Bruce in Boston last month
A fleet of huge trucks is parked outside the T-Mobile Centre in downtown Kansas City. The Boss and the E Street Band are in town for the latest show of their current tour, which comes to the UK this summer with two dates in London’s Hyde Park. Inside the venue, as the place fills up there’s a low mooing sound. “Brooooooooce! Brooooooooce!”
He’s 73 and so handsome. Black T-shirt, black jeans. Sinewy and solid. Nothing sags or wobbles. A touch of silver in the hair. The punishing close-ups on the big screens can hold no fears for him. If he’s had work done it must be the best on offer.
Springsteen covers all bases. Men want to be him. Women want to sleep with him. He campaigned for Obama but here in the Midwest, he holds a stadium full of Republican voters in the palm of his hand. He’s been a multi-millionaire rock god for most of his adult life yet he can still sing about the disaffected losers in post-industrial America and not sound like a poser.
Jake Clemons, 43, the sax player who stepped into the shoes of his late uncle Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons is a no-show. He’s got Covid. “**** Covid!” shouts Bruce and the audience roars their agreement. The other eight members of the E-Street Band are all present and correct.
The show unfolds like a beautiful present – hard rock, instrumental virtuosity, changes of mood and tempo. Springsteen doesn’t talk that much, but he tells a story about his friend George Theiss, who had invited a 15-year-old Bruce to join his band, the Castiles – they performed together from 1965 to 1968.
“George was dating my sister,” he says. Theiss died of lung cancer in 2018, aged 68, causing Springsteen to reflect that he was the Last Man Standing from that Sixties band. He plays the song of that name acoustically with only a single trumpet solo. It’s very moving.
There are other nods to mortality. After all, we’ve been with Bruce for decades. When he sings Thunder Road he emphasises the line, “Maybe we ain’t that young anymore.” The audience picks up the poignancy. They love it and him.
Alongside saxophonist Jake Clemons
My all-time favourite Bruce song is Candy’s Room from the 1978 Darkness On The Edge Of Town album. I recognise the distinctive drum opening in a second. He doesn’t muck around with his songs (Bob Dylan style) to keep the audience guessing. Each track sounds like you want it to sound. And here comes Roy Bittan’s piano with that bright, bell-like anthemic sound which is so distinctive.
How does Springsteen do it? How does that voice keep going? How many personal trainers do you need to keep your body in shape for this kind of punishment? It’s a three-hour show of intense physicality, his head sometimes shaking at the mic as though he’s worrying a bone.
He and Steve Van Zandt (in that familiar piratical headscarf) do their brothers-in-rock schtick while the big screens capture Bruce’s on-stage flirtation with his wife Patti Scialfa on guitar and fiddle. So cute. (So jealous!)
He does an intense, urgent cover of Because The Night, which he wrote with Patti Smith and which first appeared on her Easter album in 1978. We know that towards the end we’ll get Dancing In The Dark and that I’ll be invited up to dance with him. (In my dreams).
He seems timeless, although of course we know he’s old because he tells us. It was the core of his award-winning Springsteen On Broadway one-man show. And mortality forms the crux of his songs on his 2020 Letter To You album, with song titles like Ghosts and I’ll See You In My Dreams.
Last year the New Jersey-born star told Howard Stern that time was running out for his now legendary three-hour marathon arena shows. Luckily not yet though. He plays Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh in May, Birmingham’s Villa Park in June, and London’s Hyde Park twice in July.
Springsteen will play to 210,585 people in four UK dates. Giving his all every night, just as he does here in Missouri.
He performs 27 songs from a recording career spanning half a century. The set is bookended by No Surrender and the aforementioned I’ll See You In My Dreams, including classic numbers like Badlands, Glory Days, The Promised Land and Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out from his 1975 breakthrough third album Born To Run.
Bruce also includes his version of the Commodores’ Night Shift from his hit 2022 soul covers album Only The Strong Survive.
He leaves the stage towards the finale to walk among his people, beads of sweat pouring down that tanned forehead. They extend hands imploringly and he gives them five. Swaggering but self-aware, arrogant but genial – the man everyone wants.
A stadium show takes you out of yourself, makes you feel good to be alive. Springsteen is both shaman and showman. And he does it every time. He’s done it for nearly half a century.
Bruce performing with Steve back in 1980
I miss a lot of people …but it’s just part of life and we carry on
He has a face that could have been carved out of stone. So craggy it belongs on a rock and roll Mount Rushmore alongside Chuck Berry, Elvis and Little Richard.
Bruce Springsteen has established himself as both rock’s most dynamic stage performer and America’s leading contemporary folk poet.
Born, as the song says, in the USA – Long Branch, New Jersey, to be precise – his songs have always celebrated the lives and aspirations of blue-collar Americans. Bruce sings about cars, friendship, work, love, escape and the spirit of his people.
His 1978 album Darkness On The Edge Of Town channelled John Steinbeck’s Great Depression novel, The Grapes Of Wrath.
His 2002 album The Rising was his fierce response to the atrocity of 9/11, a requiem for the lost and a heartfelt tribute to the resilience and heroism of New York’s firemen and rescue workers.
Springsteen’s background was humble. His father was an army veteran and bus driver; his mother Adele, the main breadwinner was a legal secretary.
His 1998 song The Wish paid tribute to her, opening with a verse about her buying him his first guitar.
The star in 1984
Young Bruce attended local Catholic school Saint Rose of Lema in Freehold, New Jersey – he played an acoustic benefit show for them in 1996, dedicating his song The Ghost Of Tom Joad to his old fifth grade teacher, Sister Charles Marie.
Even now with an estimated worth of £500million, The Boss is most comfortable in jeans and a plaid shirt. An everyman for everyone.
His legendary E Street Band includes Little Stevie, aka “Miami Steve” Van Zandt who found another level of fame playing mob consigliere Silvio Dante, the owner of the Bada Bing club.
Bruce split from his first wife, actress Julianne Phillips in 1988 after just three years.
He married E Street Band guitarist and singer, Patti Scialfa, an old friend, in 1991. The couple, who have three grown-up children, live on a 400-acre horse farm in New Jersey, a place he had biked past for decades. “I’d look down its beautiful lane and often thought…someday…”
In recent years, Bruce has branched out. He had a four-year residency in New York with the Emmy-winning Springsteen On Broadway between 2017 and 2021. And he made his directing debut with his 2019 feature-length film, Western Stars, which spliced old performance footage with interviews.
He called it “a meditation” on his life.
Age is very much on the mind of this warm-hearted star, especially as those close to him pass away – his father in 2011, band members organist Danny Federici and the great Clarence Clemons.
“I miss a lot of people,” he said recently. “It’s just a part of life, but it registers on you and finds its way into your work, as it should do.
“And we carry on.”