Bruce Springsteen's front-row invasion

When Springsteen plays live, he redefines the possibilities of pop, says Richard Williams – even if he did once muscle in on my date

It was halfway through Spirit in the Night that Bruce Springsteen leapt from the stage of the Hammersmith Odeon in London and crouched down in the aisle, alongside my girlfriend. While a couple of thousand people hung on his next word, he covered the microphone with his hand and whispered something in her ear. She never told me what he said.

We were in the front row, on the middle aisle. This was November 1975, Springsteen's second London concert, and the last date on the European leg of the Born to Run tour, around which the hype was immense. I'd only managed to get seats near the back for the first show, but secured prime spots for the second. Despite the efforts of his record company, back then he still had not much more than a cult following.

I'm not a front-row or a big-hall person. But a Springsteen concert has always been the exception. One night at the Brighton conference centre in the early 1980s, as the E Street Band struck up Hungry Heart, I even found myself rising from my seat and joining the crowd flocking towards the stage. "Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack/ I went out for a ride and I never went back . . ." Singing along isn't my thing, either, but who could resist?

Springsteen had turned up at Hammersmith, for his first gigs outside the US, not knowing whether to go with the hype or fight it. In the end, he just performed – in a way that made you feel there might be hope for popular music, which was stranded at the time between the preposterous bluster of British prog-rock and the painful self-consciousness of the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters, with only soul music and a handful of outsiders – Laura Nyro, Van Morrison – to light the way.

In later years, I wondered if the memory of those first shows had been burnished by wishful thinking and rosy nostalgia. Then, not long ago, the vaults coughed up some film that proved how great it had been, and how, by creating a bond of complicity with his listeners, Springsteen had singlehandedly revived the possibilities and redefined the meaning of the rock'n'roll show.

It took him six years to return to London, by which time the shows were running for four hours and containing entire mini-suites of songs tacitly linked by themes, reshuffled for every show, thus turning each concert into a unique and extraordinarily rich experience. I remember the first show at Wembley Arena, where he pointedly chose Born to Run as the opener and, his eyes shut tight, launched into it with a fury that was clearly intended to exorcise the demons of 1975. Then he relaxed and gave us a performance that seemed to draw together every good thing we had ever heard or felt.

Another 10 years later, I found myself back at Wembley and doing the unthinkable: walking out of a Springsteen concert. Understandably weary of seeing the same faces every night, he had replaced the E Street Band with a bunch of session men and was singing new songs that lacked not just the beguiling characters of his earliest work, but the imperative commitment to an underlying narrative that had driven Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River.

It took him a while to rediscover it. Reading Steinbeck inspired the Tom Joad album, which got him back on track, but the first stab at an E Street Band reunion felt premature. Then, slowly, the pieces started to fall together. The success of the Seeger Sessions tour, a glorified skiffle bash, also seemed to revive his spirits. When the show arrived at the renamed Hammersmith Apollo in 2006, his first visit to the hall since 1975, he looked around and said something brief and wry about how there seemed to be a few ghosts hanging around the place, in a way that let you know how such nights had stuck in his memory, too, and how important they still were to him.

His recent albums have been very good, sometimes excellent, with the occasional song that sticks to the ribs, like Thunder Road and Badlands once did. But the concerts are now as exhilarating as they were at the beginning, filled with a freshness and spontaneity that make you ready to forgive him for breaking his early promise never to play arenas and stadiums. "We're the big-building killers," he told 20,000 spellbound listeners at London's 02 arena the week before Christmas 2007, the last time I saw him. It was impossible to argue.


Richard Williams

The GuardianTramp

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