If not for a 10 day sojourn to the UK in August, this would have been the Gig Of The Year.
I also saw the last Springsteen show at the BEC in March 2013, less than 12 months ago, and as good as that was, this was another level. For the 2013 tour I didn’t try to get a photo pass as I knew it was a sound desk shoot. Seeing the photographers in the venue last year, the positions they were given to photograph from were at the first set of steps from the stage leading up to the first level on each side of the venue, a distance from the stage but nothing like the usual BEC sound desk experience. It was nowhere as far from the stage as the last time I was at the BEC for Nikki Minaj, when it was behind the sound desk and so far away from the stage that the back of the floor area was less than 2m behind where we were stood. Finding this out was a regret but thanks to a quickly returning tour, one that I could try and rectify fairly quickly. A lot of luck was involved in getting a photo pass for the show and it was thanks to a fellow photographer who wasn’t able to shoot on the night of the show and very kindly offered to give them my name instead.
The Boss was a long-time coming for me, and I think the blame lies purely with Born In The USA era Springsteen. There’s an adage that pop music peaks for everyone between the ages of 12 and 13, which should have put those songs in prime position considering that for me those times were 1984/85. But even as a child of the 80s, there was something wrong with the double denim and the headbands that I could never get through. Along the way there were a few songs that I liked (e.g. I’m On Fire) but there was always something naff about ‘Dancing In The Dark’ and something too macho and gung ho about stuff like ‘Born In The USA’. In 1984/85 when you’ve got all these brilliant, bright and shiny pop stars in the charts, Springsteen was never going to cut it.
It actually took decades for Springsteen to make his mark and ever since I’ve been pondering how on earth it managed to take that long. The difference was coming to Australia and driving around Australia. When I was on my one year Working Holiday visa and living in Newtown, I ended up buying a 3 CD set of the Essential Bruce Springsteen; the first CD covered 1973 (Greetings From Asbury Park) to 1982 (Nebraska), the second CD from 1984 (Born In The USA) to 2002 (The Rising) and third CD of rarities and unreleased tracks. I don’t know the exact reason for buying it but I’m guessing price played a big part. For the whole time I’ve lived here, buying music in Australia outside of places like Dirt Cheap CDs (RIP) has always been a ridiculously expensive past time and a 3 CD collection for $10 would have no doubt appealed to my limited funds and another attempt to try to understand what the big deal was.
Normally the way it works is that the longer you spend listening to an album, the more it grows on you. Although I have a number of Springsteen albums on vinyl, bought during those times when vinyl was heading towards complete obsolescence and you could pick up albums for a pound or two, they never bridged the gap between a cheap listen and an essential album for the long-term. Much of this was probably due to just how many albums I would buy at various markets, second hand record stores and charity shops during those times and buying way more than I could ever hope to properly take in. Two things made the difference this time around: the first was the paucity of music that I had to listen to in that working holiday visa year in Sydney. The other reason, the far more critical was that I drove around a fair chunk of Australia with that 3 CD collection forming a large part of a limited soundtrack. Driving across the Nullarbor and back, the big open spaces of Western Australia, the endless open road, heading into the sunset on the long drive to the west, scrubland as far as the eye could see, truck stops for breakfast, lunch and dinner, all those one horse towns dotted all over Australia, it was the perfect soundtrack. Context is everything and so many of the songs on those CDs, made far more sense driving across the desert than they ever did listening to them in my bedrooms in Devon or in London. Blue collar workers down on their luck, the longing for escape to a better life, the darkness on the edge of town; those themes don’t translate as well to a small, urbanised country like the UK as they do to countries like a hot, dry, dusty Australia where you can drive hundreds of miles without seeing another car, let alone anything like a building, and where you’re haunted by the stench of rotting road kill in the midday sun. Despite coming to that conclusion, the one memory from that drive was how on earth it had taken that long for me to finally ‘get’ Springsteen. From that time I’ve been totally hooked, some might say obsessed.
I like to think that my bucket list of people I want to photograph isn’t too extravagant and I’ve been lucky to photograph most of the acts I’ve really wanted to. The only ones I can think I’ve missed out on have been U2 and The Who. Given that my music photography ‘career’ is slowly winding down, I don’t think that rectifying the omissions is going to happen. Standing on the stairs with camera bag and my tour photo pass stuck to my front, waiting for the show to start, is a thrilling moment. I think the last time I was this excited at getting to photograph someone might have been Iron Maiden when they played Soundwave. The stairs aren’t as far from the stage as the sound desk but it’s still quite a long way, it’s such a shame that there’s no pit access but there never is for any of his shows these days and most of them are from the sound desks.
There’s always going to be an issue, one way or the other, and when the show starts, with a very unexpected cover of the Bee Gee’s ‘Staying Alive’ it’s in near darkness, with a bit of back lighting putting everyone on the stage into silhouette. When things like this happen there’s always that worry that it’ll kill one of the three songs that you get to photograph for. Luckily, the lights do all come on for the chorus.
It’s a massive stage with a massive band, with both a horn and a string section. The trouble with photographing from so far away is that you can’t change the angles, so all the photos are from the same viewpoint, and that it’s hard to isolate people into the individual portrait style I prefer. Lots of people on stage equates to lots of equipment and this brings its own problems with respect to having an unobstructed view. I don’t end up with many photos of Tom Morello, Nils Lofgren or Soozie Tyrell, as they’re almost permanently behind microphone stands from the angle we’re shooting from, and there’s no photos of Roy Bittan as he was just too far away in the background.
I shouldn’t have worried about losing shoot time to poor lighting at the start; three Springsteen songs is plenty. Although I regret it a bit I swap between digital and film to make the most of the opportunity. The film photos are nothing special, I didn’t get the exposure right as trying to spot meter from 30m and everything is slightly overexposed.
The show lasts for 3¾ hours. No support, no intermission. The band is incredible. I think for the Australian leg of this tour they included over 120 different songs in the sets, which is just amazing when you compare it to most bands who’ll play the same songs in the same order night-after-night, maybe with a handful of back-up songs that they might slip into to the set now-and-then. During this Australian tour they’ve played a number of different albums at the shows. None of this ‘Don’t Look Back’ playing of the one classic album night-after-night for a whole world tour; a different album for a different night with Born In The USA and Born To Run on consecutive nights in Melbourne and Darkness on the Edge of Town in Sydney only a few days later.
The big surprise for tonight’s show is the playing of The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, his second album, in full and for the first time ever (I think). I was really holding out for Darkness On The Edge Of Town, especially as we didn’t get enough of its songs at last year’s show. I’m to be disappointed once again though, with only ‘Badlands’ getting played this time. The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle would have been towards the bottom of my preferred list. I think I struggle with it because it’s got a dated early 70’s sound that’s somewhere between Van Morrison and the songs in those Charlie Brown cartoons from around the same time. It’s nowhere near one of his better albums, although it does have some classic, killer songs on it (‘Rosalita’, ‘New York City Serenade’ that would improve any setlist he could come up with.
What makes this show even better than last year’s isn’t that the band plays for 3¾ hours, impresses everyone by playing a completely set of songs from last time and from other shows on this tour, includes all of one album for the first time and includes a whole bunch of sign request songs but that Steven Van Zandt is back in the fold for these shows. Away on filming duties for Lillyhammer last time around, he provides the perfect foil for Springsteen, who is so much more playful and relaxed than I remember from last year. As good as Tom Morello was for the 2013 tour, it doesn’t make up for the 40 years of camaraderie between the two that’s so evident tonight. Although Miami Steve gets a special mention, the rest of the band is incredible, Springsteen belying his 64 years with an energy and enthusiasm that you’d wouldn’t even expect from someone 40 years younger, and drummer Max Weinberg holding it all together from the back for the full 3¾ hours.
A truly magical show, a performance from a band at their very best, one that I’m glad I saw and one that I’m really delighted to have the opportunity to photograph.