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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

Bruce Springsteen, Hyde Park

Bruce Springsteen called on London to “be good to yourself and the ones you love” as he rolled back the years during a three-hour, 29 song, energy-fuelled set in Hyde Park on Thursday.

Watching him live is a joyous thing, celebrating one of rock’s great artists and the E Street Band, who have lasted more than 50 years.

Springsteen is also in remarkable shape: fit, toned and bursting with vitality. He can still toss a guitar in the air; he can still rip open his shirt to reveal a bare chest, though now the gesture comes with a wink of self-deprecation at the absurdity of it. But he does not look like a man desperate to recapture his glory days.

On the contrary, this new show of Springsteen’s looks ageing and death in the eye. His bandmates are his contemporaries and don’t hide it: the giant monitors show closeups of gnarled, veined hands on guitar strings.

The result is that you hear the rest of the songs through fresh ears. Now it doesn’t sound absurd to hear a septuagenarian singing of childhood best friends running on the “Backstreets”, or of young sweethearts “Born to Run”, itching to break free of their small town. Now the joy and exuberance of those classic songs carries the extra poignancy of reminiscence and loss. And the two sets of emotions don’t fight each other. Instead, they make each other stronger – the Glory Days only more glorious because we know they are fleeting.

On stage, the singer becomes the 26-year-old he once was, while fully remaining the 73-year-old he now is. And the magic works on the audience. Watching the show, I’m inhabiting my 13-year-old self, and the 57-year-old man I am today – and all the years in between. This is what rock’n’roll, ageing in real time and before our eyes, can do.

His own performance is astonishing, but it never looks effortless.

He seems immune to the decades that have passed since he stormed out of the gate in 1973 with his debut album Greetings From Asbury Park. The elixir of life, it seems, is blue jeans, a good-guy grin and, most importantly, a down-home attitude that belies immense success.

From the moment he and the E Street Band arrive on stage it’s a breathless race to the finish line. With a beat-up Fender guitar slung over his shoulder, Springsteen launches into the hard-won optimism of 1984’s “No Surrender” with that famous showman’s countdown – and we’re off.

As he moved through opening numbers “Ghosts”, “Prove It All Night” and “Letter To You” with barely breathing room for a “1,2,3,4”, the best live performer and his backing band brought their rock ‘n’ roll attitude to covers of the Commodore’s “Nightshift”, another lovely change of pace and “Because The Night”, written by Bruce but first recorded by Patti Smith.

It’s an evening of emotional peaks and valleys but true to Springsteen’s form, even the valleys feel joyous. The title track from his 2020 album “Letter to You” – a wistful, mid-tempo reflection on the passing of time and the loved ones who have passed with it – is the first downbeat moment of the evening. “Got down on my knees/ Grabbed my pen and bowed my head,” Springsteen croons, eyes closed, and hands clasped together in prayer, proving once again he is capable of making even the most life-weary sentiments sound life-affirming.

“By the end of the set we leave no one alive,” he sings in “Ghosts”, but really Bruce will carry us home one by one if he has to. If “Prove It All Night” is an early high, it is followed by a wonderful “The Promised Land”.

The E Street Band has always been a group effort; virtuosos who play together in that special way only long-time bandmates know how. Stylistic shorthand and onstage chemistry made possible by decades of jamming, performing, and touring.

Ever the team player, Springsteen throws the spotlight to each of his comrades in an enthusiastic roll call during a swinging 15-minute rendition of “Kitty’s Back”. Special shout-outs to Roy Bittan, generous with glissandos on the piano, and Max Weinberg with his thunderous and fastidious drums, and bassist Gary Tallent, for ever the steady backbone of the band.

Bruce is in and out of the crowd, having selfies, borrowing a fan’s hat, handing out plectrums and after “The River” giving his harmonica to a young woman.

That voice, a warm crackle like the red-hot tip of a puffed-on cigar, is all raspy heart and grizzly guts. The vocals on “Badlands” are as big, rough and ready as ever. He can still hit those high notes, though, reaching towards an angelic falsetto in fleeting moments on “The River”, “The Promised Land” and later “Glory Days”.

Midway through the show, Springsteen recalled embarking on the “greatest adventure of his life” when he joined his first band in the mid-60s alongside George Theiss, who had hired the teenage guitarist into the Castiles.

He also reflected on sitting by Theiss bedside 50 years later days before he died from cancer, saying: “I realised his passing would leave me the last living member of that first small band of guys who got together in that little house.

“Death is like you’re standing on the railroads tracks with an oncoming train bearing down upon you, but it brings a certain clarity of thought and a purpose and a meaning… Death’s final and lasting gift to all of us is an expanded vision of this life, of how important it is to seize the day whenever you can.”

He dedicated “Last Man Standing” to his late bandmate, adding: “George passed away and shortly after I wrote this song and it’s just about the passions you follow as kids, not knowing where they’re going to lead you and how at 15 its all hellos and later on there’s a lot more hard goodbyes. So be good to yourself and the ones that you love and to this world that we live in.”

The group hyped up the crowd again with dynamic renditions of “Wrecking Ball”, “The Rising” and “Badlands” and then the barnstorming “Out in the Street”, and two rockers from the “Born in the USA2 album, “Darlington County” and “Working on the Highway”.

They closed out their main set with hit “Thunder Road” from his 1975 breakthrough album “Born to Run”, Bruce still has gas in the tank left over for a final, full-tilt, flat-out encore – and then some. The band barrel through “Born in the USA”, “Born to Run”, “Bobby Jean”, “Glory Days” and “Dancing in the Dark”.

“Bobby Jean” is a wonderful moment. Roy Bittan’s piano riff yields to the glorious sax blares of Jake Clements, the nephew of the late Clarence, the original saxophone player, who leads the audience through the song’s unmistakable coda.

There’s a band workout for “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”, then, that after its euphoric climax, and with only two minutes to go, Springsteen closed his show with a touching acoustic solo of “I’ll See You in My Dreams”, a song that promised that “When all our summers have come to an end / I’ll see you in my dreams”.

The sun had set by then, and it felt like the sweetest goodbye.

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