Review: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Etihad Stadium

Bruce Srpingsteen
Bruce Srpingsteen
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At 10pm Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band depart the Etihad stage.

Sweat dripping from his brow, the New Jersey native has ploughed through 31 songs, a muscular set spanning a marathon three hours plus.

The crowd, boisterous and buoyant throughout, should be shattered, emotionally exhausted. Many (like me) had to sprint to catch the first bars of opener "Atlantic City" thanks to tea-time traffic chaos.

And yet they still crave more. Thursday morning? Work? Nobody cares.

Moments later, Springsteen saunters back on stage, armed with an acoustic guitar, his trusty harmonica and the warmest of smiles.

"This Hard Land" fills the saturated night sky. A serene finale to a thunderous night of rock and roll, it is music in its rawest form and demonstrates the true power of the man.

Backed by "the heart-stopping, house-rocking, earth-quaking" E Street Band, Springsteen is a monolithic force of nature; bold, irrepressible, a leader.

Alone on a stage in front of thousands of people, his presence is just as powerful.

Now aged 66, there's probably not a whole lot The Boss hasn't seen in five decades touring the globe. However, a chap dressed in a Father Christmas outfit on a wet May Manchester evening must surely be a first.

"Is this a perverted attempt at a song request or something?" he asks, calling the "off season Santa" to the stage just half-an-hour into the set. The resulting rendition of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" delights damp onlookers.

The River tour began back in January, a commemorative tribute to Springsteen's 1980 coming of age album, and one which has seen him playing the album from start to finish at venues across America. Since bringing the tour to European shores, he's adopted a slightly more liberal approach to the setlist.

Ten songs from the record still appear, including the flawless title track, bookended by that unmistakable lone harmonica, and his first ever top 5 hit, "Hungry Heart", during which he embarks on one of his many walkabouts.

Read any article on Springsteen and the chances are you will come across the word "authentic" or "genuine". As with any wealthy celebrity the terms become almost paradoxical but nobody can doubt his commitment to putting on a show for the fans.

During "Waitin' On A Sunny Day" (irony certainly not lost) he pulls up a young girl holding aloft a placard - "This is my first Brucie concert, please play Waitin' On A Sunny Day". He hands her the mic, she sings the chorus and it is impossible not to smile.

Towards the end of an exhilarating "Dancing In The Dark" he invites a young woman up to dance with him. Far from unusual, it is very much a staple of the Springsteen concert experience, yet these bouts of audience interaction don't feel disingenuous or contrived. The rapport is real and the feel-good factor contagious.

Springsteen doesn't play three-and-a-half hour shows because he has to. He could charge the same prices, throw out a 90-minute greatest hits set and be done with it. Not a chance. He loves performing, rattling through songs at a frenetic pace.

"Because The Night", co-written with Patti Smith, is a blast with a spinning Nils Lofgren solo to boot; "Thunder Road", sometimes performed solo by Springsteen, is given the full E Street backing, driven to its stirring climax by Jake Clemons on sax. Later, during "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" there is a touching big screen tribute to Jake's uncle, Clarence, one of the E Street originals who died in 2011.

As the light begins to fade, the pace quickens. "Born To Run", its soaring guitars carrying tales of life-affirming urban romance, unites a stadium; "Glory Days" sees Springsteen invite long-time friend and collaborator Steve Van Zandt to "keep the riff going" as the pair playfully throw improvised lines back and forth.

There is still time for a cover of The Isley Brothers' "Shout" and of course, "Bobby Jean", Springsteen taking the opportunity mid-song to introduce each member of the band, while jogging on the spot...because even after three hours the man still has energy to burn.

Bruce Springsteen stands as one of rock's last true great showmen. Long may that show continue.