that sounded fresh rather than horribly nostalgic. He and the band combined this with such energetic showmanship and sheer love of performing that it felt like they were playing to 50 in a small club rather than thousands in a clapped-out arena. After a more than two-and-a-half hour show I was a Bruce Springsteen fan.

A few months later I started going out with Joanne, who, like Dave comes from a family of Springsteen fans (it turns out my new in-laws were at Crystal Palace en masse the day after me). Not only was the entire Bruce back catalogue at my disposal, I was with someone who would never want to miss an opportunity to see her musical hero. Since then we’ve seen Springsteen transfix the Albert Hall with just a guitar and piano, bring his old timey band to the tiny LSO St Luke’s for a barnstorming session of American folk songs and rock out the cavernous O2 Arena for the best ever pre-Christmas party. I have little doubt that everyone who sees The Boss in North London this weekend, despite him playing a 60,000 capacity football stadium, will find it a peculiarly intimate gig. There aren’t many performers who can pull that off.


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