Ether column, June 2009

For the first and probably last time, I’m going to recommend in this column a concert at the enormous Ernst Happel Stadion in the Prater – the kind of venue that normally makes a mockery of everything that is enjoyable about going to see live music. But if there’s one performer who can stand onstage in a cavernous football field and make it seem like he’s playing to you and you alone, it’s Bruce Springsteen.

Springsteen is an utterly mesmerising live performer, straining every fibre of his body in relentless pursuit of the unshakeable conviction that it’s his responsibility to give the audience the night of their lives. Unfairly dismissed by many as a hokey and clichéd songwriter, Springsteen’s magic actually consists in a tender and heartfelt exploration of emotions that resonate so powerfully with lived human experience that they take on qualities of the pure and sacred. Rich in drama and sure in characterisation, the songs take inspiration from the deep American mythos of the car, the girl and the open road – all of which are seen as routes out of no-hope, dead-end jobs and communities steadily losing their humanity under the baleful influence of the military-industrial complex. Often overlooked and misunderstood, indeed, is the burning sense of rage and social injustice in Springsteen’s work – “Born in the USA”, for example, is emphatically not a patriotic song – but the songs never preach, instead telling grounded stories of hardship and loss. Thanks to the glorious orchestrations of the E Street Band, moreover, the music is far from being generic American rock; its swelling organ and saxophone riffs, and Springsteen’s own scything guitar work, form the perfect accompaniment to the emotional humanity at the core of the man’s worldview. In concert Springsteen is funny, warm, likeable and generous: an inspirational phenomenon everyone should witness at least once.

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