Review by Gary Spiller for MPM
“If this is trouble it sure feels good to me,
Sunshine City joining in the masquerade,
Sunshine City feel it all coming my way.”
Elles Bailey – Sunshine City
The skies above the hustling streets of the capital might well be grey and leaden, rain threatens, but there’s a kind of carnival expectation akin to Sunshine City.
‘The Boss’ – a moniker that doesn’t sit comfortably with the journeyman rocker Springsteen, but one which has endured since the early days of the New Jersey circuit – is, tonight, taking to the BST stage for the second of two sell-out shows, either side of a stellar show from New Yorker Billy Joel, on the eastern side of Hyde Park, perhaps the most royal of London’s eight Royal Parks.
Held across three weekends this year, the British Summer Time concerts continues a tradition of Hyde Park hosting major artists that began in the late 1960s with the likes of Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, and The Rolling Stones. This year’s series has seen the likes of Pink and Guns N’ Roses alongside Alfie Boe and Take That all perform in front of 65,000 sellout crowds.
This evening Springsteen and his long-time musical associates the motley assorted E Street Band are 52 dates into an incredible year long tour spanning an eye-watering 90 shows! Coupled with the undeniable thirst Springsteen possesses for performances of marathon proportions this is, undoubtably, a mighty undertaking for all concerned.
Whilst the Hyde Park stage is gargantuan, matching the work-rate about to be expended by Springsteen and his rocking cohorts, there is little, if anything, in the way of theatrical effusiveness or gimmickry. This New Jersey native is, quite simply, not of that ilk. This is rock n’ roll, blue collared, stripped back to the white gleaming bone with a strength beating heart that the hefty ensemble interweaves upon. Firmly emanating from the heartlands this is a working man’s narrative from a lifetime lived rocking in the fast lane.
Emerging from the tube station at Hyde Park Corner the rain begins to fall. Entering the park under the watchful eye of Achilles memories of what was described as The Who’s “live debut” of their epic rock opera ‘Quadrophenia’ flood back from the depths of 1996. Curiously, it was overcast that day too.
“Thankyou for all the love you’ve given to this new artist from the States!” emotes the impressive Brittney Spencer as she readies herself for her set closing version of ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’’. This lady is certainly made to sing as she belts out a lively honky-tonk adaptation to bring down the curtain on a half hour set in which she most ably introduced herself and her band to the largely unknowing crowd.
Baltimore born Spencer originally toured as a backing singer with Christopher Cross and Carrie Underwood after having relocated to Nashville to pursue her ambitions of a full-time career in country music. Last November a day after signing a recording contract with Elektra Records her second EP ‘If I Ever Get There’ was released.
Stepping out as the rain continues to dampen the early doors crowd Spencer launches with ‘‘First Car Feeling’ somewhat akin to a countryfied Tracy Chapman. The rain is chased off and the BST gathering steams like hearthside Labradors during the stripped back Americana of ‘Damn Right You’re Wrong’, a blending of the greats of country such as Taylor Swift and Dolly Parton.
As the sensitive self-reflection of ‘My Stupid Life’ is introduced Spencer, a massive The Chicks fan, explains that “I’m losing my mind after seeing their [The Chicks] name on the dressing room door!” Later in the day she would get to meet her idols, dreams do come true.
‘Never See Again’ is warmly received as a watery sun continues its struggles to break through the stubborn cloud. A surprise cover of The Beatles ‘Yesterday’ – “One of my favourite tunes in the whole world” observes Spencer – entertains with Spencer’s voice that of a host of angels.
Reaching out to the crowd with the gentle angst of ‘Sober & Skinny’, a country ballad, Spencer ensures she has captivated and entertained in equal measure. This is a singer who, whilst challenging the boundaries within her industry, has a sure-fire bright future ahead.
Hertfordshire singer-songwriter James Bay possesses some pretty damn impressive streaming and social media figures; a million plus Facebook followers and over 11 million monthly listeners on Spotify doesn’t happen by chance. Whilst, to myself, Bay is a largely unknown quantity – it turns out, however, that I recognise the spiritually uplifting set-closing ‘Hold Back The River’ – I’m left with the impression, following a rollickingly good near 50 minutes romp, that this is one seriously talented individual.
Bay steps forth issuing a fire-raising power chord from his Gibson SG, thundering drums, and swirling keys alloy as the kinetic surges in its ascent. Repeating “No, you don’t have to wear” as a rallying call Bay and his band are right into their stride with the effervescent ‘Best Fake Smile’, a country-fringed rocker that is underpinned with a trucking rhythm. One of six singles spawned from the hugely successful multi-platinum debut album ‘Chaos and the Calm’ it sets the stage perfectly. A clear crowd favourite.
With shimmering cymbals and an intensifying energy ‘Just For Tonight’, off 2018’s sophomore album ‘Electric Light’, is a Petty-esque kaleidoscope from out of the backcountry. As Heathrow-bound jets descend Bay raises his hand for the catchy chorus. It’s clear he’s relishing being back on stage, “Oh wow thank you so much!” he gratefully notes continuing “It’s a pleasure to be here!”
Incredibly it’s ten years, almost to the day, since he opened one of the smaller stages during The Rolling Stones’ appearance during the inaugural BST as Bay informs at the end of the Americana ballad ‘If You Ever Want To Be In Love’, a track which stirs up the essence of Hornsby, Petty and Bay’s ultimate inspiration Springsteen himself. Throttling the fret of his Telecaster Bay energises ‘Wanderlust’. Replete with striking, resonant keys it strikes a chord within the Hyde Park ensemble.
Continually smiling Bay, no stranger to the big stage having recently played the Isle Of Wight festival and sold out the Royal Albert Hall, exchanges a quick “Yeah man!” with his guitar tech as he switches back to his SG. “Gonna go out on a limb and throw out some new songs for you!” A new album appears to be in the offing. ‘Goodbye Never Felt So Bad’ sweeps majestically across the expansive plains whilst the countryana ballad ‘All My Broken Pieces’ is delivered with Bay, eyes closed, straining every sinew.
Looking upwards Bay notes “The rain’s gone and there’s all to play for!” The atmospheric strains of debut single ‘Let It Go’ – quadruple platinum like the set-closing ‘Hold Back The River’ – ramps up proceedings with the crowd cheering the beginning of this summery anthem. Bay’s raised fist salutes the crowd.
‘Get Out While You Can’ has touches of Australians Mental As Anything’s smash hit ‘Live It Up’ in parts melded with an upbeat goodtime rocking riff to massive effect. A mesmerising set is rounded off with the coupling of ‘Endless Summer Nights’ and the truly rousing earworm ‘Hold Back The River’. With the former lobbing in the Eagles and Gin Blossoms into the musical melting crucible and the latter taking a spinetingling mixture of Bob Dylan, Jake Bugg and George Ezra onto a spiritual plane of loves lost to finish with a bounteous flourish. Against the tide we rode our bikes into the sky.
Instantly likeable James Bay has adorned the BST stage with his affable persona, with an ever-present smile as wide as the Thames itself he has justifiably trod a stage upon which his hero will grace in a few hours’ time. Colour me several shades of impressed, will certainly be looking out for his next set of UK dates.
With a career spanning over 30 years The Chicks have been long-time front runners in the country music industry. Thirteen-time Grammy winners The Chicks have sold millions of albums throughout their lengthy career. As strong, if not stronger, as ever they released their first album in over a decade in 2020. The release of ‘Gaslighter’ coincided with the trio dropping Dixie from their name, stating negative connotations regarding connections to American slavery. The protest song ‘March March’ – passionately despatched, towards the end of a set to savour, in tribute to movements for the rights of social justice – was released in conjunction with a hard-hitting video.
Having played several dates around the UK, including Glastonbury’s iconic Pyramid Stage, The Chicks thunder on to the BST stage with the accelerator pressed firmly to the floor. Emerging with Joan Jett’s ‘Bad Reputation’ searing across the park the frontline trio – comprising of co-founding sisters Martie Maguire (backing vocals, fiddle, and mandolin) and Emily Strayer (backing vocals, guitar, and banjo) flanking long-standing compatriot Natalie Maines (lead vocals and guitar) – afront a rock-solid six-piece (if I’ve got my counting head on) band.
Set opening gas-guzzling ‘Sin Wagon’, a fine slice of bluegrass right outta the holler, is one-part furious finger-picking banjo, one-part swift country vocals all delivered atop a pounding drumbeat. A frenetically paced romp gets the ever-increasing crowd whipped right up. Above patches of blue are appearing in stratospheric appreciation.
A rapid fire “1-2-3-4” from the drummer and without a trace of fuss The Chicks hurtle express-like into the titular track of 2020’s long player ‘Gaslighter’. Triple harmonies mesmerise before the track’s sardonic lyrics strike a blow a la Shania Twain’s ‘Man! I Feel Like A Woman!’ multiplied manyfold.
Also off the most recent release ‘Julianna Calm Down’ builds up with gentle application. Maines’ crystal-clear vocals weave a potent incantation of Cajun-flavour leading to cojoined banjo and fiddle of Strayer and Maguire picking the outro with ebullient precision. “Well hello Hyde Park!” Everyone ready for Bruuuuuuce?” Maines playfully enquires, at track end, to loud response.
A devoted cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Landslide’ taken on a bluesy country compass bearing is heartily followed by a brace of titular numbers. First up the carefree highway cruising of ‘The Long Way Around’ is sweet ambrosia, Maines kicking serious derriere in defiant mood singing “Wouldn’t kiss all the asses that they told me to.” Glorious. Retracing their steps back to 1998’s breakthrough album ‘Wide Open Spaces’ The Chicks soar with grace and a delectable dash of the legend of Tom Petty.
The wistful longing of ‘Cowboy Take Me Away’ transports all to a blanket made of stars, a moment to lose oneself amongst the crowd of thousands, such is the tranquil serenity on offer herein. Seamless harmonies, a staccato military beat, the stirring tearful sentiments of ‘Travelin’ Soldier’ strike an emotive note.
Lifting the mood Maines enquires “Any of you guys know what a hootenanny is? If you don’t let us educate you!” Full throttle, ‘White Trash Wedding’ crazily careers wondrously drunken down the freeway in top gear. The party has been brought right out of the swamplands screaming at full lungs to the relatively refined surrounds of Hyde Park in dramatic fashion!
A scorching medley of The Chicks’ collab with Beyonce ‘Daddy Lessons’ and ‘Long Time Gone’ sears a conflagrant passage in front of back catalogue footage of The Chicks. ‘March March’ is up next with the big screens utilised to maximum effect with the video serving a highlighting note upon the injustices through history.
The anti-Bush blues of ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’ serves notice not to date a singer-songwriter, period. I’m sure I’m far from alone in not wanting to be on the business end of the fury of these musicians! The Chicks’ set ends, as it began, with a rabble rouser, closing with the country murder number ‘Goodbye Earl’. With a glint in her eye Maines leads the foot stomping as Maguire and Strayer take it to the Hyde Park gathering for one last time. It’s been a roaring success and the raucous roar that emanates from the crowd is evidence enough.
From the very moment Bruce Springsteen and his near 20 strong E Street Band step forth onto the BST stage until the final notes of the ethereal set closer ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’ echo out across the darkened Royal Park 65,000 punters are taken on a journey across the arenaceous Badlands. A three-hour narrative that traverses, as majestically as any IK Brunel engineered span, a five decade plus long highway through the most kaleidoscopic of rock n’ roll panoramas.
As fresh and resonant as the day, a fraction over fifty years ago, since his debut ‘Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.’ clattered into the lower reaches of the charts both sides of the Atlantic Springsteen is boundless in his energies. 73 years most certainly young the New Jersey septuagenarian is a man possessed, a man whose mission is to tell of a vista, to relate of matters everyday folk like you and I can relate too.
Although the compassions and reflections of Springsteen’s hometown struggles were a lifetime away from this, then teenage, upbringing in a Cornish town somehow 1984’s ‘My Hometown’ felt so close to hand and instantly familiar. With an innate propensity to mesh together the raw struggles and an equally raw riff Springsteen has endured. A timeless classic that, like a fine wine or whisky, just improves with the passage of time.
Sharply, at the seventh hour of the pm, the super-sized screens darken, and, to rapturous applause, the band emerge from the shadows of side-stage with the exuberant Steven Van Zandt flourishing a hat that the Three Musketeers would have been proud. Lastly Springsteen, raising both hands, appears as a deafening “Bruuuuuuuuuce!” erupts volcanically. Atop a pounding drum, courtesy of Max Weinberg, Springsteen roars “Hello London [it’s] Saturday night!” before tearing into a coruscant ‘My Love Won’t Let You Down’. Springsteen flanked by Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren makes for a fine sight, the General and his ever-loyal Colonels drawing the ‘battlelines’.
Springsteen is the master curator with no two consecutive sets the same. The running order ebbs and flows with a nucleus of roughly half the tracks such as ‘Badlands’ and ‘Wrecking Ball’ featuring each night. About them there’s choice cut follows choice cut. Even with three hours there’s tracks, wished for with every ounce of desire, left for another time. Springsteen and his rock n’ roll colleagues could be here until tomorrow’s sunrise and not near the extent of his gargantuan back catalogue!
The trademark “1-2-3-4”s come thick and fast. A Celtic-infused rag-tag ‘Death To My Hometown’ sees no kinetic restrained. Plectrum in raised hand Springsteen sings the chorus with an Emerald green shading. The teenage call to arms of ‘No Surrender’ are answered. Springsteen pounds his heart “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby than we ever learned in school.” We can surely all relate to this as we wish for peaceful skies. The resonance of “There’s a war outside raging” is not lost with the poignant blue and yellow of Van Zandt’s six string.
‘Ghosts’ roars and rages whilst the rain returns for a passionate ‘Prove It All Night’. The first of notable hat-trick from ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’ that also shines a spotlight upon the road-tripping of ‘The Promised Land’ and the album’s goosebump inducing street racer title track itself. It’s at once soulful and chockful of blue-collar grit as a sunflower, held above the heads of the crowd, reflects the burning lights. A young girl, wearing orange glasses, can’t believe her great fortune as she clutches the harmonica handed to her by Springsteen.
Track after track is quite literally knocked out of the park, this is rock’s version of ‘Bazball’. During ‘Out In The Street’ Springsteen is joined by effusive saxophonist Jake Clemons – nephew of Clarence Clemons, a celebrated near 40-year veteran of the E Street – there’s high contagion. It’s a generational thing as batons are passed; close by to us a young fan, upon his father’s shoulders, films from the best seat in the house.
Van Zandt sprinkles a touch of The Stone’s ‘Honky Tonk Women’ into the intro of personal favourite ‘Darlington County’, working class heartlands pride is proudly worn upon the sleeve. Springsteen sprays a can of beer about the stage before wiping the sweat from his brow; the work-rate is undeniable. Appropriately paired ‘Working On The Highway’ is granular in its spirit blasting through the bedrock with detonative rock n’ roll chords right out of the 50s.
A super-extended seminal ‘Kitty’s Back’ showcases the undoubted talents with howling brass, misty-eyed bluesy keys, a bit of swing and we hear that lone whistle whine. An hour in the crowd is seemingly fixated, there’s surely little business being done at the bars and food joints.
Last year’s ‘Only The Strong Survive’ took many by surprise but for me it was a highlight with its liberal soulful sprinkling. Springsteen’s genuinely heartfelt rendition of The Commodores’ ‘Nightshift’, a longtime favourite track of this scribe, permits a moment of self-indulgence back to when spinning such 45’s as Otis Redding’s ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’ was carefree as the ocean breezes. The rain pours but nobody is bothered.
“Let it rain, let it rain!” belts out Springsteen in ‘Mary’s Place’ as clouds of battleship grey deposit their liquid consignment. Springsteen’s connections to the powers-that-be might well be stronger than previously imagined as magically the precipitation begins to mooch off to the east of the capital. Finger to his lips Springsteen ushers the quiet of the crowd, such is the control.
‘The E Street Shuffle’ is precisely what it says upon the outer of the metaphorical tin, there’s ska, there’s reggae, there’s blues! A celebratory shuffle of all things mellifluously wholesome on a scale grandeur. The highly emotive ‘Last Man Standing’ is dedicated to George Theiss whose passing Springsteen, as he wipes away a tear, explains, in the first break since taking to the stage over 90 minutes previously, leaves him as the sole surviving member of his first teenage band The Castiles. A solitary blue light shines on Springsteen as the emotions, without bounds cut right to the bone, the sincerity floods over the 65,000 strong audience.
Roy J. Bittan’s vivid keys shimmer before ‘Backstreets’ explodes with a Springsteen monologue mid-track that threatens to turn into Deacon Blue’s ‘Real Gone Kid’, all that’s missing is the scattered photographs to go along with the pile of old records and books.
Van Zandt’s glorious purple Rickenbacker interweaves with Springsteen’s Telecaster as the pair face off in a ball busting despatch of Patti Smith’s immortal classic ‘Because The Night’. The freight-train vibrancies of ‘She’s The One’ rattles along the tracks as the skies darken.
The best shot is taken with the slight rootsy folk underpinning of ‘Wrecking Ball’ and is swiftly followed by a second title track in the soul-rousing of ‘The Rising’ as the main body of the set clocks over two hours. By the time the sprightly ‘Badlands’ winds up Springsteen and his cohorts have graced the Hyde Park environs for an incredible 140 minutes. At this juncture most bands and artists have packed up and our back in their hotel. Bruce and the E Street Band aren’t most musicians however. There’s further to come!
The closing paragraphs of this evening’s performance truck along after the briefest of pauses. The freeway lifeblood of ‘Born To Run’ dances to its own rhythms as the lights of the descending jets punctuate the dour skies. This last chance power drive of teenage runaways along with ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out’ – delivered afront moving images of The E Street Band – sandwich a hat-trick off the behemoth that is ‘Born In The USA’.
American tales of teenage passions (‘Bobby Jean’) light up the capital’s dusk as the cameras swing across the crowd. A young lady, in a burgundy top, makes a heart shape with her hands, The Boss smiles as he ravenously feeds off the crowd’s vibrancy. The nostalgic reflections of hometown within ‘Glory Days’ cosey up with the anthemic ‘Dancing In The Dark’ prior to a rumbustious cavorting of ‘Twist and Shout’ – originally recorded by US R&B group The Top Notes but sent into outer space by The Beatles who shook up The Isley Brother’s version – with a delectable slice of ‘La Bamba’ lobbed in for extra good measure!
As if we require any further evidence that what we have witnessed here this evening is an artist beyond extraordinary Springsteen emerges for one last time. Accompanied by just his guitar and harmonica Springsteen bids farewell with the sheer ardour of the reverent ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’. It’s a spectacular swerve ball, an unexpected finale that echoes loudly in hushed tones.
Somehow it feels like a gentle goodbye, a soulful bon voyage. I hope I’m wrong though as we’ve come down to the well this evening and we have dance and sung until our fill. Springsteen et al have truly captured the glory days leaving the thronging crowd to thread its way out of Hyde Park. We head towards the tube for what I like to imagine is our very own downbound train.
Photography by Kelly Spiller for MPM
Bruce Springsteen and The E-Street Band – Credit Dave Hogan