A long way from Asbury Park, NJ

IT SPEAKS volumes for Bruce Springsteen’s popularity that his three shows in Ireland this week — Limerick tonight, Cork on Thursday and Belfast on Friday — are all sold out.

Springsteen will also play two dates in Nowlan Park, Kilkenny on Jul 27 and 28.

Springsteen is ostensibly still touring on the back of his Wrecking Ball album from last year. However, given that Wrecking Ball topped the charts in 16 countries, and Springsteen’s concert ticket sales in 2012 alone topped $230m, it can be safely assumed that the album has more than paid than its way. His only reasons for continuing to perform, it seems, are because he can, and because he wants to.

It is 40 years since Springsteen released the first of his 17 studio albums, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ. But the anniversary that is making the news this week coincides with his Belfast gig on Friday, which will be 25 years to the day since Springsteen performed what was arguably the most influential gig of his career, a concert in East Berlin attended by at least 300,000 people.

The Berlin concert was organised by a communist youth group, who sold it to the authorities as a solidarity concert for Nicaragua. This was done without Springsteen’s consent. On learning of the deceit, he considered cancelling the concert, but settled instead on reading a message in German to the rapturous crowd. “It’s great to be in East Berlin,” he said. “I’m not for or against any government. I came here to play rock’n’roll for you in the hope that one day the barriers will all be torn down.”

Springsteen had been persuaded to use the word ‘barriers’ in place of ‘walls’, as he had originally written, but he followed his message with a powerhouse rendition of Bob Dylan’s ‘Chimes of Freedom’, which drove home more forcefully again what the crowd took the rocker’s words to mean, that he was referring to the loathed wall that divided East Berlin from West.

Some, such as Erik Kirschbaum, the Berlin-based American author of Rocking the Wall: the Berlin Concert that Changed the World, even believe that Springsteen’s performance was a tipping point in the campaign that led to the fall of the wall just 16 months later.

It is no surprise that Springsteen should be seen as a champion for freedom. For much of his life he has spoken up for the underdog, and he has never been slow to lend his support to worthy causes. His was one of the most memorable contributions to the 1985 USA for Africa single We Are The World, which sold over 10m copies, and as recently as last December, he headlined the New York benefit concert for the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

In 2008, Springsteen lent his weight to the campaign to elect Barack Obama as US president, and in 2012, he went so far as to post a letter on his website endorsing Obama for re-election: “Right now, there is a fight going on to help make this a fairer and more equitable nation,” he wrote. “For me, President Obama is our best choice to keep us moving in the right direction.”

Springsteen’s social activism can be traced to his blue-collar upbringing in New Jersey. He identifies strongly with the working classes and, despite his success, has avoided the trappings of wealth and fame, preferring to spend time with his family than partying in Hollywood.

Some would argue that Springsteen’s devotion to his roots has led to a certain conservatism in his music: as a songwriter, he has never strayed far from the traditional templates of folk and rock’n’roll. While he has written some memorably tender ballads, such as ‘The River’, he has also been guilty of a certain bombast: his hit single ‘Born in the USA’, intended as a searing indictment of America’s involvement in Vietnam, is often mistaken for a rabble-rousing patriotic anthem.

To Springsteen’s credit, however, he has maintained a fiercely loyal fanbase all over the world without ever dumbing down his lyrics or succumbing to the misogyny that characterises so much contemporary American rock music.

So, what can Irish audiences expect of the Boss when he performs here with his beloved E-Street Band this week? A great many songs, is the easiest answer. Springsteen pioneered the blockbuster concert; he regularly clocks up three high-tempo hours on stage, and he played even longer at his two gigs at the RDS in Dublin in July last year.

To give some idea of the wealth of material he has at his disposal: Springsteen played 32 songs the first night, and replaced 16 of them the night after. The setlist at both included such classics as ‘The River’, ‘Born in the USA’, ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Dancing in the Dark’.

Springsteen was delighted to be allowed play as long as he wanted in Dublin. Just days before, he was joined by Paul McCartney for two Beatles numbers at London’s Hyde Park. The first, ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, went swimmingly, but the second, ‘Twist and Shout’, was cut off by concert organisers, for fear of breaking a strict concert curfew.

On the current European leg of his tour, Springsteen has thrilled audiences by playing entire albums, song by song. Born To Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in the USA have already been revisited, and he just might perform any one of those albums in its entirety this week. Springsteen’s band includes his wife of 22 years, Patti Scialfa, on backing vocals, and long-time sidekicks Nils Lofgren and Steve van Zandt on guitars.

Springsteen’s enduring popularity is perhaps best explained by Bono, who inducted him into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 1999 with the following tribute: “No drug busts, no public brawling, no bad haircuts — not even in the ’80s — and most remarkably, no golf. Credibility: you couldn’t have more unless you were dead.”


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