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.”

“The older you get, the more it means” – Wrecking Ball Tour Finale, Kilkenny Night 2, July 28, 2013

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Bruce seemed particularly focused at the start of the show, saying very little to the crowd as he ran through the first eight songs. It would be very interesting to see the planned setlist as Bruce was calling off each of the songs to the band. They may not have all been audibles per se, but perhaps were the planned songs shifted around in order. “My Love Will Not Let You Down” into “Badlands” worked extremely well and provided an early demonstration to Bruce that he had a great crowd down front for the finale.

We Take Care of Our Own was restored to its rightful place at the beginning of the show as Bruce brought things full circle by bringing back this key new song at the end of the tour.

“Adam Raised a Cain” signaled that tonight wouldn’t be a “Darkness show,” and also that Bruce wasn’t planning on leaving anything behind on stage, as he turned in a couple of ferocious solos, and even started adding extra guitar licks between lines near the end of the song.

“American Skin (41 Shots)” was as powerful now as it was when it debuted this tour in Tampa, with Bruce’s solo only overshadowed by the song’s coda, with Nils soloing on guitar, Jake on saxophone, Bruce singing the “you can get killed just for living in” line, and the crowd singing the “41 shots” refrain.

Bruce’s first introduction of a song was when he called for “Wrecking Ball,” noting that “we gotta do this one, it’s what the tour’s all about.” He was significantly more chatty during “Spirit in the Night,” asking everyone “are you ready for the last dance?” before turning a bit more philosophical, saying “there is a weight, a cumulative weight that every night you play, at the end of the tour, weighs upon you, and I see so many of you who have been at so many shows — and I know there is a cumulative weight from just watching this motherfucker so many times, but it’s a good weight.  And I want to thank you for carrying us on so many nights.”

When Bruce started “The River,” he mumbled something about “having debts to pay with the next four songs” and it wasn’t quite clear what he was referring to at the time, as Bruce made a dedication before song, but with no additional explication.

But then, when he came down to the front platform to retrieve the “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” sign, it was understood that he chose the final show of the tour to reward his regulars with the songs that they had been requesting all tour.

The Wild Billy sign had been to twenty-seven different cities, and Bruce had great fun reading them all. He remembered that he had taken the sign several times before without playing it, and somehow the sign kept coming back. Clark played the tuba part, Roy on accordion, Steve on mandolin, and Bruce and Nils on acoustic guitars. Everett even had the crash cymbal part covered after “the 95…96…97!” lyric.

The theme continued with Bruce retrieving a “Man at the Top” sign, this time noting all the tape holding the sign together as a reference point for all the shows it had been to. The arrangement on this song was nothing short of brilliant, with Bruce finding new ways to use the band. The singers – Curtis, Cindy, Michelle and Everett – lined up stage left but then Bruce also had the entire horn section gathered around Nils stage right to add vocals as well.

The third tour premiere was “When You Walk in the Room,” with Bruce playing the twelve-string electric guitar and Charlie shining on the keyboard part. The three premieres were the only “requests” granted all night, and each were obviously well rehearsed and planned; Bruce really was “all paid up” at this point.

The Born to Run album performance was dedicated to Jimmy Iovine, in attendance at the show, with Bruce recalling a “skinny Italian kid” at the recording studio and being unsure if Iovine “really knew what he was doing.” My preference was that Bruce would have avoided a full-album performance at the last show, but it was good to see the full-band version of “Thunder Road” make one final appearance on tour, and with “Tenth Avenue” and “Born to Run” going to make the setlist regardless of the album choice, there wasn’t too much unnecessary redundancy from recent shows.

It should also be noted that band’s playing on the album segment was excellent, including, particularly on “Backstreets” and “Meeting Across the River.” And yes, during “Jungleland,” a soft summer rain did indeed start falling, ending shortly after the song ended.

Earlier in the tour, I had heard a third-hand report that Bruce was not a particular fan of “Ain’t Good Enough For You,” as possible explanation as to why it was played so infrequently, despite being requested so often. Tonight could be some corroboration of that theory, because if there was ever a show to play the song, it would presumably be the show where Mr. Iovine is actually in the house.

It has been stated here multiple times that “Ain’t Good Enough For You” would be a worthy alternate for “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” in the Wrecking Ball tour shows. It never happened, but at least for this final show, Bruce actually dropped “Sunny Day” from the set. In some ways, this was perhaps the biggest surprise of the night.

At the start of the encore, Bruce took the unusual step of gathering the entire band in a huddle at the center of the stage, which I suppose let to expectations of something out of the ordinary, rather than several of the hits from Born in the U.S.A. Tonight, “Dancing in the Dark” was particularly notable, as Bruce brought all of the horns and singers down to the front of the stage. The horn players were already there, having come up for “Seven Nights to Rock,” and Bruce stopped them from returning to the riser at the back of the stage after “Dancing” started. Up at the front, along with the singers, they got to show off their self-choreographed dance moves for the entire crowd one last time. Watching the two sections at the back of the stage is always great fun, and I found it quite meaningful that Bruce wanted to show off that fun aspect of his band one last time as well.

“After a and a half, and 130 shows….you know you make me wanna Shout!” was the introduction to the Isley Brothers number that has worked so well as a finale song this tour. Bruce started his usual introduction of the band – “earth shocking, booty-quaking, history-making” which was itself quite amusing, as so many of the fans can now do the same introduction along with Bruce simply by memory. Yet after finishing, Bruce continued – we want to salute, the “ticket-seeking, hotel-booking, money-juggling, plane-taking, train-riding, queue-forming, tramp-meeting, feet-throbbing, back-breaking, burger-eating, rain-enduring, music-loving, Boss-following…E Street Fans!, as all of the band members went up to the microphones to shout the last line. The list Bruce read was from one of the truly great fan-made t-shirts and it was quite touching that he chose to incorporate it with the band introduction.

Bruce retrieved an acoustic guitar from Kevin to start “This Little Light of Mine” but either in the guitar transfer or the start of his strumming, he appeared to tear a fingernail, which he then finished ripping off with his teeth and kept going, despite the blood now dripping from his finger.

As the band exited the stage, it was clear that Bruce was going to do an acoustic performance to close the show, despite his injury. Coming to the microphone he seemed at a genuine loss for words, noting “I don’t know what to say. I’ve been doing this – next July, for 50 years. Feel like I just started! I’ve got another 50 in me! “

He continued: “The older you get, the more it means. I’ve enjoyed this tour, I think – even losing so many people that were so close to us – this tour has just been really wonderful to us. He thanked the E Street Band, the crew, Jon Landau and Barbara Carr and repeated his thought again: “the older you get, the more it means.”

It should come as no surprise to readers here that I heartily endorsed Bruce’s choice of “This Hard Land” as the final song of the night. Bruce was getting visibly choked up during the third verse. In the final verse – the one Bruce has identified as one of his favorites, and the one that gives title to this site – Bruce slowed down, and stopped strumming has he allowed the crowd to shout back to him: “stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive!”

His final words, finishing the song: “Until we meet again!” and then, before he left the stage: “be good to yourselves.”

Kilkenny, Night 1, July 27, 2013

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Given how the Wrecking Ball tour has progressed, it was certainly very surprising to see the Born in the U.S.A. album get played again.  I would hardly presume to compare an arena show such as Leeds – or even a small stadium show such as Cardiff – to a Kilkenny stadium show.  Comparing Limerick, Cork or Belfast certainly seems fair, however, and tonight’s setlist compares quite unfavorably to any of those shows.

As stated here before, setting aside any general dislike of the gimmick that is full-album shows, there’s not anything specifically wrong with Born in the U.S.A.; from top to bottom, it’s certainly one of Bruce’s most consistent records, and if no doubt serves as the crowd-pleaser.  What remains frustrating about the shows where this album is featured is that Bruce takes such a strange approach to the setlist surrounding it.  It’s as if he goes on auto-pilot and can’t realize that when playing the album full of hits, he can and should use the balance of the set for more challenging material.

Of course “Badlands” and “Out in the Street” is a great way to open a show.  But if the set is already guaranteed to contain a run of hits in the middle, it would be appropriate to try something less familiar at the top of the show, when Bruce has the audience’s attention simply because it’s the very beginning of the show and everyone’s excited.

The covers granted by sign request were great fun.  Yes, the performance might have been a little sloppy, but it hardly detracted from them.  They’re both personal favorites and I was thrilled that Bruce played “Shake” and “Sweet Soul Music.”  Looking at them objectively, though, it is obvious that they were misplaced in the show.  Those songs are exactly the sort of thing that should be saved for the encore, particularly when the Born in the U.S.A. hit singles are being played in the main set.  There was no reason Bruce couldn’t simply have taken the signs and deferred playing them until the encore; he’s certainly done that numerous times before.

if anything, tonight’s show simply sets hopes higher for Sunday.  It would be a fair expectation that Bruce keeps the repeated songs to the absolute minimum (Wrecking Ball songs, “Born to Run,” “Tenth Avenue,” “Badlands,” and “Dancing in the Dark”) and sends the tour off with a worthy finale.

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Hard Rock Calling, London, June 30, 2013

Reports on the show can be found at Backstreets and Brucespringsteen.net.

Playing “Born in the USA” for a festival crowd is a logical move, and Bruce was clearly focusing on his three British shows as a set, as he had done “Darkness” in Wembley and “Born to Run” in Coventry.

The lack of imagination necessary to choose to full album performances is well-documented here and need not be repeated. These issues notwithstanding, playing “Born in the USA” on consecutive nights was not an error on Bruce’s part, and while my personal preference is for something different, it seemed clear that a majority of his paying customers were happy with the choice.

The issue with London’s show was that the actual performance of the material was severely lacking. Paris may have been a completely unadventurous setlist but there was little complaint as to how well those songs were played.

London, conversely, did have a few different choices for the set surrounding the album but the performance as a whole was simply not up to the standard that is reasonably expected from an E Street Band show.

“Reason to Believe,” for example, was a more challenging choice for a festival audience, but never got the chance to work as Bruce and the band were out of sync for the entire song. If Bruce is going to leave his setlist variety to the whims of the signs he sees down front, these results can be expected. Additional time spent on pre-show rehearsals during soundcheck is clearly warranted; the benefits of which can clearly be heard in, for example, “Save My Love” from Wembley two weeks ago, or the version of “Long Time Comin’” from Coventry.

With only thirteen shows left on the European leg, there are still plenty of opportunities for Bruce to finish out the tour strongly. It would seem logical that one of the remaining German shows will get “Born to Run” (“USA” having been done in Munich), and the prediction here is that the Limerick, Cork and Belfast shows will each get one of the three albums being done on the tour. That leaves wide open the possibility for some special shows before the end of the month, including, in particular, the arena show in Leeds and the two final nights in Kilkenny.

Paris, Stade de France, June 29, 2013

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I wrote a “Notes from the Road” column for Brucespringsteen.net (can be found at: http://brucespringsteen.net/news/2013/notes-from-the-road-paris ) which I won’t repeat here.

Judging by the reaction when Bruce announced the predictable choice of the “Born in the USA” album, a large part of the crowd was probably quite happy with the setlist. Then again, that can be expected when Bruce reduces his show to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

This was a disappointing show, as it underscores the big issue with this part of the tour: Bruce has run out of ideas, and he is falling back on full-album performances as he is not willing to try something else. If given the opportunity, I would be quite curious to hear from Bruce whether he is performing the albums because he wants to or if he thinks the fans want them.

Yes, this show was in a large stadium on a Saturday night (by Bruce’s choosing, of course) and he certainly should be playing material that can appeal to the crowd as a whole. The entire Born in the U.S.A. fully addresses that need. To add schlock such as “American Land” and “Pay Me My Money Down” (together with the indestructible “Waiting on a Sunny Day”) is simply unbelievable.

At the end of the show, prior to playing “Thunder Road,” Bruce took special note to thank his repeat customers , saying “I want to thank you guys who we see at so many shows.” The juxtaposition between that and a setlist where he couldn’t even be bothered to try moving slightly outside of his safest (a three minute version of “Lucille” doesn’t count), easiest and most over-played repertoire is inexplicable.

Not every show can be a Gijon or Tuku with several choice requests and an ambitious setlist. But certainly there can be a middle ground somewhere in which Bruce makes at least a minimal effort at challenging his audience, presenting a show that addresses his current music and does not simply rehash past glories.

Gijon, Estadio El Molinón, June 26, 2013

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I reviewed this show for Backstreets; review can be found there.

Gijon was one of my favorite shows on the tour, in large part due to several excellent choices on the setlist.  With songs from Magic, The Promise and Lucky Town, we almost hit the “missing albums” superfecta; if only something from Tunnel of Love had made it as well.

It wasn’t quite a perfect set though, as the flow of the show was occasionally uneven.  It was as if Bruce had all of the right songs, but just didn’t quite have them in the right order: “Radio Nowhere” should have been at the top of the show (not the encore) and instead “Travelin’ Band” should have been in the encore.  “Ain’t Good Enough For You” was slightly miscast in the start of the show, and of course should have replaced “Sunny Day” instead.  “Rosalita” could have worked better in the encore (or even after “Light of Day”).

It made sense that Bruce would bring back “Jack of All Trades” for Spain, but it was a shame that he elected to skip “Rocky Ground,” planned to open the encore.  I find it encouraging that he would consider playing the song again but it remains baffling that he’s unwilling to take a risk with anything other than the first slot of the encores.  He stuck “Rocky Ground” between “Tenth Avenue” and the final song of the night in Dublin last summer, and it worked quite well there; it would have worked well there again in Gijon.

One of the great joys of this show was seeing how Bruce reacted once he took the “Ain’t Good Enough For You” sign and cued the band to start, with him doing a double-take as the crowd was singing the melody back louder than the band was playing.  Of course, it really shouldn’t be a surprise to Bruce anymore that the audience reacts so well to this song — they did so in Oslo, and in Turku, and now in Gijon as well.

“You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” was a surprise, and it was a treat to see Bruce and Stevie clowning around, but also to see the reaction of Garry, who was clearly enamored of the audible choice and was grinning and hopping along as he played.

It was mentioned in the Backstreets report but it bears repeating that Steve had a very good night – his fierce solo in “Light of Day” that was unearthed in London reappeared and he had as much fun with “Rosalita” as I can remember seeing all tour.

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Springsteen in Stockholm, Night 3, Friends Arena, May 11

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I reviewed this show for Backstreets. Report can be found there.

There is no immutable requirement that the final Springsteen show of a multi-night stand be the best of that stand. Yet, by the final night of a stand, one can at least have the reasonable expectation that the setlist will be, at a minimum, changed and varied.

Saturday’s show was plain baffling, given that the songs “surrounding” the album performance were almost all repeats from earlier in the stand (“Cadillac Ranch,” “Raise Your Hand” and “Rosalita” were the exceptions).

Once one takes into consideration what was played in the two Oslo and two Turku shows, the events in Stockholm become more frustrating. Bruce has ready and at his disposal plenty of alternatives rather than playing “The Rising,” “Sunny Day,” “Out in the Street,” “Twist and Shout,” “Thunder Road,” and “The Promised Land” yet again.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with playing any of those songs (“Sunny Day” excepted). It’s just that they had all already been covered earlier in Stockholm. There’s no need for Bruce to default to these regular crowd-pleasers when he is already essentially performing an encore in the main set. If there was ever a night to skip those songs, this was it!

If “Born in the USA” comprises song numbers 7-18 of the set, then Bruce owes it to the audience to try something a bit more challenging in those first seven spaces, or in the ones that follow.

I can fully admit that the full-band version of “Real World” with horns and singers that I hear in my head is not likely to be played, and neither is much of the “Tunnel of Love” album. There is still plenty, however, that Bruce reasonably can and should be doing to his setlists to keep them fresh, interesting and relevant. Full-album performances is not one of those things.

I remain disappointed that Bruce thinks that performing “album” shows is either the best way to thank his fans, or the best way to do something “new” with his show. As he proved to everyone in Turku, neither of those things are true.