Bruce in Cape Town -Review of Tues Show

Tuesday night at the Bellville Velodrome – a fancy word for an indoor cycle track and therefore a venue small enough for me to have been able to see perfectly from around half way back as I alternated my watching between the stage itself and the screen behind and on each side of it (by no means always showing the same image) – Bruce Springsteen played the second of three Cape Town nights, the first, Sunday, having been added after the Tuesday and Wednesday sold out, to the kind of packed house that is just large enough to make a seriously loud noise, but not so large that you felt disconnected from the performer.

The statistics will at least give you a clue. Springsteen promised the full E Street Band, but I’m never quite sure what that means anymore, the outfit having expanded considerably since the Glory Days. Well, we got Springsteen and 17 others. The core survivors were all there, Roy Bittan on piano, the Garry Tallent/Max Weinberg rhythm section (Weinberg is as mighty and relentless on the drums in real life as he always seems on film) and, praise be, Steve Van Zandt, who joined Nils Lofgren and Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine, Audioslave etc) in a spectacular guitar front line. Deceased members Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici are remembered in a video collage that accompanies 10th Avenue Freeze Out. Clemons’s nephew Jake now takes on the principal saxophonic work, and he is joined by a four man horn section (primarily two trumpets, trombone and another sax that plays a terrific baritone solo at one point). Charles Giordano is on organ and accordion, with Soozie Tyrell on violin and backing vocals, and then there are another three backing vocalists (not counting Little Steven, taking a break from his TV acting job for this leg of the tour at least, who is often virtually a second lead singer as Springsteen regularly yells out “Steve” and the two share a microphone like it was forty yeaqrs ago and still Asbury Park). And, when they’re not blasting out horn or vocal lines, everybody in those sections is hitting, shaking or rattling some or other percussive device.

They played 27 songs in just a touch under three hours with half the set altered from Sunday (and it seems that last night – Wednesday – more than half the set was new to this tour), with no break and hardly any talking. (Springsteen talked a bit about Nelson Mandela and Pete Seeger, who had died the day before, and played the Special AKA’s Nelson Mandela as an opener and an acoustic We Shall Overcome towards the end for them, but we had none of those long tales of growing up in New Jersey that used to be such an important part of the songs themselves – of course, he was younger then, and playing for up to four and a half hours at a stretch.)

Kicking off with the unaccompanied chorus of “Free Nelson Mandela! Free, free, free Nelson Mandela! certainly got the crowd’s immediate attention and the chattering horn riff turned us (even me) into dancing fools for pretty much the entire duration of the concert. The comparative play lists, which can be found at http://www.setlist.fm/setlists/bruce-springsteen-2bd6dcce.html, suggest that Tuesday night was generally more up tempo than Sunday. For example, we didn’t get The River or The Ghost Of Tom Joad, or, for that matter, the solo acoustic Thunder Road, but we did get a truly anthemic Darkness On The Edge Of Town and a blistering Promised Land.

Most of the big songs were lined up and delivered with remarkable enthusiasm and aplomb (given the number of times he must have played them) as part of an extended encore, much of which took place with the house lights turned on. Apparently Bruce likes to have this visual connection with his audience. He also ventures into the crowd several times to glad hand and knowingly point fingers at random audience members in that American TV host way that suggests that they actually know the person at whom they’re pointing. He crowd-surfs a little and chooses people to dance on stage during Dancing In The Dark. Oddly, given my usual distaste for overt rock star antics, I didn’t mind this at all. In fact, it added immensely to a celebratory feel that took hold early on and hardly let up for a moment. And the songs don’t suffer or become unnecessarily protracted during these interludes. And, thank all that is sacred, he didn’t keep asking us if we were having a good time!

The energy generated throughout is extraordinary, not only from Springsteen’s own excursions and exertions, but from Morello’s space rock guitar effects, Lofgren’s one legged dervish-whirling during a guitar solo (though he’s now a bit old to do the standing back flips anymore), Weinberg’s monumental drumming, Van Zandt’s very presence, and a dozen more places. It may have reached its peak on an astonishing version of Open All Night that transformed Nebraska’s solo rockabilly into huge, raging, saxophonic bar-walking classic Kansas City R&B, only with a bigger band and better sound.

The sound itself was excellent, although I thought, as things wore on (and the sound guys, perhaps like the audience, but not like Springsteen and the band who seemed to outlast even the most enthusiastic punter, wore out just a little) that the clarity became a little blurred in favour of a Spectorish wall of sound, and bits of feedback crept in. Or it might just, by that stage, have been my ears.

We all expected those big songs I mentioned and he played Born In The USA, Born To Run, Badlands. Spirit in The Night, The Rising etc, as he seems always to do, but if anyone is looking for a reason why Springsteen continues to be anything but an oldies act churning out inch perfect (if never less than superior) versions of his hits, it’s the songs in between that are most telling. He did Trapped, for heaven’s sake, a much altered Jimmy Cliff song that was initially only available on an ’80s single, and it was superb. And he closed, after the band had left, the house lights were on and the drunks near me were standing with their backs to the stage shouting to each other over the song as if Jon Landau’s erstwhile “rock and roll future” was just the background music at their local bar or braai (it was Bellville after all – remember the old bad driving joke … “come to Bellville and CY” … well, I went to Bellville and saw why), with a solo, acoustic guitar and harmonica This Hard Land, another relatively unknown song, a Born In The USA outtake from the recently reissued and pretty well essential Tracks box set of versions and rarities that first came out at the end of the ’90s.

Other highlights? There were plenty, including fabulous versions of The Ties That Bind and American Skin (41 Shots), but I’m not sure how it’s possible to better the stomping, gospel-wailing, horn-blasting version of Shackled And Drawn, with Van Zandt on what looked like some kind of electric banjo. You want roots to go with your rock? Springsteen has them in spades! I’d have gone again the very next day if I’d been able to.

By Richard Haslop

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About Martin Myers
Music Supervisor / Artist and Talent Manager / Publicist / Music Exchange Founder / Owner Triple M Entertainment

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