The encore has just started. The first beat of “Born In The USA” has rung out. And something happens. It always happens at Springsteen gigs.
The lights go on.
And in that moment, right there, it stops being a “stadium” gig and becomes a shared experience. What follows for the next 40 minutes or so will not be bettered anywhere in the world, on any stage. Not just this year. Perhaps ever. That sounds like the worst sort of hyperbole, but it’s two and a half hours after the show ends and it seems right.
The E St Band follow that up with “Born To Run, then “Glory Days”, “Bobby Jean” and “Dancing In The Dark” and if that, on paper, is just a list of songs, then in practice, on stage, it was special. It was sprinkled with gold dust. The very sound of bombast, if you like. The sort of thing I’ve loved since hearing the latter in 1984 when I was nine years old.
The sort of thing, actually, that I haven’t listened to in ages, but which you don’t need to. These are songs that are with you, that are as easy company as old friends. That’s the gift of this man, this band (and my goodness there’s enough of them).
At 7.15 they’d all walked on stage, with their boss and our “The Boss” last. He doesn’t look 73. He’s a force of nature. A freak. A genius. The greatest singer-songwriter ever? Please, there’s no debate.
They’d begun with “No Surrender” before “Ghosts” – one of the newer songs – and it’s apt because the spectre of old friends, old bandmates, and old times, is never far away.
“Prove It All Night” screeches to life, and if another one of the more recent songs “Letter To You” gives way to a classic in “Promised Land” then it does so with considerable skill.
There’s a stunning, jazz-infused take on “Kitty’s Back” (sounding like it should have been on “The Seegar Sessions”) and the considerable soul this band has is underlined by the brilliant cover of “Nightshift”.
There’s a palpable hope in the air as “Mary’s Place” plays and a more modern version of “E St Shuffle” is fun. “The River” makes its tour debut, people in front of me hug and hi-five at this, before a moving “Last Man Standing” with a poignant speech before, cleverly segues into “Backstreets”.
And its around about then that you – and when I say “you” I mean “I” – realised this wasn’t a gig anymore, this was an experience, Nils Lofgren’s solo on “Because The Night” takes you there. Tonight, they are the hip shaking etc etc legendary E St Band.
Songs that are really good on record become something else live, “Wrecking Ball” isn’t this good, surely? It is here and it serves as your reminder that hard times come and go.
“The Rising” is its chest-beating best, while “Badlands” and “Thunder Road” close the set like the anthems they are.
Which is sort of where this review started, except, we haven’t discussed how Springsteen does it yet. No gimmicks, no Pyro, no giant inflatables. Stadium gigs can’t just be about songs, can they? Yes. They can. By the end of the show Preacher Bruce could have led his 35,000-strong flock to war and they’d have followed.
And yes they ham it up when they need – asking if it’s time to go home and all the rest – but this by and large is about songs. Lots of them. Played incredibly.
After “….Dark” comes “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”, glorious, fun, but also to celebrate Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons (his nephew Jake is wonderful throughout) who are ingrained in the DNA and that’s it, sort of. Because after thanking each member of the band as they walk off, Bruce is a solo folk singer, the lights go off too, for “See You In My Dreams” and it feels intimate. It’s a neat trick.
And you can psycho- analyse all you like but it feels like a goodbye like these massive rock shows might be over, whether they are only Bruce Springsteen knows.
What I’ll say for absolutely certain is there’s a very real chance that tonight we saw the greatest live performer there is. Still.