[There's some amount of lead-up here. If you want just the actual concert review, click here.]
[The original published version withheld the identity of our VIP wristband supplier. I'm delighted to report that the incredibly gracious person who gave us the wristbands has allowed me to identify him. It's Carl Restivo, to whom I have an unpayable debt.]
Given my age (I turn 55 next month) and my passion for music of all types, it’s a wonder that I’d never attended a Bruce Springsteen concert. I guess there are three main reasons:
- I ended up having a particular passion for niche genres and it was always easier and cheaper to attend a bluegrass or early music or Americana show.
- Conversely, seeing Big Acts involved (and still involves) massive crowds and inflated ticket prices, often to get a seat that is useless except for watching it on the big screen. I sometimes found myself wondering why I didn’t just buy the DVD of the show.
- At big concerts, too many attendees seem to forget that the show is supposed to be on the stage and that they, the “fans”, are not the main attraction.
If that makes me an old fart, so be it. But here’s the thing: music is sacred to me; attending a musical performance is the nearest I get to church. So when I go, I need to feel the spirit. Maybe it makes me sing along, remember, dance, or cry – but I need to feel connected to what’s happening on stage. And I’ve often found that difficult or impossible at big concert venues.
So sadly, for 37 years, I wouldn’t listen to people who told me that Springsteen was special. In fact, the only reason we were in London was because Paul Simon was playing at Hard Rock Calling in Hyde Park. He was going to perform the entire Graceland album, with Ladysmith Black Mombazo and other guests. That was on Sunday and the supporting acts included Alison Krauss and the Punch Brothers. I would have considered going over for any one of those three – the hat trick was impossible to pass up. My friend and colleague, Scott B, said “Look, Springsteen is playing Saturday night. I’ve got one spare ticket I’ll sell you – just go buy another one off the Internet”. This was going to be Scott’s 95th Springsteen concert – who was I to blow against the wind?
Saturday afternoon Lisa and I made the 15-minute walk from our hotel and entered the festival grounds. London had been plagued with rain the prior days and that morning – the grounds were only marginally tolerable thanks to wood chips that had been put down. But there was mud everywhere. We’d found a place where we could somewhat see the stage, but again, our only real view of what was happening was via the stage-side big screens.
That’s when the magic started.
I got a panicked call from Scott: “Where are you – I’ve been trying to reach you…” Turns out that through a poker connection friend-of-a-friend thing, he’d scored wrist bands that got us into the “VIP” area. It was behind the stage and while far from the inner sanctum of the performers’ “lounge” area, it was an order of magnitude more pleasant and “civil” than the general festival grounds.
Now, about this friend-of-a-friend. His name is Carl Restivo and he’s a heavy-duty session and touring guitarist based in L.A. When we were introduced, we both realized that we’d met at a poker party in Las Vegas a couple of years ago; it was a treat to see him again. He was playing with Tom Morello, who was doing an opening set on the main stage and is a friend of Springsteen’s.
Carl had to run off and do a radio interview, but promised to return after the John Fogarty show – he wanted to try to get us one ring deeper toward the center of the universe. When Fogarty finished, Carl appeared with another wrist band – this one orange striped (our “VIP” bands were blue). “We’re gonna do this in shifts…” Lisa and I told him to get Scott into the backstage area, that we were blissfully happy to have gotten into the VIP area. Carl and Scott disappeared but just a few minutes later he was back with two orange bands. They’d been carefully removed from two wrists and somehow we got them over our wrists.
“Now just walk with me like you have every right in the world to be there.”
“Easy”, said Lisa. “We could be your parents.”
We glided past the security guards, flashed our wristbands as if we did it daily, while never pausing our conversation with Carl; <poof> we were in back. Suddenly the area took on a very functional look. No more faux lounging area for VIPs; this was a working area with trailers for the bands. Various musicians wandered by, including Fogarty himself.  We stepped inside the trailer for Tom’s band, where Scott was already ensconced. Carl encouraged us to get soft drinks from the refrigerator, then we sat out in the faint sunshine and had a lovely visit.
As it came time for Springsteen to go on, Scott was eager to get back out front to see the show. While even our orange bracelets contained nowhere near the fu necessary to get into the backstage viewing area, they would get us into the “golden circle” viewing area immediately in front of the sound board. But Scott had surrendered his bracelet for Carl to bring Lisa and me in. This is when Carl, who had been incredibly generous already, outdid himself: “Look guys – I’m wasted here after the flight from L.A. I’m going to go back to my hotel and crash. Please take my wristband.” We were persuaded of his sincerity, but there was the issue getting three pre-fixed wristbands over our wrists. With some amount of swapping, we got Lisa’s and Scott’s bands on them. But getting the last one over my (bulky) wrist was a challenge and of course tearing it would be tragic. “If we just had some kind of oil…” mused Carl.
That’s when things turned weird. Lisa gleefully pointed out a carton of cold chips (“French fries” to the Americans) on the table. If you’ve been to the UK, you know there’s no finer source of grease. “Fucking brilliant” said Carl and the next thing I knew, I had an A-list session guitarist from L.A. rubbing cold french fries on my wrist.
Wristband slid on like Lou Brock sliding into second.
We walked out to the bullpen area in front of the soundboard, flashed our orange wristbands and were in. We got right to the front of that area, just as Bruce and the band came on. For two songs, Lisa and I said nothing, didn’t look at each other. Then she turned to me…
“Everything I said about Bruce Springsteen, I take back.”
Bruce and the band came at the show as if it was the first of the tour, or the last of their lives. Springsteen never stopped moving, singing, dancing, jumping. The band members prowled across the stage, obviously enjoying themselves immensely and being incredibly proud of their work. The core of the E Street Band has been with Springsteen since the 70′s, and it shows; they work with a precision that any professional string quartet would envy. But the true joy is that the precision doesn’t dampen the energy or spontaneity; indeed, each of them knowing the others’ thoughts allows them to run around the edge of the cliff and never trip.
Which makes for an astonishing musical (and spiritual) experience.
Sure, he played a lot of hits. But he also played an obscure song for a guy who’d followed him through Spain and France, carrying a sign begging for the tune. After each concert without the song being played, the fan crossed through the name of that venue on the sign. Springsteen leaned to the guy and said “Aw, gimme that sign.” He read the list of venues and laughed about how the guy had struck out at every one. London was last on the list. “Guess we better do it for you” said Bruce. The cameras showed the fan with tears streaming down his face while the band played his request.
Toward the end of “Spirit in the Night”, Bruce ended up lying back on the steps at the front of the stage, with Jake Clemons, saxophonist and nephew of the late Clarence Clemons, who, of course, was basically the other half of Springsteen for 35 years.  Watching him lying there, looking up at the sky, you honestly believed that Springsteen, with 50,000 people watching him, was just thinking about his old friend. As the band vamped quietly on the chords, Bruce said, half to Jake, “Me and your uncle, man… I guess it was before you were born…” Then he stood up, and finished the line about “Me and Crazy Janey was makin’ love in the dirt; singing our birthday song.”
Again, I don’t want to do a laundry list; it would not do the show justice. But there was this point…
During the second or third encore, Bruce stepped to the mic and said “We’re gonna get Paul McCartney out here to help us.” Like he would have said “We’re going to feature the piano player on this tune.” Lisa turned to me, her face saying quite clearly, “Did he just say that?” Well, yes – Sir Paul strode onstage and was handed a Les Paul (left-handed, of course).
“I’ve waited 50 years for this” said the Boss. And they ripped into I Saw Her Standing There. Needless to say, the crowd lost it. Then they jumped on Twist and Shout, including a spin through La Bamba. 
And just when we thought things had gotten as weird as they could, my hearing stopped working. I mean, Bruce and Paul were singing into the same mic and playing guitars, the E Street Band was cooking, but no sound was coming out. I looked around and realized that it wasn’t my hearing – everybody in the crowd was getting upset.
To avoid retelling a well-known tale (“Where were you when…”), yes, the good burghers of Westminster had decided that the show, having gone past the curfew, needed to end. Right. Then. Never mind that Paul – excuse me – Sir Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen had half of W1 dancing and singing with joy in the middle of the worst recession in two generations. Bastards.
Confusion reigned onstage as Bruce attempted to say something to us, but we’ll never know – the sound system was completely disabled. We found Scott and started making our way out of the park. In other circumstances, a crowd of that size in an atmosphere that chaotic might be unnerving. In fact, there was a warm and happy vibe throughout. We’d been blessed for over three hours and ended the evening with a historic pairing; it was all good.
We were staying at the Metropole Hilton, just 3/4 of a mile north up Edgware Road from Hyde Park.  Conveniently enough, that route is lined with Lebanese restaurants and the smells of grilled meat and hookah smoke mingle into the wee hours. All three of us were starving and overdosed on andrenaline – shish taouk was in order. But first we had to clear Hyde Park. It’s worth noting for those who don’t know Hyde Park that there are significant metal post walls lining the edges – you can only exit at intended gates. But we got to a gate – even one near the direction we wanted to head – and started north on a street parallel to Edgware Road. The street is basically three lanes wide, and two of those lanes were filled with parked cars. I’m not sure if the street is supposed to be one-way or not, but here’s what we got:
We made our way up Edgware Road until the crowd had thinned a bit and then ducked into the first likely looking Lebanese restaurant. The post-mortem lasted from the hummus through to the cappuccinos.
Don’t Mess With the Boss
The reaction to the curfew enforcement was swift and predictable: “WTF were they thinking?” Even the mayor of London said, “If they’d have called me, my answer would have been for them to jam in the name of the Lord!” Legendary Springsteen guitarist (and Sopranos actor) Steve Van Zandt tweeted, “”We break curfews in every country but only English cops needs to “punish us” by not letting us leave until the entire crowd goes. Is there just too much fun in the world? We would have been off by 11 if we’d done one more. On a Saturday night! Who were we disturbing?” And then, “I’m sorry but I have to be honest I’m pissed. Like I said, it didn’t ruin the great night. But when I’m jamming with McCartney don’t bug me!”
Indeed, when you’re jamming with McCartney, um, don’t do anything except, er, jam with McCartney.
And they weren’t done. At their next show (in Dublin, two days later), they took square aim at the Westminster City Council and Live Nation (the promoters). Rather than go into details, I’ll let you read them here.
But Steve Van Zandt got it right in his Tweet: “Is there just too much fun in the world?”
With a few days to reflect, I asked myself, “What made that whole experience so moving?” I mean, I’ve been to plenty of incredibly good concerts, including a few that have truly moved me emotionally. What made this very possibly the best concert I’ve attended?
Well, the crowd had a great deal to do with it. They were there to sing, dance, and celebrate. There was a good vibe throughout, despite the occasional rain and significant mud. I was proud to be part of the congregation.
But I think the overwhelming reason was the combination of energy, professionalism, and joie de vivre of the E Street Band and its legendary bandleader. Recall that Springsteen will turn 63 in September. But he has made a commitment to his craft and his audience – his workout regimen must be brutal to stay in that shape and work that hard for three hours. Other members of the band, such as drummer “Mighty” Max Weinberg (another three-decade member of the band) show the same commitment. I have no idea how Weinberg makes it through show after show playing the drums like he’s trying to announce the dawn of time.
The other thing was Bruce’s obvious and permanent attachment to the working class. Despite being an A-list celebrity, his songs, his attire, his stage chat, all of it bespeaks a man who is in touch with people who struggle to make it through the day and through life. “It’s tough times back home,” he said at the beginning of one song. “And it’s tough times over here too, I know.”
His whole show is a paean to hard honest work. There’s no lip-syncing and I’d be surprised if there’s pitch correction or any of the other digital smoke and mirrors that plague modern pop concerts. I’m coming perilously close to quoting George Will, who saw Springsteen back in the 80′s, but if every person in the U.S. (or any other country) worked as hard, honestly, and professionally as the E Street Band, that country’s economy would be unstoppable. Which brings me to:
The high point
Surely it was Paul McCartney jamming with the E Street Band, right? Well, of course that’s a story I’ll tell my grandkids (I just hope they believe me). Yet again, I am proven to be the luckiest guy in the world by being there the first time the two of them performed together. But interestingly, that moment was wonderful only because it seemed “fitting” in the context of the whole concert. Both men are from rust-belt poor working-class cities in their respective countries. Paul seems to have largely escaped the gravitational pull of Liverpool, but I imagine that he and Bruce have more in common than a love of playing guitar.
So in fact, my favorite part, the song that’s been rolling around in my head since Saturday, was one that I didn’t even know before then. It’s called “Shackled and Drawn” and is on the (new) Wrecking Ball album. It’s really an anthem to working hard (and an unsubtle jab at the rich people on “banker’s hill”). Read these lyrics:
I always loved the feel of sweat on my shirt
Stand back, son, and let a man work
Let a man work, is that so wrong
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn
Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn
Pick up the rock, son, carry it on
What’s a poor boy to do in a world gone wrong
Woke up this morning shackled and drawn
Freedom, son, is a dirty shirt
The sun on my face and my shovel in the dirt
A shovel in the dirt keeps the devil gone
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn
“Shovel in the dirt keeps the devil gone.” Just so. Echoing one of my favorite Martin Luther King quotes. 
And he didn’t just sing the song. No, he called out astonishing member of the “E Street Choir”, Cindy Mizelle, and told her to “preach it, Cindy!” And she did. Cindy Mizelle did church right there in Hyde Park and 50,000 people raised their hands and said they believed. This video is from a different concert on the same tour, but it’s a pretty good idea of what happened at the Hyde Park show:
I’m a sucker for a good gospel tune and a black woman with the voice of thunder doing church. She had me at “I want everybody to stand up and be counted tonight!” 
At the beginning of this too-long post, I gave three reasons for not wanting to attend big arena shows, even by my musical heroes. There was a fourth, and maybe I wouldn’t even admit it to myself. There may be nothing more soul-shattering (for me) than having a musical hero come on stage and simply “mail in” a performance. As if simply being <X> and being on stage is sufficient cause for me to pay lots of money. There are exceptions, of course (Roger Daltry performing Tommy crushed it). But I’ve been disappointed too many times.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band blew away every one of my expectations and left me breathless. And for that, I am in their deepest debt.
 He’s had some face work done; it didn’t go well.
 Almost certainly one of the five most famous album covers in the history of rock shows the two of them leaning into each other, brothers separated at birth.
 My musician readers will instantly recognize that the chord progressions on the two songs are identical.
 My poker-playing readers will instantly recognize that this path goes directly past the center of poker in London, the Grosvenor Victoria (“The Vic” to all poker fans).
 “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
 Note to the musician readers: at the end of the song (which is in Bb), listen to Cindy scoop up to the Bb from the G below. That is such a classic gospel figure and she sings it like she was doing it since she was four. Which she probably was. Remember that scoop if you’re ever singing gospel.