“Is there anybody alive out there?” yells Bruce Springsteen. “Is there anybody alive in London?” Looming before him, a crowd of 50,000 revellers in Hyde Park make their presence felt with an almighty roar.
There is an almost guilty frisson, in these days of coronavirus lockdown, when you see so many people crammed together in an open-air public space. Haven’t they heard of the two-metre rule? But this was back in 2009, when all we had to worry about was a global financial meltdown, and Springsteen was bringing “the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, hard-rocking, earth-shocking, booty-shaking, love-making, Viagra-taking, history-making, legendary E Street Band” to the heart of the city, to see us through hard times.
“London, we didn’t come all this way tonight just to rock the house,” declared the man they call The Boss, in full rock ’n’ roll preacher mode. “We came here tonight to build a house, right on this beautiful lawn. We’re gonna take the fear that’s out there and we’re gonna build a house of love, we’re gonna build a house of hope, joy and happiness... a house of music, spirit and noise.”
Springsteen supplied the music and spirit. London supplied the noise. Listening to that beautiful roaring crowd over a decade later can still bring a lump to my throat.
If, like me, you’re a regular concertgoer, you’re probably suffering withdrawal symptoms right now. The dread bug has decimated the live music scene. But there are ways to get that gig fix, even when stuck at home practicing responsible social distancing.
Over the next few weeks, or months, or however long it takes, I am going to be recommending some utterly fantastic concert movies that can be watched from the comfort of your own home. It’s a chance to see and hear the finest artists of our times, at their very peaks. Think of it as the greatest show on earth, in your own living room.
Before we begin, it’s worth considering how best to recreate the concert experience. All our circumstances are different. If you’re locked down with music-loving family or friends, I recommend putting on a band t-shirt, pulling the curtains, lighting some candles, cracking open a beer, turning the speakers up as high as they’ll go and singing and dancing along like a fool.
But, to be honest, I find it can be just as compelling to watch alone in a darkened room on a laptop and headphones, and really lock into the experience. It may lack the quality of communal togetherness that can make concerts such a near-spiritual experience but there are advantages. Just think, you won’t have to put up with people filming everything on their mobile phones, talking over songs, blocking your view, or squeezing around you trying to get to the bar. Unless your householders are really weird. (And the queue for the toilets should be a lot easier, too.)
What better place to start our home-concert journey than in the heart of London, with the greatest showman in rock ’n’ roll? If you have ever seen Bruce Springsteen live, then you know he has it all. He’s a masterful band leader and a charismatic frontman, with a vast catalogue of songs of passion and substance that he delivers with a blend of showbusiness panache and life-or-death commitment. If you’re not yet a convert, I would recommend starting with Springsteen on Broadway (available on Netflix), his intimate 2018 solo show in which he tells his life story with humour, pathos and wisdom, interspersed with song.
There are, in fact, about a dozen Springsteen concert movies, from his extraordinary breakthrough Hammersmith Odeon concert in 1975 to last year’s cinematic Western Stars, and they’re all good, because, let’s face it, the man knows how to perform.
But Springsteen himself has responded to the coronavirus crisis by making his London Calling: Live in Hyde Park show from 2009 available on all major streaming platforms, including YouTube, where it’s completely free to view if you don’t mind a little moment’s fade between each song.
And it’s an absolute belter of a show. It starts off with a raging, exuberant version of the Clash classic London Calling and doesn’t loosen its grip for two hours and 52 minutes (which is quite short for a Springsteen show). The set includes such stone classics as The Promised Land, Born To Run, Rosalita, She’s The One, Badlands and Dancing In The Dark, as well as a transcendent nine-minute version of Racing In The Streets, where the weave and weft of the E Street Band’s playing is hypnotic.
But even cover versions and less celebrated album cuts are performed like classic hits and greeted with rapture, the crowd falling into a silent spell for a folky gospel ramble through Hard Times (Come Again No More), a parlour song from the 19th century that Springsteen delivers as if it had been composed for this very occasion.
The Rising (the title song from Springsteen’s post-9/11 album) is another song that speaks as loudly to the moment now as when it was written, its message of courage in adversity being raised even further by a crowd in fantastic voice throughout. No one sings an “oh-oh-oh” like a Springsteen audience. The sound mix, by veteran producer Bob Clearmountain, is superb: the interplay of instruments comes through perfectly clear while balancing the band’s playing with the crowd’s lusty response.
Springsteen is visibly enthused. At 60 years old, he’s running down the stage stairs at every opportunity to touch outstretched hands. During Waiting On A Sunny Day, he practically crowd-surfs to reach a kid on top of his dad’s shoulders and let him sing into his microphone. It’s hard not to get carried away and start yelling at the screen: “Now wash your hands!”
One advantage to concert movies over the real thing is that you always have the best seat in the house. Watching the interactions of the musicians in the long serving E Street Band is a treat, especially Steven Van Zandt’s good humoured interactions with a man with whom he has made music for over 50 years. Nils Lofgren plays a sensual solo on Youngstown while spinning on the spot, and drummer Max Weinberg sings enthusiastically along even though he doesn’t have a vocal microphone.
And it was the last British appearance by the late great saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who died in 2011, and his sensitive solo on a dramatically compelling Jungleland is hair raising. Honestly, that song has never been a personal favourite, but I finally got it while watching this performance. Springsteen’s celebration of the drama of street life strikes vividly home during our time of enforced isolation.
What will be special for British audiences watching this concert is the setting. It’s unexpectedly moving just to see so many people gathered outdoors in England’s capital, with Union Jacks waving by the side of the stage, as the show moves through a sunny afternoon to nightfall. A lovely sunset blazes over a Hyde Park full of happy revellers as Springsteen leads his band through Lonesome Day, and the crowd sing with him: “It’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right, yeah.” And, for a moment at least, it really is.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: London Calling, Live in Hyde Park 2009 is available via major streaming platforms