Thanks to the demolition work on the football stadium, Wembley Arena can't pretend to be anything else but a giant building site. But there is room in Bruce Springsteen's all-embracing world view for just about everything. "It's nice to be back in this old building," he said benignly. "We've had some nice nights here."
Rooted in the fallout from last year's terrorist horrors in America, the songs on his new album The Rising found the veteran songwriter probing into issues of grief and loss, weighing the human cost while carefully avoiding political polemic or breast-beating calls to arms. The nearest he came to the latter tonight was a full-tilt version of Born in the USA, but he prefaced it with a cautionary note. "I wrote this song about the Vietnam war," he said. "I'd like to play it tonight as a prayer for peace." The song's thundering beat and big, dark chords sounded like a giant storm gathering over the White House.
The new songs have tilted the mood of the show towards stoicism and struggle, rendering some of the hysterical optimism of earlier years obsolete, and Springsteen has rearranged the E Street Band's furniture to accommodate them. Violinist Soozie Tyrell, whose playing sprinkled new colours across the album, is now a fixture on stage, while Nils Lofgren's skills on assorted guitars have been rewarded with several episodes in the spotlight (his acoustic preamble to Countin' on a Miracle was particularly nifty). Saxophonist Clarence Clemons has been beefed up in the mix, and organist Danny Federici was given space to cut loose evocatively on You're Missing and the glorious gospel hymn of My City of Ruins.
But however elaborate the arrangements - especially the multi-guitar breakdown section in Worlds Apart or the electronic enhancements in The Fuse - it is Springsteen's non-stop action that generates the kinetic energy at the heart of the performance. Skidding across the stage on his knees, hamming it up like a pantomime matador in the 30-year-old Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street? or playing the medicine-show huckster as he introduces the band, he burns with a million megawatts of energy on stage. Aside from the knockabout stuff, he made room for some surprises, in particular a touching version of Incident on 57th Street, played solo at the piano. Its freewheeling, romantic narrative was a jolting reminder of the way his writing has deepened and darkened over the decades. He finally dragged himself away with Thunder Road. Springsteen will be back next year. To be continued...