Monday, 18 March 2013

"Is anybody ALIVE out there?"

We all know the cry. From the reunion tour onwards it's been a rhetorical taunt used by Bruce Springsteen to raise the passion levels of packed arenas and stadiums around the globe.

On the opening night of the 2013 Australian tour, however, it would have been a perfectly reasonable question. "Seriously ... is anybody ALIVE out there? Hello? Is this thing on?"

Never before at a Springsteen show has the difference between paying customers and fans been so stark for this writer. Some people attend a show to participate; others absorb their surroundings passively, like people having their cars serviced while a TV blares garbage overhead.

My spot on the floor of the Brisbane Entertainment Centre (BEC) offered a clear, 360 degree view of a crowd I'd expected to see bursting with giddiness after waiting ten years to witness the world's greatest rock & roll showband. Instead I was continually stunned at the passivity around me while Springsteen did everything but set himself alight. He did run nearly to the back of the arena floor (above) -- in the process coming within a metre of where I'd chosen to stand after abandoning my seat -- but even repeated forays into the crowd resulted in only brief spasms of excitement. I don't pretend to have any insight into Springsteen's mind, but he couldn't have been blamed for wondering, 'What's a guy gotta do to get a goddamned PULSE around here?'

Power & the promise.
A quick disclaimer: Thursday was a night I've longed for since moving to Australia in May 2006 and will always treasure the memory of seeing him and the band on Aussie soil for the first time. The joy of smiling and singing and gyrating at a Springsteen show never fades. After fist-pumping through 'Badlands' SITTING DOWN I abandoned my seat for a standing position beside a railing that ran from GA to the floor's rear. My enjoyment of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's performance was in no way tempered by the crowd's refusal to 'feel the spirit'. Unlike mindless online rah-rahs, however, I won't sugarcoat my experience. It was a shockingly bad crowd. Bruce & Co. and especially newcomer Tom Morello were angels of rock, soul and gospel mercy Thursday night; their audience was a collection of trolls. Sadly, this Springsteen fan couldn't overlook that inescapable facet of the night's story ... but it didn't keep me from having a f*cking blast.

It's been four days since the show and I'm currently writing at my in-laws' home in the northwest suburbs of Sydney on a sunny and crisp Monday morning. The tour's second show was Saturday night in Brisbane, the reviews of which are easily found (Backstreets has been my source of all-things-Springsteen for many years). The tour moves to Sydney this evening, and I'm hopeful the international population of the harbour city will make sparks fly on E Street inside Allphones Arena (AA). Aradhna is flying from Melbourne on Wednesday and we'll see that night's show together. AA was built for the 2000 Olympics and is therefore larger than BEC -- it seats 21,000 compared to BEC's 13,500 -- and my seats for tonight's show are in the back. All we can do in this life is hope for the best .....

Roadsign around the block from Hemant's place.
I flew from Brisbane to Sydney Friday morning and then hopped on a northbound train for the NSW port city of Newcastle. The 3-hour trip took me past verdant hillsides and mist-covered lakes to the home of one of my wife's many Fijian-born uncles. Hemant moved to Newcastle 30 years ago but we became friends over sculled glasses of Fijian Bitter at one family function or the other on the Sharma family farm in Korokoro. He and I spent Friday night talking about his marital woes and how he came to be living in a small apartment, alone, a mile or so from the house where he built his dreams. We downed a few beers and wrestled with life's untelegraphed uppercuts and made peace with the demons in our guts.

Kind of like the guy from Freehold I'm following around Australia.

As noted above and in my quick and dirty post-show report after Show #1, I'm not doing song-by-song setlist breakdowns as I did in the past. Too many others do it better than I, and everyone's got their favourite source. Over the next seven Oz shows I'll provide a broader view that I hope captures bits of the experience through the eyes of someone accustomed to seeing him in Asbury Park, NYC, the Meadowlands, Philadelphia, etc.

Thursday night's weather made it a perfect night to build a joyful sweat. I briefly joined a colossal line stretching from a beer tent outside the BEC but left it to get a feel for the buzz inside. But there was no buzz. Navigating the building's low-ceilinged hallways past dreary, dour people was like creeping through a rest home. A really depressing rest home where no one ever came to visit. I ducked into an alcove to wolf down a sandwich, half-expectimg a receptionist to appear with a pile of insurance paperwork that needed completing before the doctor would see me. The night's first stroke of good fortune occurred when the people I sat beside -- a woman from the UK and a couple from Perth -- expressed similar incredulousness over the zombies among us. I wasn't alone! We happily recited Official Bruce Histories and plans for the Oz tour. Turned out their seats were just above mine on the floor, so we were able to share our mutual exasperation with flailing arms and mouthed cries of 'What the f*ck'!?' throughout the evening.


Morello's feedback kicked off 'We Take Care of Our Own' with at 8:00. Over the next three hours several Oz tour questions were answered.

How will Tom Morello's temporary membership in the E Street Band affect onstage camaraderie and, more importantly, the setlist?
Morello was a hero. I love Little Steven, loved his Southside Johnny work, loved his Disciples of Soul work, loved Silvio, love Underground Garage ... but the passion, energy and fury Morello brought to the E Street Band Thursday night has never been seen or heard before. Without Steven or Patti beside him Bruce seemed free to try new combinations, and he clearly relished standing between two rock guitar legends. Morello seems to make the band around Springsteen even more of a 'Wrecking Ball'-centric force. I've obviously not seen any previous show from this tour but can't imagine any handled the newer songs with more zeal or precision.
With four studio releases since his last tour, which recent live staples get the chop? None. It's a 'Wrecking Ball' tour. Not a single song was played from any of the releases Springsteen's put out since his last Oz tour in 2003. I hope he adds a few as Morello gets more comfortable but won't be surprised if Magic and Working on a Dream get ignored.
How does Springsteen pay tribute to the late Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons? As it's a Wrecking Ball tour, I imagine it mimicked previous shows on this tour -- during the heartbreaking silences of the roll call in 'My City of Ruins' and near the end of 'Tenth Ave'. Needless to say I was full of conflicting emotions, like everyone else torn between mourning the departed and celebrating their contributions to our lives. To me, Springsteen handles the loss of Danny and the Big Man in a way that can only be described as too good to be true. It's one of the things that separates Springsteen from some clown with a guitar and a few hit records. The man feels, and isn't afraid to force his audience to do likewise.
Does Bruce appease the crowd with a full-on 'Born in the USA'? No, but 'Hungry Heart' and 'Glory Days' were evidence of an artist giving fans what they want, even if the Brisbane crowd reacted to 'Hungry Heart' like it was an obscure b-side released only in Japan.
What will these Aussie audiences be like? Yeah, this one's the only negative. As previously noted, I'm hoping energy levels improve in Sydney, Melbourne and Hanging Rock. 'Cause they can't get no worse than Thursday night in Brisbane.
Who's that man with the microphone?

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