The Kilkenny Finale

Originally published on Backstreets.com

After 127 shows, the 2012-13 Wrecking Ball tour reached its final European stop this past weekend. The last shows would be played in Kilkenny, Ireland, 80 miles southwest of Dublin and the smallest town the tour would play in. In most large cities in Europe, a Bruce Springsteen concert is likely to be but one of many major events on any given night. In Kilkenny, it was everything. Every hotel in a twenty-mile radius was sold out, and one couldn’t walk three feet down the street without seeing a restaurant or bar or shop with a Bruce-themed poster in the window. The giant inflatable replica of Bruce’s Fender Esquire guitar atop one of the local pubs was particularly impressive.

A rare pairing of shows on consecutive nights in the same city (dubbed the “Wrecking Ball Weekender”), the shows were for many the final opportunity to see the band after a year and half of touring, and expectations were high. Bruce had seemed to move into “anything goes” territory when it came to his setlists, no corner of his song catalog was untouchable, and he had started to make references in recent shows to the tour coming to an end.

Of course, the T-shirts on sale at the merchandise stand listed that September date in Rio de Janeiro, and additional South American shows were literally being announced contemporaneously with the arrival of the fans in Kilkenny. No one doubts Bruce’s shows in South America will be spectacular, but playing to a new market and to many fans who hadn’t had the chance to see him before, much like Mexico City in 2012, was clearly being treated as a separate outing, with Bruce wanting to first close the loop on what he’d been doing since March of 2012.

These two nights in Kilkenny would be treated as the grand farewell: for the regular fans down front, whom Bruce really seemed to enjoy seeing on a nightly basis; for Ireland, where the band had played five different shows in four cities (a far cry from even ten years ago, when a Springsteen tour of Ireland consisted of a single night at the RDS in Dublin); and for Europe, where Bruce had played 66 shows, comprising more than half of this tour’s dates.

On night one, Bruce elected to not stray far from his standard European show, complete with a full-album performance of Born in the U.S.A. It wasn’t the adventurous set that many were expecting, but it was certainly summational. “Jack of all Trades” returned to the show, and Bruce took one last opportunity to pull signs from the crowd seeking obscure covers from the E Street Band’s past. It was, after all, a European show in 2008 where that particular feature began.

Speaking about the 1985 show at Slane Castle, which Bruce called a “huge day in [his] memory,” it was striking to think about how many people in that stadium — from casual to die-hard — first became fans due to the Born in the U.S.A. album. Nobody just starts out as a connoisseur bringing signs to shows looking to hear obscure songs from Tracks; one first has to have a first exposure to Springsteen music, and for the majority of fans, that was what the Born in the U.S.A. album did.

Back for night two, it was quickly clear that if night one was the inclusive show, the final show would be the one for the die-hards. Even “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” took a seat, the first time it had left the setlist since April of 2009. Playing the hits on Saturday freed Bruce to do what he wanted on Sunday, even if it resulted in a song sequences that likely left large swaths of the crowd befuddled.

Noting that he had “debts to pay,” Bruce granted three very specific requests for obscurities. Unlike “Shake” or “Sweet Soul Music,” from Saturday’s show, which could best described as well-intentioned messes, the requests granted on Sunday had all been carefully rehearsed and planned. Tellingly, none of the songs had been practiced at soundcheck — Bruce realizing that the element of surprise would be missing if those in the pit queue heard the songs while waiting to enter the stadium.

As in Rome, with “New York City Serenade,” and in Cork with “The Price You Pay,” and in Turku with “Wages of Sin,” the E Street Band had rehearsed in secret and away from public view, so that when that one song finally did come out, it wouldn’t just be played well — it would completely blow everyone away. The affirmation of faith for those fans who would just not give up could not have been exemplified better than the “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” sign, with Bruce reading a long list of cities the sign had been to, admitting that “in many of these other shows, I have taken this man’s sign, and I have not played the song — and he makes the same exact sign every single time!”

For both “When You Walk in the Room” and “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” the attention to detail was inspiring, from Charlie and Roy’s keyboard parts and Bruce’s rare use of a 12-string electric guitar on the former, to Clark’s tuba playing and the small touches added by Steve on mandolin and Everett on percussion on the latter.

And for “Man at the Top,” the arrangement was simply stunning. Not only was the E Street choir brought to the front of stage left, but the entire horn section came down to gather around Nils’ microphone. It was a palpably genuine moment of camaraderie among the musicians on stage, each adding a small contribution to a special performance.

The Sunday encores started straight with a reprise of hits from Born in the U.S.A., perhaps the one big disappointment of the show, as Bruce missed a final chance to address the Wrecking Ball album with either “We Are Alive” or “Rocky Ground,” his usual choices to start the encore this tour. But the reprise of “Bobby Jean” certainly worked thematically, and the encore pressed on from a horn-highlighted “Seven Nights to Rock” to “Dancing in the Dark.”

As the song started, the horn players started to retreat back to their riser but were stopped by Bruce. For this last show, he wanted them down front, performing their hilariously choreographed dance routine. No longer hidden behind Charlie and Max, at this final show, they were brought front and center for everyone to see. The singers quickly joined them on the opposite side of the stage, showing off their own set of moves as well. Just as Bruce had acknowledged the “core” E Street Band after finishing the Born to Run album performance earlier in the evening, this was his way of giving special recognition to the new faces in the band.

All that was left, as revealed during “Shout,” was for the fans to get their special recognition, in a bit that was as touching as it was ingenious: the reading of a famed t-shirt worn in many lines this tour, saluting the “ticket-seeking… hotel-booking… queue-forming… feet-throbbing… burger-eating… E Street Fans!”

With “Thunder Road” having already been played, the final song of the evening was set to be a surprise, but not before Bruce addressed the crowd one last time, thanking the band and the crew, but also briefly reflecting on how he had been “losing so many people that were so close to us.” He didn’t need to mention them; everyone knew he was talking about those in the band – Clarence and Danny – and also those from the crew who had accompanied him and supported him as he toured the world but were now gone. With each tour, someone else was missing, and with Bruce choking up during “This Hard Land,” it wasn’t hard to see him considering that when he next returns to the stage, someone else may be gone as well. And so, with the final shouts of “if you can’t make it, stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive” and Bruce’s last words of “be good to yourselves,” he bid his fans farewell, “till we meet again.”

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