Thoughts on Hard Rock Calling 2013
This show was a bonus. We had already booked our trip to Spain and Paris, with some extra days after Stade de France to enjoy the city. Then HRC got added and there was no way we could be in Paris if Bruce was playing in London. Despite my advice to other people to consider carefully whether they want to stand in a field all day and despite my insisting I would never do this again (a big consideration as to why we skipped Nijmegen), we bought tickets and booked the first train on the Eurostar (which everyone started calling the ‘Bruce-star’) Sunday morning.
A terrible cold which hit me Friday night/Saturday morning resulted in the decision that we were not going to try to queue for HRC. I decided I had enough adrenaline to get through the Paris queue and a low enough number that it was worth queuing even if I was uncomfortable, but not enough in the tank for that and the HRC sprint. Thank the deities, because when we arrived at the venue, and saw the distance and the effort it would have taken to get to the front (and the typical muckup at the gates), I probably would have found a tree to lie under and gone to sleep instead of sprinting for the front.
The venue is the field where the basketball arena was during the Olympics. It was always intended to be a temporary structure, so they pulled it down and put up a festival stage. The field was covered in artificial turf…which ended about 20 rows from the stage. That meant that all of the people who queued for two days and ran a marathon to get to the front stood on sun-baked tarmac all day. We went down into the crowd for Alabama Shakes and I could feel the heat rising through the soles of my Doc Martens. I watched a woman go into hypothermia and collapse during the set, it was that hot and miserable.
There was lots of food and various bars. The portable toilets had an actual attendant whose job was to constantly check them for paper and for cleanliness. There were multiple taps offering free, cold drinking water, so all you had to do was have a bottle and keep filling it up. There was room to lie down and sit with your friends and walk around if you wanted, although the distance between the main stage and the auxiliary ones was so great that I abandoned my initial plan of seeing the Flamin’ Groovies who were on right before Alabama Shakes. I mean, it could have been so much worse and given that it was actually worse last year, this was a drastic improvement.
After our experience with Alabama Shakes we had no intention of trying to crowd down front, but instead found some of our friends who are tour regulars and hung out with them. An awful lot of the frequent fliers we knew left Paris at a reasonable hour with no intention of being in the crush. It was a beautiful, astoundingly gorgeous, non-typical British weather day, we were hanging out with friends, and it was going to be fun. Whatever happened, this was a bonus show.
One of the benefits of seeing as many shows as I do is that it gives me a wider basis for comparison. It also lets me catch mistakes that someone seeing Bruce for the first time will not even notice. This is a blessing and a curse. It has to be pretty bad for me to even take notes on it, because I realize musicians are human and mistakes happen. But the beginning of the set kept throwing me out of my happy Bruce haze because there were just so many off moments: Nils not being plugged in or turned on for “Shackled” made them lose the momentum which is the whole point of using this song as an opener. “Badlands” and “Prove It” felt ragged around the edges. Steve was missing cues and I kept shrugging it off until he just point blank didn’t show up for “Wrecking Ball,” causing Bruce to fill in his part with “yeah yeah’s”. They have performed that Norman Greenbaum (or “La Grange,” depending on your point of view) version of “Reason To Believe” so often it was surprising that Bruce had to conduct them as hard as they did, and even then, he then had to get the effects turned on for the harmonica and the vocals. I love watching Bruce conduct the band but this was like when Jay Weinberg was in the band and they attempted something complex like “Lost In The Flood,” Bruce had to conduct so hard to keep things on track that it affected his concentration on his actual performance.
The other distraction for me was that Bruce’s vocals sounded ragged around the edges. I kept closing my eyes to try to figure out whether it was just my ears or if Bruce’s voice sounded a bit strained. (I close them so I can just listen and not be distracted by anything else. Maybe it’s voodoo but it always seems to help, like turning the radio off on the car when you’re lost.) The answer was yes, on and off – not a consistent hoarseness but definitely a few places where the note wasn’t as strong as it normally might be. This was the first back to back show since
Stockholm Turku (thanks, Ted) and I kept wondering if that was the culprit. This is a point I try to make to people, over and over again, when I point out that these guys are not spring chickens and that there is a physical toll on their bodies because of what they do, despite the first class travel and luxury accommodations.
I know many people were furious about BITUSA being the album choice, and we have all played this game on this leg of the tour, trying to figure out what formula will tell us whether or not a show will have a full album performance or not. I spent 4 days in Gijon reassuring Spaniards that they would not get BITUSA because he was probably planning to play it in Paris, but that none of us actually knew what the formula was. And the group of people I was standing with actually all had a feeling that it was going to be Born To Run.
And then it was BITUSA and our first thought was to go get something to drink, while all around us people jumped up and down. My notes said, “100,000 BITUSA shirts can’t be wrong.”
But I was not disappointed in the London show because he played BITUSA. That one is all on me. I am a tireless promoter of the fact that you can’t tailor a show for the diehards because repeat visitors maybe make up 2% of the audience of an average show, no matter who the band is and no matter how much Bruce appreciates us being there. I was disappointed in the London show because I felt the performance was lacking. I had a lot of superlatives to offer about the performance of the album in Paris even though I thought that show was also disappointing from a setlist perspective. I was not disappointed in it from a performance or execution perspective.
I could go on and list all of the things I wrote down in terms of errors or flubs or missed cues but it is honestly the sum of the whole of all of it that has the impact. One of the things I’ve always admired about Bruce is that he is completely professional when errors do happen–he shrugs them off, he makes a joke, he keeps going, he doesn’t let it bring him down or get angry. But there were just too many.
I loved Adele coming out for DITD and I loved Pam getting the guitar. That was absolutely special to watch.
At the end of the album, after the bows (another tradition I love), we were pretty much expecting “Pay Me My Money Down” but instead he didn’t even bother, going right into “Sunny Day,” which was sloppy, followed by a lugubrious “Lonesome Day” into a not-much-better version of “The Rising”. I am wincing while the woman next to me is taking out her phone and calling her father excitedly (I know it was her father because her iphone read “DAD”).
“Light of Day” was a surprise and lost everyone in the audience standing near us. I love LOD like nobody’s business and will dance and sing so much like a crazy person that people will move away from me (it happened most recently in Pittsburgh). This was just not a solid, energetic version of “Light of Day”. It just felt like Bruce had very little left in the tank at this point.
And then, just when we had given up and were starting to talk about when we would make our walk around the field to position ourselves at an exit so we could beat a hasty retreat at the end of what would surely be the acoustic version of “Thunder Road,” he pulls a “Jungleland” sign out of the crowd. Every bone in my body screamed OH MY GOD DO NOT DO THIS BECAUSE IF IT SUCKS I WILL NEVER FORGIVE YOU, THIS IS JUNGLELAND, but then I held my breath and stood there crying like a baby. The spoken introduction to the song, so rare for him to offer something of that depth in that place. The sun was setting, the sky was beautiful, and somehow this song did it, it brought the band together, it brought the audience together in a place of unity and magic and remembrance. I had this flash to the first time I heard the “From the churches to the jails” line live in concert and how I shivered and had goosebumps and it happened again, it happens almost every time here. I was pretty much an advocate of the song being retired and was of mixed emotions about it being brought back on certain occasions, but I was very, very glad to hear it tonight.
But the end of the show went back down to normal again, with the least energetic version of “Born To Run” I have ever heard, and “10th” lacked crackle, and just when I am ready to say goodbye for this tour with “Thunder Road” echoing in my ears, instead I am walking across the astroturf towards exit 10x singing along to “My Lucky Day.” Which was odd and strange and somewhat inconclusive, I think, for this show especially. But it is goodbye.
Earlier in the night, when “Born In The USA” was making the speaker columns shake, we were off getting beers and coming back to the edges of the stage along the rail to watch the rest of the show. This was our last show of the tour — 30 shows since Atlanta for me — and there was a lot of toasting to the end of an amazing run. This show wasn’t what I hoped it would be but I am hopeful they find something to carry them through the rest of the run–Gijon shows that it still can happen–but I am done and I think Bruce is ready to be done and at some point, things do have to end.
See you further on up the road.