Thursday, July 19, 2012

Bruce Springsteen review Dublin 2012

What a show! I know I’m always saying how good Bruce is live, but seriously, this was the goods. He may not be in my top few artists (album/songs/voice wise), but not many put on anywhere as near as good a live show. Faced with an austerity-led choice between the Tuesday and Wednesday shows, I opted for Tuesday, but was then forced to switch to Wednesday (for work reasons), and boy was I glad. Even though the reviews of Tuesday were excellent, it seems Wednesday just topped the first show for those who went to both, PLUS I definitely preferred Wednesday’s setlist – he played SO many of my favourite songs (switching 16 of the previous night’s 32 song setlist!), and really just a killer show, and maybe the best Springsteen show I’ve seen (having seen him about 15 times). From the off, things looked good, we only got there at 5.30 and amazingly got a pit-wristband (the area in front of the stage limited to the first 3,000 of 30,000 fans, and settled on a nice spot about 20m from the stage in front of the right stack. Bruce came on 45 minutes late with a nice low-key acoustic ‘This Hard Land’. The only negative tone I will strike in this review relates to all this hyperbole/moaning from Bruce/band/fans/press about curfews (further to having the plug literally pulled at the London Hyde Park festival show) – my attitude is if artists were so concerned about curfews they wouldn’t come on stage 45 minutes late! That said, I take the point that it wasn’t Bruce’s fault at the London show that earlier artists ran late, and his stunt at the 1st Dublin show with the power-switch was genuinely funny. ‘Nuff said. Tonight’s show really kicked off though when the band trundled on for the 2nd song – a storming ‘No Surrender’. Right from the off it was clear this would be an excellent concert, as the sound was absolutely perfect – the typical big E-Street sound, now augmented with sparkling horns – quite incredible how tight and effortless and perfect (but not overly rehearsed or sterile) this band is - every instrument finds it’s space, with a never-better-sounding Bruce voice nicely riding on top of the music. From there it was in to some early poppier numbers, a catchy one-two of ‘Two Heart’s and ‘Ties that Bind’ before playing his latest hit ‘We Take Care of Our Own’, the first of many well received songs from ‘Wrecking Ball’, then doing ‘Badlands’ and seguing from there in to a beautiful ‘Something in the Night’, a song which nicely shows off how Bruce’s voice has matured and got more expressive over the decades. I’ll try not to mention EVERY song played – tricky due to there being absolutely NO clunkers on the night – so I’ll skip quickly by a solid bluesy ‘Adam Raised a Cain’ and on in to one of many really powerful performances of the new songs, the strong crowd reaction to this strong rendition of the title track of ‘Wrecking Ball’ quickly followed by ‘Death to My Hometown’ showing that his new album must have shifted a lot of copies in Ireland. It goes without saying that some of the themes of the album (recession, solidarity) speak loudly to an Irish audience in 2012, and the whole show struck a lovely balance between good-time rock’n’roll and a feeling of hope for better times to come for all of us. One of several big highlights for me was ‘My City of Ruins’ with Bruce’s eloquent introduction of it as being a song that has come to have several meanings, plus it’s a song that benefits incredibly from the new horn section, with a lovely New Orleans feel to it. One of my favourite latter-day Springsteen songs and a highlight of this tour. Next up was a swaggering ‘Spirit in the Night’, a fan-sign-inspired (rare) ‘Jackson Cage’, then ‘She’s the One’ (not a song I’m wild about), then ‘Jack of All Trades’ – again a very topical song for these times, followed by two huge crowd pleasers, ‘Atlantic City’ and ‘Because the Night’. Bruce has really re-taken this song back in recent years (not that there’s anything wrong with Patti Smith’s version!), and a lot of it has to do with the show-stopping Nils Lofgren guitar solo, which never fails to get a crowd to erupt. The next few songs were nothing extraordinary, but fulfilled their various objectives (‘Darlington County’, ‘Easy Money’ and ‘Waitin’ on a Sunny Day’), before the band strolled off and Bruce gave us one of the top moments of the show – a gorgeous solo piano rendition of the ultra-rare (well, prior to this tour!) ‘The Promise’. Another good reason to have chosen the Wednesday show! Just beautiful. Finally for the main set, Bruce and band gave us 3 big crowd pleasers in ‘The River’ a visceral ‘Backstreets’ (yippee, he played this instead of the over-played ‘The Rising’) and set-closing ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ – again, a song that was just crying out for some horns, and I was glad to see that the live version harkens back more to the version he debuted back in 1999 (I think?) than the slightly experimental studio version which appears on ‘Wrecking Ball’. Anyway, the night was of course, far from over, as Bruce slammed straight in to a rocking 8-song encore, kicking off with the two ‘Borns’ ( the USA, and Run), ‘Glory Days’,’ 7 Nights to Rock’, ‘Dancing in the Dark’,’ 10th Avenue Freeze Out’ (complete with lovely Clarence Clemons tribute), and then taking a slight gamble by slowing things down to play a gorgeous ‘Rocky Ground’ the ground-breaking gospel/rap/rock hybrid duet song from the recent album (I love the lyrics on this one), before cranking things up again to box off the show with Bruce’s ‘Irish-ised’ version of the Seeger penned ‘American Land’. In conclusion, life might be a bit rubbish right now for many people in the countries Bruce has visited on this tour, but for 3 hours 20 minutes last night, it was anything but. Slightly expensive tickets? Maybe, but if you look at it, it really was great value for money. After all, what a performance we got from this most energetic of 62 year olds! And in my opinion, we now have the perfect E-Street Band, a full horn section (plus the extra backing singers) really makes a difference – in some ways it’s like a composite E-Street/Seeger Sessions Band, never tighter, never more in tune with each other, and with its loyal audience. I haven’t seen that many gigs this year, and many of those I have seen were excellent, but I don’t think many 2012 shows will come close to Wed 18 July in the RDS!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Bob Dylan Berlin review 2 July 2012

Due to the generosity of a recent 40th birthday present, yesterday saw me make a whistle-stop trip from Dublin to Berlin for the 2nd show of this latest chapter of Bob Dylan's Never Ending Tour. Most legs of the N.E.T. come and go these days without much fanfare, due to the sheer number of shows he has played in the last few decades, but this one is already making a splash. Mainly for one reason! As reported yesterday on many of the world's leading music websites (Rolling Stone, Uncut etc) - Bob has decided to bring a grand piano along on this trip - and very welcome it is too, meaning he is now playing 4 instruments (5 if you include what he does with his voice!) on stage, guitar, organ, keyboard, harmonica. And in general, playing them pretty well(Dylan's musical eccentricity notwithstanding). However, the grand piano isn't the only development of note. Also of note is the sheer number of new arrangements. They were obviously busy during the 3 days rehearsals in Poughkeepsie! Ok, no major setlist surprises, other than the reintroduction of 'She Belongs To Me' after a 4 year hiatus, but some of these new arrangements are almost like new songs. Which is a good thing as far as most of us are concerned, although possibly not for the casual concert goer, nor indeed the casual concert reviewer. I go to a lot less shows than I used to, but regular (?!) readers will know I've been enthusiastic about Bob's return to the front of the stage (which he does these days for about half the show) and his renewed animation and engagement with the audience, since circa 2010. I'm glad to report all of this has been notched up yet another gear thus far on this tour. And with the prospect of the new album out in September, all really does seem to be rosy in the garden. Hell, he even had a costume change of sorts in Berlin, wearing shades and NO HAT (when was the last time he wore no hat?) for the first 4 songs, before whipping off the shades and popping on a hat for the remainder.. Last night, the animation didn't kick in properly until the 3rd song ('Leopardskin Pillbox Hat' had been the usual lively opener, and 'It Ain't Me Babe' with Bob on guitar, had been perhaps a little hesitant. But for a spell of about 6 or 7 songs from 'Things Have Changed' on, Bob was as animated as I've seen him for years. Older fans will remember that when he was in his 50s he moved like a man in his 70s, now that he's in his 70s he moves like a man in his 50s! Albeit not like any man in his 50s I've ever come across. His stage movements and expressions range from bizarre to limber, and really have to be seen to be appreciated. For anyone who's never seen him live, I strongly recommend that now is the time to do it - and get down relatively close to the front when you do. Just be prepared for eccentric arrangements and, of course, eccentric singing. But, back to the piano. He first sat down at it for 'Lovesick', and stayed at it for most of the rest of the show. It has a couple of affects on the show. Firstly, it's a welcome change from the 'circus-sound' of the Korg organ he usually plays, and has a lovely classic piano sound. Ok, so he's no Oscar Peterson, nor even Elton John, but he has a nice style all of his own, and seems to be playing in a much less percussive style than the keyboard (pre-organ) style he gave us from 2002-2006. Visually, it works too, as he doesn't just sit there, but fidgets a lot, and swivels around to engage with the audience, and band, at will. Now, let me get to some of the song highlights of the Berlin show. Vocally, he seems to have staved off the decline of the latter years of the 2000s, and has worked out a way of expressing himself in a (mostly) musically interesting way with what's left of his voice, only rarely lapsing in to ridiculous OTT phrasing. The first major rearrangement was 'Cry Awhile', Bob out-front with just harmonica and voice, a really excellent Chicago-blues type arrangement in what is now almost a trademark 'Bob-and-band' stop-start style. Anyway, it was very powerful and a reminder that Bob is just as likely to recast his recent work as his more famous older work. Next up was the biggest surprise of the night - a lovely country-ish version of 'She Belongs To Me' with a nice descending riff on the 2nd half of each line and a surprisingly prominent Donny Herron pedal steel sound. As we know Bob's N.E.T. band is always evolving it's sound slightly from tour to tour, but this arrangement took a nice step back in that it strongly reminded me of the Larry Campbell years. Maybe the best and most impactful song of the night was 'Lovesick'. As this was only the 2nd show with the grand piano, it was our turn in Berlin to hear it for the first time. A really powerful new version of this song, reminding me a little of the great 1920s sounding 'Blind Willie McTell' Bob played at the Scorsese tribute earlier this year. Old-timey in a good way. 'Levee's Gonna Break' on piano was maybe less successful, but towards the end of the song, Bob found a little riff he seemed to like and the band soon adapted and kicked in around that, and finished the song off well. 'High Water', the 2nd song ('Cry Awhile' being the other) from 2001's 'Love and Theft' album, has also been given another makeover. I really loved this one. Less overtly powerful than earlier arrangements of the song, they've given it a lighter touch - kind of bluegrassy/country-blues on it, and it really swings. 'Highway 61 Revisited' is a bit like a bus not coming, it gets the same old arrangement for years, and then we get 2 in 2 years - and this one is not bad. For me I've heard this song so many times, I can only enjoy it if they make it 'danceable' in some way, and I can focus on whatever groove the band is getting in to. And this one was certainly that, and as ever is a song the casual rock fan attendee will always want to hear. The rest of the show perhaps didn't quite reach the levels of that middle run, with a pleasant stab at 'Simple Twist of Fate', a novel (for now!) chance to see Bob play some boogie-ish piano on the likes of 'Thunder on the Mountain', the usual show-stopping 'Ballad of a Thin Man' - and by the way - any music fan who has not seen Bob do this song post 2009 or so is missing a big tick on his/her 'Rock to-do list'. 'Like a Rolling Stone' was performed much as usual, but I must say it was nice to see him play his most famous song on the instrument he wrote it on. People think of Bob as a guitar playing singer songwriter, but don't forget he also writes/wrote a large number of his songs on piano. The show closer, 'All Along the Watchtower' is yet another song to have received a re-jig, and is now much improved in my opinion - it's a faster, more urgent reading of this old warhorse, prior to a nice encore of 'Blowing in the Wind' capped with it's usual closing 'out-front' harmonica flourish. In conclusion, a really enjoyable show in the German capital with a nice atmosphere in a lovely Castle setting. Final point of note - Bob was 40 minutes late on stage (unheard of for an artist who despite a reputation for contrariness, is in many ways actually a very old-school music pro, and normally on-stage within 10 minutes of the designated time), and ironically the heavens opened and it rained pretty hard for the final 40 minutes of the show! But, who cared. A really good show in what is quite a decent period for the N.E.T. Go see one! Finally - a quick plug - please consider buying (and telling your friends about!) my short autobiographical e-book, in which I write not only about my years of going to Bob Dylan shows, but my experiences of Ireland's financial collapse, a few health battles and other cheerful topics! It's called 'Not Running Away', and is only 7 euros, available on my website Thanks.