Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Hard Rock Calling, Hyde Park, London, 14 July 2012
When the alarm rang at 4:50 a.m. Saturday morning, I confess that my first thought was that getting up early to queue for the Hyde Park gig was one of the dumbest decisions we had ever made.
This was a long, long day. The gates opened at 12. We queued around 6 and had a fair position in the line, or a reasonable chance at the least. There was a lot of running (about 1/4 mile approximately, and I am not lying when I tell you that I have been training for this specific run since December) and rain and rain gear and badly fitting, ugly Wellington rain boots picked up yesterday afternoon in addition to trying to, y’know, SEE LONDON. (I have been here 20+ times but have not been here in over 20 years.)
It was cold. It was damp. The combination of mud and wood chips (put down to allegedly ameliorate the fact that Hyde Park has no grass left in that section) and alcohol and everything else meant that the place just reeked. Even without rain and wood chips, there isn’t much you can do to a field you’re about to jam 60k people into. This is a miserable place to see a show and I don’t think I’d ever do it again. Everyone around us rallied remarkably and most people were very prepared, but seriously, London, I do not know how you put up with this place. I have never seen a Springsteen gig where so many people were taken out in stretchers. I do not know how anyone survived this show without a rail to lean on. I know I would not have.
People had insisted that you didn’t need to turn up early or queue, you could show up an hour before Bruce went on stage and get right down front. People stated with impunity that the front only got bad during the act before Bruce. All of this is complete and total bullshit. I waited until the initial gate rush had ended and made a sortie out to go to the bathroom. It was difficult to the point of almost impossible, and I didn’t dare try again. We brought food and water; we were lucky (and didn’t dare consume anything until Bruce went on). Once you were down front you were stuck there until the end of the show. This was worse than a regular queue because you don’t line up until 4 or so and you go in at 5 and then you can still get a drink or a snack. This was all day, in the mud. It was everywhere.
Tom Morello was brilliant, if you’ve never seen him I urge you to try to get to a gig. Fogerty was introduced by Bruce with his usual “Hank Williams of our generation” line, stood sidestage for much of the gig (as did much of E Street) and then came out for “Rockin All Over The World.” (I did not learn until I was editing a draft of the Backstreets piece that this was the first time they had performed it together.) This made up for not getting “Green River” YET AGAIN.
The joint appearance was not a surprise, given the appearance of Kevin Buell and a series of other Springsteen crew members during the equipment change over. Fogerty was great but I was surprised at the lackluster reaction. Then again, it had been a very long day by that point. There was no “Centerfield,” which made me ecstatic. (And in case you really care, Lady Antebellum was polished to the point of boring. I would have read a book if I’d had one with me.)
This isn’t really a festival, since while there may be other acts, you are buying a ticket to see the headlining artist. I was hoping that Bruce felt that way too, and wasn’t going to be constructing a festival-type setlist. I shouldn’t have worried, but I also didn’t expect him to stroll onstage holding only a harmonica and talk about how this was the first thing he’d played when his feet first touched down here, and then Roy hits the chords to “Thunder Road”. No band, no guitar, just Bruce and Roy, and it was tremendous. Who else tries this in front of 60,000 people? Where else could Bruce get away with this, besides in Europe? Everyone stood in rapt attention and time genuinely stood still for a moment. The sun had come out and the sky was blue and I thought that if this was the only notable thing about tonight’s gig, I would be happy.
It was clear that the band’s energy was up for the show, and right about the time we got to “Johnny 99,” I commented that this was the anti-Vienna — it was everything he had tried to do in Vienna, but this time he figured out how to make it work. The key factor here was, again, the audience, who were interested and engaged far beyond the front row. Bruce made repeated journeys to the very far ends of the front rail, but at some point it was just because it was fun for him, because no one down there needed any particular encouragement.
The rail had been set up with a large center walkway area, with a set of steps down from the mainstay to another platform, and then the ability for him to come down another level, and then down to ground level and other platforms around the center. Bruce made a lot of jokes about the stairs (continual references to Indian Jones and “I didn’t know I’d be getting married today.”) But he spent a lot of time in all of those locations, especially once it started raining again. He made up a song about how much he liked to play in the rain. He talked about loving the rain. He loved the rain, and he made us forget the rain.
But early in the set, we were talking about how beautiful the day had turned out to be. Fogerty came out for “Promised Land.” Morello popped on and off the stage with regularity. The one sign request, beginning with “Where’s the guy with that sign,” which of course resulted in the one thing you think it would result, every sign in the crowd being held up, did find its intended target, a guy from Spain who’d been to 5 or 6 shows with the same sign, and kept adding the name of the city he’d go and try and cross out the previous one. Bruce liked this, brought the sign onstage, and after warning the other, oh, 59,000 people in the venue that this song was really, really obscure, began narrating the different places he hadn’t played the song, which was, of course, “Take ‘Em As They Come”. I am sure someone in the back said “Let’s get a footlong hotdog” (something else Bruce made reference to a few times) but it’s a good song and it was played well.
Myself, I was just hoping that I would continue to stay dry. (I would like to thank LL Bean for making a cheap rain jacket that has kept me very dry for the entire trip.) The boots started to get uncomfortable right about “Johnny 99,” but my feet were dry and warm all day. (A very warm thanks to the fans in Prague who insisted that we needed Wellingtons based on their own Manchester experiences.) We had other clothes that could layer and dry quickly. Still, when the raindrops start sluicing down off of your hood onto your face, and your hands start to get waterlogged, there is a lot of that that is not fun.
But the show was so amazing that you overlooked all of that. It occurred to me when I was beaming during “Ghost of Tom Joad” (with Morello guest appearance, notch) that I was doing it through pouring rain and didn’t care. I sang during “Sunny Day,” for heaven’s sake, because it was a stellar version. Nothing lost focus. Nothing went on too long. Bruce didn’t overdo the whole shtick with asking the crowd for applause, probably because he didn’t have to. He worked it, though, out in the crowd, out in the rain, not hiding under the canopy.
The evolution of “Spirit In The Night” into a regular setlist stalwart is somewhat amazing to me, in the best possible way. I love that more people are getting to hear this song. I love that the band are playing it every night again and as a result, it’s become stronger and they play it better each time. And of course, I continue to dig the bit with Jake. Tonight Bruce enticed him down to the stairs, where he reclined back on them, staring up at the sky, and suddenly says, “You know, you’re too young — I don’t think you were even born, when me and your uncle–” and he went into the last verse.
I lost it. I absolutely lost it. It was real and raw and reminded us all (not that we need to be reminded) of how big this loss still is for Bruce. But he did this in front of Hyde Park, you know? In front of everyone, and still never lost the focus of the song. The Jimmy Swaggart rap is getting better and better, and he veers from television preacher to Al Green to Sam Cooke and back again, and he gets to use the backup singers, and is a great example of this organism that has grown and morphed over the course of the tour.
I confess that I was rooting hard for “London Calling” in the encore with Morello. That would have been perfect, hearing “London Calling” in London. It was about as far as I was going to reach today, and then you heard the words, “Ladies and gentlemen, Paul McCartney” and the entire crowd loses it, this combination of freaking out while being in total disbelief that they are in Hyde Park and here is AN ACTUAL BEATLE, IN LONDON. I wanted to take a million photographs. I wanted to dance like crazy. I wanted to sing and not have to worry about ruining a video. I tried to do all of it, because HERE IS AN ACTUAL BEATLE SINGING BEATLES SONGS IN LONDON.
In the end, I thought there was just a problem because the mic had been out at the center platform, never in a million years did I think that they would turn the sound off on Bruce Springsteen, but then his monitor engineer made an appearance onstage and made it clear that that was what had happened. It felt unfinished and people just did not move for the longest time, I wanted to bend down and get a bottle of water after going 9 hours without drinking anything but no one would start to make their way out. No one could believe it was over like that.
The field was, of course, even worse as we made our way back across it to the exit we needed, and we felt a little sorry for the Paul Simon fans tomorrow night. The hotel was thankfully only minutes away (deliberately, I did not want to have to take the Underground to get to the gig) and when we walked into the lobby, we proceeded to stand there, remove our cheap boots covered in mud )and undoubtedly other disgusting things I don’t want to think about), put them into a garbage bag and ask the front desk to dispose of them for us. The clerk looked askance at us only until the next couple walked into the hotel and proceeded to start taking off their boots in the middle of the lobby. We waved at each other like we belonged to some kind of secret society.
The biggest story, to me, remains the essential power of the core set tonight. It’s a stadium set that will work, and work well. He still has to say something explicit about the signs or it’s going to continue to get worse, but on the other hand, look, a great sign tonight resulted in a great tour premiere (which I myself have never heard live).
It is almost 4 a.m., and I am not ready to sleep, because I am not ready for the night to end, but there are sights to see and laundry to do (the clothes from today were placed in a separate bag so as not to contaminate anything else).
I saw a Beatle singing Beatles songs, onstage in London, with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I must be doing something right.
Dublin next, then home.
If you are new to the blog, I’ve been writing for Backstreets for the last 10 years, am reporting on this leg of the European tour, and am working on an upcoming ebook about the European shows. You can sign up for my mailing list at this link if you’d like to get very occasional notices about my new Bruce writing.