Friday, 5 April 2013

After Springsteen, Hanging Rock is reborn.

Hanging Rock is one of the best examples in the world of a volcanic feature known as a mamelon, which occurs when magma gets squeezed in a volcano, hardens, and becomes exposed over millions of years as the earth around it falls away. It's found in the Macedon Ranges of Victoria, about 70 kms northeast of Melbourne. It was made famous in a 1967 Australian mystery novel called Picnic at Hanging Rock, which was set in 1900 and told the tale of a group of girls from a prestigious girls' school gone missing. It was made into a film of the same name in 1975 that received international acclaim. While most Aussies would recognise the term 'Hanging Rock' from either of these cultural landmarks, they'd have a hard time finding it on a map, or describing it in detail.

Hanging Rock
This past weekend, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band re-baptised Hanging Rock. It's now forever associated with a pair of rock and roll 'spectaculars' (Bruce's word) played beneath starry skies to over 35,000 people that will echo in the ancient stones and rocky forests of the Macedon Ranges for many a moon.

The Hanging Rock concerts concluded Springsteens's 10-show Wrecking Ball 2013 tour of Australia's east coast. (At the finale at Rod Laver Arena he gave a shout-out to fans from Perth who'd traveled across the continent to see him, acknowledging the west coast city's disappointment at not being included on this overdue visit from Springsteen & Co.) The Hanging Rock shows followed a pattern set at the tour's start in Brisbane: a 'standard' setlist for show #1, followed by more adventurous setlists at subsequent shows at the same venue. 

Both shows included opening sets by young rockers The Rubens and Aussie icon Jimmy Barnes. The Rubens were predictably flabbergasted at being asked to open for two huge names but played with confidence. 'Barnesy' ran through a greatest hits set on Saturday but slowed it down and seemed more at ease on Sunday.
'Barnsey' gets fans on their feet. Or was it the booze?
In the rear section of GA where I was watching, fans were singing and dancing along to Barnes and former Cold Chisel bandmate Ian Moss, who joined Barnes onstage for the bulk of his nearly 90 minute set. Like the day before under threatening skies, fans had also been pounding bottles of wine and cans of beer and mixed spirits for several hours under a warm sun. Let's call it a combination of factors that got people interested in what was coming from the stage, rather than out of a bottle or can.

In between acts came self-congratulatory pronouncements from promoter Michael Gudinski. Yes, they said it couldn't be done. Yes, it was all a fantasy come true. Promoters are like owners of sports teams who speak at celebratory parades. They may be big cheeses in the board room and sign checks made out to superstars, but among fans they're just non-athletes no one wants to see anywhere near a field, court or microphone. Leave it to others to sing your praises, Mr Gudinski. Otherwise you sound like a self-important ass hat.

I was laid low by a wicked virus (that continues to kick my ass) and was forced to sip homemade ginger tea instead of a customary pre-show beer or two on both Saturday and Sunday. So it was admittedly through exceptionally sober eyes that I took in the surroundings, and both days reminded me how after seven years of living here I'm still gobsmacked by the quantities of booze Aussies consume. In a gyrating, blurry-eyed mass of several thousand inebriated Barnsey fans I wrote this in my notepad:
People don't grow out of bad drinking behaviour. They just get worse at it.
'Badlands' opening Saturday night.
Springsteen hit the stage at exactly 7:00 on Saturday, about 7:15 on Sunday. We don't begin daylight savings time until this coming weekend so there was ample lingering light at the beginning of both shows. Seemed perfectly natural for Saturday's 'Badlands', which Bruce typically performs with the house lights up, but it was odd for a dark, brooding song like 'Adam Raised a Cain' on Sunday. As I've mentioned previously on this blog, Darkness on the Edge of Town is unexplored territory for the great majority of Australian Springsteen 'fans', so the crowd outside of those standing in GA was largely uninspired by the openings of both shows. On Sunday, any and all peripheral awareness of lighting -- natural or otherwise -- disappeared when Bruce followed 'Cain' with 'Candy's Room', a thumping 'She's the One' and magnificent 'Something in the Night'. As I wrote previously, this signaled not only that Sunday was going to be vastly different from Saturday set-wise, but that a special night was brewing.

'Adam Raised a Cain' on Sunday.
Throughout the Oz tour it was intriguing to see which of Springsteen's sidemen got which guitar solos. The second and third songs of Saturday's show provided ample opportunity for long-term 'new guy' Nils Lofgren and temporary new guy Tom Morello to make Bruce feel 'blessed' to be between such greatness, as he gleefully told the audience during Sunday's encores. Nils took the 'Prove It All Night' solo and, after walking to Morello's side of the stage, ended it by playing with his teeth, something the Nightwatchman had made a part of his 'High Hopes' performance throughout the tour. All three laughed afterwards, indicating Nils had surprised Bruce and Tom with his mimicry. 'High Hopes' followed, and for the first time since it was played in Brisbane on opening night, Tom didn't raise his guitar to his face during the song's solo.

Both shows followed with a five-song foundation that was common throughout the tour: 'We Take Care of Our Own', 'Wrecking Ball', 'Death to My Hometown', 'Hungry Heart' and 'Spirit in the Night'. 'We Take Care of Our Own' was the first song played on opening night in Brisbane, and it was interesting to watch it go from a Tom-dominated song to a two-guitar assault with Nils.
'Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack ...'
'Wrecking Ball' remained one of Springsteen's more fascinating songs, written to commemorate the final concerts at Giants Stadium in October 2009 but which has grown into the basis for a remarkable album and tour. This tour's 5-piece horn section launched the song from a quiet start and sent audiences -- more accurately, GA audiences -- into a frenzy. It led perfectly into the Celtic snarl and militarism of 'Death to My Hometown', a song no doubt inflamed by Tom Morello's passion for social justice. It was no surprise to learn percussionist Everett Bradley once earned a Grammy nomination for his work with Stomp, as his place on stage with a drum strapped across his waist was one of the defining images of this tour.

And then came 'Hungry Heart' and 'Spirit in the Night'. Two long-time staples from different eras, both with meaningful roles on most nights of the tour. 'Hungry Heart' served as crowd-surfing soundtrack almost every night ('Out in the Street' was the standby) and Saturday was no different.

'So we closed our eyes and said goodbye ...'
Watching from just behind GA the crowd gasped as Bruce dipped from atop the throng passing him to the stage. When he was upright Springsteen immediately pointed into the GA crowd and asked repeatedly, 'Are you alright?' Someone must have went down as Bruce passed overhead. I only point this out because he eschewed crowd surfing Sunday night and I wonder if there was a correlation.

One of the most telling moments at the tour opener in Brisbane was when Bruce prefaced 'Spirit in the Night' with the usual 'I got just one question for ya' spiel.

'Does anyone know what that question is?'

Silence. Complete silence.


It was surreal. Perhaps it was that lack of participation that led to the 'your ass is gonna talk to your brain and tell you to get up' routine he debuted in Sydney. By Hanging Rock, thankfully, audiences knew Springsteen's query was 'Can you feel the spirit?' and responded with the customary, 'Yeah .... YEAH'. On the legendary '78 tour Bruce and Clarence Clemons would storm the floor of whatever club they were destroying during 'Spirit' and play as far from the stage as their cords would let them. I thought Springsteen brilliantly used 'Spirit' to introduce Jake 'Kid' Clemons to Australian crowds that hadn't seen the E Street Band since 2003 and perhaps weren't aware of the Big Man's passing in 2011.

After the song on Saturday, Bruce plucked a sign that read 'The River' from the crowd, placed it against his mic stand, breathed into his harmonica, and began a flawless version of the 33-year-old tearjerker. That's not hyperbole. Every song on Saturday night sounded as good as at any Springsteen show I've ever attended, both here and in North America. Perfect acoustics, crisp air, musicians at the top of their respective games -- it all resulted in a phenomenal sounding show.
Max facing off during 'E Street Shuffle'

The Sunday show took a much different turn after 'Spirit'. Bruce kicked off the joyful guitar of 'E Street Shuffle' and whipped the band into a sprinter's gallop. The horn section came down from the top of the stage and Max Weinberg faced off against Everett Bradley in a percussionist's fantasy, just like they did on opening night in Brisbane, but now with an incomparable fervor. I've previously described in detail my warts-and-all reaction to the next song, 'Incident on 57th Street'. Read it and weep.

Bruce brought Barnes out on both nights to duet on 'Tougher than the Rest', a Tunnel of Love stalwart with room for the 57-year-old to croon and squawk in equal measure around Springsteen's subdued vocals. A stellar 'Atlantic City' and 'Johnny 99' made for a rare Nebraska twosome on Saturday, followed by the final 'Pay Me My Money Down' of the Oz tour. I heard its debut at the first Sydney show when Bruce used it to coax Aussies from their seats. The layout at Hanging Rock meant most people stood throughout both shows, making a speech unnecessary, and freeing Bruce and the expanded E Street Band to strut and solo like a French Quarter street band.

'Because the Night' followed 'Tougher than the Rest' on Sunday. Call me sentimental, but as I attended Sunday's show without my wife and felt her absence doubly during this Darkness-era scorcher, I wondered if Springsteen's heart was more into it because of Patti's absence on this short visit to the antipodes. Probably not, as Springsteen is a grizzled pro who's spent a good portion of his life on the road, but I know how it feels to be on the other side of the planet from your girl. It blows. 'Jackson Cage' was a shocking followup, Bruce taking a small sign from a guy in GA he said had been flashing it 'for weeks'. I mean, 'Jackson Cage'. For an old-timer like me, who listened to The River on a battered boombox in the back of buses that drove me and my basketball teammates to away games in Morris County, NJ, 'Jackson Cage' is a small, smeared window that no one's peered through for years. As usual with obscure requests, its successful rendering fell into the hands of Max, Roy and Garry, as Bruce had the benefit of a lyrics prompter. The performance was a bit rough but impassioned. An absolute treat.

'Hey, ho, rock 'n roll, deliver me from nowhere ...'
Bob Dylan's fans are comparable to Springsteen's in the way they collect bootlegs and follow their hero from town to town and continent to continent. How does Dylan reward his fans? By performing classics in often indecipherable fashion. He says he does it to pump new life into the songs but any honest fan would say it's sacrilege to render some of the greatest songs ever written into jibberish. Springsteen also reworks certain songs, but unlike Dylan, broadens them to suit a new group of musicians or make them swing. Thus, the amazing transformation of 'Open All Night', a fan favourite off Nebraska that's chock full of wordplay about a late night ride along the NJ Turnpike set to a simple Chuck Berry riff. On the Wrecking Ball tour, 'Open All Night' became a jamboree fashioned to an 18-wheeler hauling ass past oil refineries and Bob's Big Boy and radio relay towers. A goddamned party, is what it was. All we needed was Wanda in our lap eating fried chicken while we wiped our fingers on a Texaco road map.

Both shows roared on with a foursome of 'Darlington County', 'Shackled and Drawn', 'Waitin' on a Sunny Day' and 'The Promised Land'. If the truth be told -- and I mean literal truth -- the majority of attendees to all ten shows in Australia would have preferred Springsteen play the Born in the USA album from start to finish and then do it again and then maybe a third time, rather than the glorious mix of old and new presented every night. Ask any of the many over-50 males in attendance who stood like stone until a BITUSA song was played. I did. None were pleased with my response to their inevitable 'You reckon he should have played more songs off BITUSA, mate?' They sought sympathy for being let down by what is without question the greatest traveling band of rock and soul on the planet. They weren't getting solace from me. 'Darlington County' served as an opportunity for these lost souls to harken back to fuller hairlines and smaller bellies. Maybe I'll get to that point someday. But not yet.

The 'Shackled and Drawn' hip shake.
After 'Darlington' came the really good stuff.

By the final show on Sunday, 'Shackled and Drawn' was easily one of the songs I'll miss most from the Wrecking Ball tour. It was always a thrill from wherever I was standing in GA to watch Norwood, NJ's own Cindy Mizelle slowly make her way down to the front of the stage and stand beside Bruce, literally a good lunge away. At Hanging Rock the rear screen was well placed to offer a similar view for people at the top of the hill. My non-existent voice was strained beyond its breaking point with each chorus.

Mention should be given to the extraordinary work of Soozie Tyrell. Many times throughout the tour Bruce would find himself a long way from where he was supposed to be and call out her name. Soozie would step to the middle of the stage and bow beautiful sounds from her violin, giving Bruce ample time to scamper back to his center mic. On 'Shackled and Drawn' she was invaluable, even if Cindy got the spotlight.

Bella strummin' with the Boss.
I've written before about the dueling emotions that accompanied each night's performance of 'Waitin' on a Sunny Day', but at Hanging Rock, as at every other show, those thoughts were dispersed by the chutzpah of each evening's under-14 volunteer. I discovered via Twitter that one girl was selected at both the Sydney opener and Hanging Rock finale to sing onstage and deliver the 'Come on E Street Band!' punchline. Whether deliberate or accidental, she was magnificent, and given a guitar to strum beside Bruce as the song closed out. (NOTE: I've since been informed by Bella's dad Pete via Twitter that it was pure coincidence his daughter got chosen twice. Pete says she's 'mesmerised' by him. Smart girl.) Pete is seeking photos of Bella's time in the spotlight -- if anyone reading this has any good ones, please email me ( and I'll put you in touch with him.

'The Promised Land' finished out the foursome with typical muscle. One of my proudest memories of the Wrecking Ball tour -- yes, proudest -- is the degree to which my wife got on board the Springsteen/E Street Band train. During the hour-long drive to Hanging Rock on Saturday I helped her understand the lyrics to what I deemed 'important' songs by, unfortunately for her, singing over them as they played on the car stereo. This virus was already raging in my throat so before leaving Balaclava I asked Aradhna to buy a facemask from a local pharmacy. As we headed north I put the facemask on and tore my voicebox to shreds for the sake of ED - U - CA - TION. One of the songs I enunciated and brutalised was 'Promised Land'. That memory crossed my mind on Sunday when Aradhna was back home, packing for a UK trip, and I was screaming 'Mister I ain't a boy/No I'm a man' to a star-filled sky.

Morello's 'Arm the Homeless' guitar.
'The Rising' came next on Saturday, but on Sunday we got a double shot of The Rising album with 'Lonesome Day' played before it. I wouldn't have predicted it but somehow both songs benefited from the partnership. Maybe it's memories of The Rising 2003 tour, when even Giants Stadium felt intimate but tailgating beforehand with Janine, Pete, MB, Charlie, David, Jeff, Wil, Ed E and so many others guaranteed the trip up the Turnpike from Asbury Park would be worth it. The same tour in Australia was a debacle, best described in a Sydney Morning Herald column by Bernard Zuel, but the Wrecking Ball 2013 tour took a ... yup ... wrecking ball to those memories for the many Aussie fans I got to know.

The final 'Ghost of Tom Joad' with Tom Morello followed on both nights. Much has been written about Tom's effect on the E Street Band on this Oz tour, but simply put, every night his 'Joad' solo got the attention of even the most jaded BITUSA-desiring fan. While leaving on Sunday I asked an Indian security guy what he thought of the show, and his answer was typical of those given in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne: 'The Boss is awesome. And who's that guy on guitar? Holy shit!' Best way to describe Morello's 'Joad' solo? Transcendent.

Jake reins in 'Thunder Road'
'Thunder Road' closed Saturday's main set. As Born to Run is not universally owned and/or worshipped by Aussies -- that honour goes to BITUSA -- 'Thunder Road' isn't the instantly seismic anthem it is elsewhere. On this tour it seemed to pull fans in gradually, gaining momentum with each convert, lifting collected spirits higher, until Jake signaled the song's denouement, he and Bruce scanning the crowd, admiring their handiwork. 'Badlands', which bounced around the setlist but was played every night, closed Sunday's mind-blowing main set with fist-pumping bombast.

An electric acoustic 'If I Should Fall Behind' was a shocking kickoff to Saturday's encore. Introduced as a request, the song that featured Nils, Patti, Steven and Clarence taking solo vocal turns during the reunion tour in 1999 resonated gorgeously from the Hanging Rock stage. Still, when Bruce reached the point of the Lucky Town song that Clarence would sing, I was astounded to find myself wishing he wasn't performing it at all. I don't know if the song's been a regular inclusion prior to Springsteen's arrival in Australia and, regardless, it's his prerogative to play whatever he damn well pleases but I was too flush with memories of a shared microphone and the Big Man's baritone to enjoy the song without prejudice. Luckily, the next song -- a fervent 'Because the Night' -- cleansed the proverbial palate.

Roy Bittan let loose a thrumming '80s synthesier to begin Sunday's encore with a frantically received 'Born in the USA'. After 150 minutes of music that every woman and man could relate to it was strange to be among several thousand Aussies raising their fists and shouting, 'I was born in the USA!' The power of familiarity should never be underestimated.
Before Bruce asked for 'magic hands' during 'Born to Run' ...
... and after.
'Born to Run' was up next both nights. On Sunday I wondered if it would be the last time I'd hear it played live by the E Street Band. The unofficial state song of NJ, a song that saved Springsteen's career, a song I've experienced live in so many venues, with so many friends, since I was 18 years old. Pretty big deal. 'Born to Run' is Springsteen's second-most played song on Australian radio so it worked its magic ... but still ... ya gotta hear 'Born to Run' played live in NJ at least once in your life to fully understand its power.

The last Oz dance partner.
'Glory Days' followed on Saturday while Bruce went straight into 'Dancing in the Dark' on Sunday. Nils is a guitar wizard but his backing vocals on 'Glory Days' were strained and no one comes close to filling Little Steven's alligator shoes beside a microphone with the Boss. 'Dancing' brought the usual scribbled pleas on placards but one caught Bruce's eye that he made sure was shown on the giant screen above the stage. It read something like 'I'm not young and slim and pretty / But Bruce won't you please dance with me'. Springsteen helped her to the stage and gave her a few spins. Her smile was spectacular and the kiss she planted on him at the end as radiant as sunshine on fresh snow. I'm sure it reads corny and maybe even disingenuous on screen, but in person, when you see the interplay between Springsteen and a person who's never going to forget the moment and see he's not going through the motions ... eh, I guess that's how legends are made.

Of course 'Dancing in the Dark' followed 'Glory Days' on Saturday, making 'Tenth Avenue Freeze Out' the next song on both nights. What more can be written about 'Tenth Ave'? I'll show it in photos (and yes I know it's cheating to use the big screen behind the stage but it's how I experienced these shows and what the hell, Rolling Stone bought one of my GA photos so I'm pretty goddamned happy with my variety of shots).
A photo similar to the one 'borrowed' from this blog by the Newark Star-Ledger in their report on Saturday night's show.

'The Kiss'

The dearly departed 'Phantom' Dan Federici.

Bruce worked every crowd like an amphetamine-fueled politician. Hanging Rock, despite its wide, shambolic floor layout, was no different.

Didn't notice the animation that accompanied Bruce's 'You've just seen ... the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, love-making ... le-gen-dary ... E ... Street ... Band!' until the 3rd or 4th show. I was determined to capture it. And did.

Saturday's show ended with 'Tenth Ave', but Sunday's was far from over. Bruce ran far to his left to retrieve a hand-painted 'Rosalita' sign, plopped it against his mic stand, and wham, we were off and running. 

'Hey hey hey hey hey hey hey hey hey hey hey hey hey hey hey HEY!' Note Garry pumping his fist. Good on 'im.
Bruce feigned leading the band offstage after 'Rosalita' but instead launched into 'Twist and Shout', a bar-band classic for the ultimate show-band.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band tearing up a raucous 'Twist and Shout' in the misty hours in the middle of nowhere in front of 15,000 or so people. Controlled mayhem, everywhere.
Bruce & Co. taking their final bows on Saturday night.

A photo taken seconds after Springsteen left the stage for good on Sunday night. It demonstrates better than any words the immediate deflation that followed this and every show's end. This one, of course, signaled the tour's end, but Bruce vowed to return to Australia soon. Let's hope he meant it. 

Saturday's setlist
Prove It All Night
High Hopes
We Take Care of Our Own
Wrecking Ball
Death to My Hometown
Hungry Heart
Spirit in the Night
The River
Tougher Than the Rest (w/ Jimmy Barnes)
Atlantic City
Johnny 99
Pay Me My Money Down
Darlington County
Shackled and Drawn
Waitin' on a Sunny Day
The Promised Land
The Rising
The Ghost of Tom Joad
Thunder Road
* * *
If I Should Fall Behind (solo electric)
Because the Night
Born to Run
Glory Days
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-out

Sunday's setlist
Adam Raised a Cain
Candy's Room
She's the One
Something in the Night
We Take Care of Our Own
Wrecking Ball
Death to My Hometown
Hungry Heart
Spirit in the Night
The E Street Shuffle
Incident on 57th Street
Tougher Than the Rest (w/ Jimmy Barnes)
Because the Night
Jackson Cage
Open All Night
Darlington County
Shackled and Drawn
Waitin' on a Sunny Day
The Promised Land
Lonesome Day
The Rising
The Ghost of Tom Joad
* * *
Born in the U.S.A.
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-out
Twist and Shout

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant piece of writing and awesome photos!