The Boss Needs No Support

Springsteen, ah Springsteen. Back in the university, I distinctively remember one day where I was single-handedly responsible for emptying a lunch table by casually announcing that the recently released “Live/1975-85” was 10 DM off at the local music store.

Since the early eighties, the music created and performed by Bruce Springsteen remained on my radar. But it was always a difficult relationship. I adored much of Springsteen’s music and, admittedly, hated the rest equally passionate.

In particular, I disliked the concept of the “wall of sound” and its implementation in many Springsteen songs that in my personal impression would be much better without it.

As a canonical example, compare the “Nebraska”-style recording of “Born in the U.S.A.” on “Tracks” (which I like very much) to the well-known party hit released on “Born in the U.S.A.” (which I find so annoying that I will switch off the radio if it airs).

Needless to say, I was never happy with what I usually call the “pink cadillac” period (from “Tunnel of Love” to “Lucky Town”). I own most of the Springsteen albums on CD but nothing from that “dark period” between 1984 to 19921.

This period was sort of framed by two landmark albums, i.e. “Nebraska” was released just before “Born in the U.S.A.” and the brilliant “The Ghost of Tom Joad” came out right after “Lucky Town”.

In all this time, I never seriously considered buying concert tickets, mostly because I was expecting an overdose of the “wall of sound”2. This lasted until last Sunday when we finally had tickets for Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball” open air concert in Cologne.

As total novices with respect to Springsteen concerts we expected some random support act to play before The Boss himself made his appearance on stage. Every decent act comes with a support band before the “real” concert, right? Wrong.

You know what, The Boss needs no support. Right at the time we tried to find our seats in the stadium, Springsteen entered the stage and did not stop playing until nearly three and a half ours later3.

We were extremely lucky to have booked tickets for a day with absolutely perfect weather conditions for an open-air concert: sunny, with 25 degrees that lasted until the late evening.

As expected, the “wall of sound” was in plenty-full supply. But frankly, during the concert I have learned to make peace with it. It may be hard to explain, but the “wall of sound” experience in a concert is different from the “wall of sound” experience when listing to a record.

My best guess is that in a concert, you will naturally focus 100% on the performance, whereas while listening to a record, there are the occasional diversions that eventually make the “wall of sound” annoying rather than pleasing.

And, man, the physical presence of Springsteen on stage was more than enough compensation. What a stunning performance! I have been at two many concerts that went like “you’re there, we’re here, let’s leave it at that”. This is totally not what this concert was like.

Springsteen is in continuous interaction with the audience from start to end, even if he performs on stage rather than (as he frequently did during the concert) directly in arm’s reach of the audience. He even did a pretty good job in speaking the introductory texts for some of the songs in German4.

My personal highlight of the concert was “The River”, performed as it deserves to be performed, with cautious orchestration and lighting. Also (note that this song is totally on the “wall of sound” side), the ten-minute version of “Darlington County” stood out. I also liked “Atlantic City” (hey, a song from one of my all-time favorite albums, “Nebraska”).

It should be noted that I probably stand alone with my verdict about the songs from the “pink cadillac” period. Some of them were played during the final part of the concert and ended up well-received by the audience.

Over the years, I have often regretted that (for various reasons) I never had a real chance to attend a Led Zeppelin concert. But in retrospect of this evening in Cologne I’ve got the feeling that it was good to go and that it saved me from possibly having similar feelings in the future about never having attended a Springsteen performance. It was worth it.

  1. The obvious exception to this rule is the live album “Live/1975-85” but that one only partly covers the years between 1984 and 1992.

  2. I would have given much for an opportunity to listen to Bruce Springsteen playing without the band in a small club in front of, say, 200 listeners: just a man and his guitar, give or take the occasional harp performance.

  3. In hindsight, given the extension of Springsteen’s performance, there is a very good explanation for not having a support band: it may very likely be that local authorities demand open air concerts to end at around 11 pm latest.

  4. I like Springsteen’s introductory text passages to his songs very much for their personal touch, especially the one introducing “The River” on “Live/1975-1985”.