Concerts of 2009

Here’s a list of the concerts I enjoyed most in 2009. There’s not much of an order to these ten, except for number 1, which was an incredible evening for me for all sorts of reasons.

1. Jandek, B72, Vienna
2. Spiritualized, Krems, Austria
3. Peter Brötzmann/Toshinori Kondo/Massimo Pupillo/Paal Nilssen-Love, Fluc, Vienna
4. Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love, Blue Tomato, Vienna
5. Mats Gustafsson/Barry Guy/Raymond Strid, Blue Tomato, Vienna
6. Sonore/The Thing, Blue Tomato, Vienna
7. Naked Lunch/Universalove, Gartenbaukino, Vienna
8. Sunn O)))/Pita, Arena, Vienna
9. Bruce Springsteen, Ernst Happel Stadium, Vienna
10. Kraftwerk, Wiesen, Austria

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, Vienna Ernst Happel Stadium, 5 July 2009

My first, and hopefully last, concert at the Happel – not the most conducive venue for live music, and I really can’t imagine anyone else who would get me there other than Bruce Springsteen. More than the vast scale of the thing, what I objected to most was the atrocious sound quality; from where I was sitting, at least, the acoustics were tinny, distorted and just horrible. Maybe they were better down in the pit, but that would have brought its own set of challenges.

Anyway, this show was a blazing success and a glorious encapsulation of all the things I love about Springsteen – the drama, commitment and passion, the unstoppable energy and, most of all, the way he connects with every single person in an audience of 50,000 as surely as if it were one of fifty. Charging tirelessly about the stage for a full three hours, he’s out to ensure that everyone’s having as great a time as he’s obviously having himself – laughing, joking, signalling, touching and always communicating.

Let’s be clear on this: there’s absolutely nothing corny, sentimental or clichéd about Springsteen. His art reaches deep into American history, iconography and myth, emerging with a profoundly moving sense of lived human experience. And, remarkably, it does all of these things through songs that are quite irresistible in their drama, impact and melodic verve. Whether hurtling through the outlaw landscape of “Badlands”, swinging around the exhilarating “The Promised Land” or threading through the desperately moving evanescence that weighs down “The River”, Springsteen connects with you – lives inside you – in ways that no other artist has ever done.

The now legendary “Jersey Girl” moment deserves a special mention. As I wrote in my review of the Live 1975-1985 box set, this song perfectly encapsulates Springsteen’s emotional concerns even though it was written by Tom Waits. I’ve returned to that live recording time and time again, enthralled by the audience’s rapturous reaction to this most affecting of love songs. And although I didn’t know it at the time, Springsteen had never played it in Europe until last Sunday, when a girl near the front of the audience, wearing an orange T-shirt with “Jersey Girl” written on it, climbed onto someone’s shoulders and removed the T-shirt to reveal the not displeasing sight of a red bra underneath. When Springsteen caught sight of this vision, he had little choice but to play the song, which he did with great sensitivity and tenderness. But that was just one of the countless fine moments offered up by this extraordinary concert.

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.

Bruce Springsteen: Live 1975-1985

Bruce Springsteen was, and remains, an artist whose sympathy and compassion for his subjects are compounded by an unerring instinct for the dramatic and, often, an irresistible sense of fun. This gargantuan box set is an epic and exhaustive trawl through the best of his awe-inspiring live shows, which in the 70s and 80s regularly hit the four-hour mark, simultaneously taking on the qualities of the party, the confessional and the gospel revivalist meeting.

Never content with giving an indifferent live performance, Springsteen approached each individual concert with a simple yet shattering aim: to give every audience the night of their lives. For Springsteen, it was unacceptable to have good and bad nights onstage, since each night would, for most of the audience, be their only chance to see him. The resulting fire, exuberance and muscle-shredding energy are in ample evidence throughout these recordings, in Springsteen’s scorched-earth vocals and in the swelling, magical orchestrations of the E Street Band.

Appropriately, the collection begins with “Thunder Road” – a song that, even more than the canonical “Born To Run”, represents the essence of Springsteen. Rarely absent from his live sets over the years, it’s a long, wordy and utterly heartfelt meditation on the ineluctable pull of the car, the girl and the open road. Far from being a cliché, this trope is so vivid, and so resonant in American popular culture, that it approaches the status of myth. And it is as myth that Springsteen treats it in this and many other of his songs.

The take of ‘Thunder Road’ here is from 1975, but most of the songs on the album are from the early 80s, after The River had cemented Springsteen’s position as a peerless chronicler of blue-collar American hopes and dreams, and Born In The USA had propelled him to superstar status. For my money, the songs from The River resonate as powerfully as any here, from barnstorming rockers like “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” to the slow burn of “Hungry Heart” and, especially, the heightened recollection that weighs down “Independence Day” and “The River” itself. In the lyric of the former, and the extended monologue that precedes the latter, Springsteen explores the pain and regret of his relationship with his father in terms that evoke the sacred. The E Street Band play a beatific, languorous accompaniment to the monologue, and the way that Springsteen slices through its final, lingering notes with the first, keening note of his harmonica is one of the great, jaw-dropping moments in all of popular music.

Elsewhere, Springsteen dismisses all anticipated charges of sentimentality with a blazing rendition of Edwin Starr’s “War” and with the snarling aggression of “Born In The USA”. Famously, this defiant anti-war anthem was misappropriated by the Reagan election campaign in 1984. Not one of Springsteen’s subtlest songs, its tub-thumping chorus makes the misappropriation perfectly understandable.

The final track of this life-affirming collection sees Springsteen connecting with his audience at an emotional level few performers ever come close to emulating. “Jersey Girl” is an album track by Tom Waits, but it so perfectly encapsulates Springsteen’s emotional concerns that it’s hard to believe he didn’t write it himself. It’s a safe bet that most of the audience at the 1981 concert at which this recording was made were unfamiliar with the song. And so it proves as the song unfolds; they listen in reverent silence as Springsteen sings the first lines, and when he follows up with “tonight I’m gonna take that ride, cross the river to the Jersey side”, they erupt in a moment of ecstatic sympathy. The audience responds with equal fervour to lines like “I’m in love with a Jersey girl”, as though in recognition that Springsteen, for all his superstar status, is a man who speaks, directly and profoundly, to their own lived experience. Inscribed in the sounds and signs of “Jersey Girl” is a notion of music and performance as the most precious and generous of gifts.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector: Vinyl Viands, 2006)