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BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, Manchester Etihad Stadium,  22 June 2012

Photos and Gallery by Steve Goudie

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Throughout this memorable evening - part of his first UK tour in three years- I found myself constantly thinking - how does Bruce Springsteen do it? The Boss is now 62, but still shows remarkable energy and stamina to carry off a physically demanding three hour 20 minute show, with very few drops in pace.

After the rain which had tipped down in Manchester all day largely held off for his set, I was even wondering whether The Boss had miraculous powers and if he spent his day off healing the sick and the lame of Manchester.

The Etihad Stadium - known as the home of the 2012 Premiership champions, or 'the council house' to opposite sides of the Mancunian footballing divide - was filled with a diverse mix of all ages and types, not just your earnest fifty-something Guardian reader who I imagine to be his core demographic.

The atmosphere was already crackling, when ironically Bruce and the E Street band opened with 'Badlands', the melody of which people had been chanting waiting for him to come on. It is classic Springsteen, lyrically, with its anthemic feel and its guitar and sax solos - at that point the frustration was that the sound was too quiet but it swiftly rectified itself.

This was always going to be an emotional tour, being the first since the death last year of Clarence Clemons, whose sax playing and stage presence was such a big part of the E Street Band.

This year's version was remodelled to feature his nephew Jake on sax, but as part of a horn section which together with backing singers gave the band a jazzier feel, notably on a reworking of 'Spirits in the Night'.

Every time Jake stepped forward for a sax solo he was met with among the biggest cheers of the evening, though I mused on the fact that while his late uncle was known as 'The Big Man', 'the big haired man' would be a suitable moniker for him.

However one of the great things about the E Street Band's ensemble playing is that they instinctively seem to know how to give each other space, depending on the material being played, and despite now numbering well into double figures the sound never sounded cluttered.

Songs from the new album 'Wrecking Ball' transferred well to the live environment with songs like 'We Take Care of Our Own', enhanced by Suzie Tyrell's fiddle, the title track and the almost Pogues-like 'Death to My Hometown'.

They also have an angry political message against financiers and politicians, but in the live environment Bruce is sensible enough to realise that entertainment triumphs over politics, and it is his showmanship that comes to the fore rather than any social activism.

An early highlight was 'City of Ruins', originally a post 9/11 message from 'The Rising', but given a real gospel feel especially with the audience participation as Bruce name checked the band members and paid tribute to the one who was missing.

One of the other joys of a Springsteen show, especially for those diehards that follow him from show to show, is a set list that constantly changes depending on his mood and that of the crowd.

Indeed according to setlist.fm around 100 different songs had already been played on the first 38 shows of the tour (though oddly the two albums he most recently toured were all but ignored), and those more familiar with his work than I am would have been delighted with the likes of 'E Street Shuffle', 'You Can Look But Better Not Touch', 'The Promise' and 'Save My Love'.

During the likes of 'Darlington County' Bruce would regularly leave the stage and charge across the front of the packed crowd, even picking out people such as a young fan who sang part of 'Waiting On A Sunny Day' - which on this occasion we would have waited a long time for!

My own favourite moment in the first half of the set was 'Prove it All Night', with an excellent solo from the Boss at the start and another in the middle followed by an extended one from Nils Lofgren with notes cascading rapidly in a jagged fashion, while 'Two Hearts' showed off the E Street Band's instinctive ensemble playing.

Up tempo songs predominated, and even the likes of 'Atlantic City' kicked into full electric mode eventually, while 'Jack of All Trades' downbeat nature was offset by a great solo from Nils.

A stripped back version of 'The River' showcased the story within to full effect though, and we were gradually moving into full blown crowd pleasing territory with 'The Rising' and 'Out in the Street' having chants that could get everyone to join in. The main set was closed with 'Land of Hope and Dreams', another gospel influenced song that seems to be becoming a modern Springsteen anthem demonstrating the right form of American patriotism.

However a Springsteen encore lasts nearly as long as many bands' main sets, and after new song 'We Are Alive' - borrowing off Johnny Cash's 'Ring of Fire' - brought the horns to the fore, the way 'Thunder Road' - amazingly only played live every so often - led straight into a '1-2-3-4 ' and 'Born to Run' demonstrated the sheer quality of his back catalogue.

By now, with the floodlights on, the atmosphere was joyous and among the best I have seen at a Springsteen concert and the Spector-esque 'Bobby Jean' and good time rock n roller 'Cadillac Ranch' suited the mood perfectly. That was nothing though compared to the way 'Dancing in the Dark', complete with great sax solo from Jake, had people around me punching the air, dancing in circles and entering the party spirit.

Lying flat on his back and being doused with water by Steve Van Zandt, The Boss looked out for the count but it was all an act as he stripped to his sweat soaked t-shirt and tore back into 'Tenth Avenue Freeze Out'.

There was a moving moment when at the 'The Big Man joined the band' lyric, the band suddenly fell silent and the crowd chanted Clarence's name as a montage of his stage performances was shown on the big screen before the band kicked in again.

He closed his marathon set with 'Twist and Shout' - a strange choice, but one I discovered he saves for shows that he considers extra special, and which suited the party atmosphere.

This was my gig of the year so far, and a fitting requiem for Clarence Clemons, but more than that it was a night to reaffirm your belief in the human spirit and the power of rock n roll.

Review by Andy Nathan

Photos and Gallery by Steve Goudie


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