Bruce Springsteen at BST Hyde Park
What does it mean to say someone is “cool”? An elusive concept that escapes tangible definition, but we all know it when we see it. A further question might be, “Can you become cool, or are you born with it?”. To watch Bruce Springsteen, now into his 70s, command the stage at BST Hyde Park on Saturday, in his mahogany tan, open black shirt, jeans and maroon Doc Martens, you might have to concede the latter. This man was born – and always will be – cool. Well, they don’t call him The Boss for nothing.
The line-up is always solid, if nostalgically bent, for this city-based Summer Time Festival, and 2023 is no exception. But of all the performances The Upcoming has had the chance to catch, this surely topped them all. What put Springsteen’s gig into another league was not only the top-class musicianship on display from the singer-songwriter and his dedicated E Street Band, nor the blinder of a setlist that took the crowd on a whimsical ride through his 21-album, 50-year-spanning back catalogue, crescendoing to his big hitters; it was his connection with the audience. The artist has spoken often and honestly about his own deep and philosophical relationship with music, but also how he sees it as a bridge to connect with others – a sacred interface on another plane to speech with which to communicate and also allow others to access unearthed emotions and face unanswerable questions about the world we live in. And it was this very attitude that emanated from the open-air stage throughout the visceral, emotive and exhilarating performance.
The first half was a breathless streak though many a track, virtually without a second’s pause, with Springsteen counting in the next song before the outro of the last had even finished. His soaring voice, rip-roaring guitar and backing band were of faultless quality on his idiosyncratic slice of Americana, from opener My Love Will Not Let You Down to Prove It All Night, Darkness on the Edge of Town to Out in the Street. The lyrical and storytelling prowess on his country-tinged rock’n’roll, which consistently treads a fine line between pessimism and optimism about the American Dream, was given fresh poignancy on each utterance, his view of life as a wonderful gift, while remaining cognisant of its many flaws and contradictions, supremely captured.
The epic rendition of Mary’s Place kicked things up a gear, the rather apt “Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain” singing out as raindrops streamed down deliriously happy faces; “We’re gonna have a party,” played out like a promise. Proceedings were paused for an emotional interlude paying tribute to George Theiss from Springsteen’s first band, The Castiles, Last Man Standing dedicated to him, before ramping up again for a Patti Smith Group song he’s since reclaimed, Because the Night, with all giving it some gusto in unison on “Because the night belongs to lovers”.
But it was the on-stage antics that were pure glee to witness. The master showman, seemingly not wanting to take a moment or fan for granted, utilised extended instrumentals to luxuriate in time with as many as possible, some on shoulders, many carrying signs with personal messages for him. His harmonica was handed to one, another’s beer was frothed up and sprayed, a third he borrowed a cap from momentarily. He and fun-loving guitarist Steve Van Zandt got up close to the camera, making teasing mention of not being cut off again this time, as infamously happened back in 2012. Arms waved in time and few feet stayed still. When he ripped his shirt open with tongue-in-cheek rockstar melodrama, many swooned. He’s still, as they say, got it.
After a few hours in the company of Springsteen’s sweat-drenched, contagious charm and childlike joy in the very fact of being alive, he gave the audience what they’d be craving in the first of two encores, with Born to Run, Bobby Jean, Dancing in the Dark and Glory Days all in quick succession. There might have been some absences notable in retrospect (Born in the USA and Streets of Philadelphia to name two), but no one much cared. Closing legendary The Beatles’ cover Twist and Shout was a dancing delight.
As if recognising we were all over-stimulated to the hilt, he reappeared one last time to bring us back down softly to reality with a solo acoustic performance of I’ll See You in My Dreams. The usual mass exodus from the park paused a beat longer than usual, as all breaths in the thousands-strong crowd were held, and the magic of the melancholic moment hung in the late-night air: “When all our summers have come to an end / I’ll see you in my dreams.” It closed off a sombre yet somehow uplifting thread running through the whole concert that facing our mortality can help us embrace life and our loved ones with two hands in the here and now. If music is meant to move, then this was live music perfection.
Featured image: Dave Hogan/Images: Virginie Viche
For further information and future events visit Bruce Springsteen’s website here.
Take a look at some of the images of the support acts, James Bay and The Chicks, below:
Watch the video for the single Dancing in the Dark here: