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Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band played a quite amazing show at Hampden Park on Thursday. It’s difficult to describe the intensity and the sheer raw emotion of the show, which took place on the second anniversary of the death of Springsteen’s musical foil and long time friend Clarence Clemons. But I’m going to try.

The numbers alone give some idea of the scale of the event. Thirty songs were played during a show that lasted three and a half hours.

Read that again. Three and a half hours. Thirty songs.

After song 29 most of the crowd were exhausted, let alone the 17 strong ensemble that backs Springsteen on this tour. And the man himself? “I’m having a heart attack”, he complained. “I’m sixty fuckin three you know.” But he recovered and played on …

The night started with 45,000 people packed into Hampden Park enjoying the rare Scottish sun on a lovely Glasgow evening. The band appeared just before half past seven and burst straight into We Take Care Of Our Own from latest album, Wrecking Ball, and an older favourite The Ties That Bind. It was high energy and high tempo rock music from the off. Springsteen was soon prowling along the gangways built at the front of the stage collecting audience signs requesting songs, pulling several back to the stage with him.

And the night’s first surprise came at song three, with the rare Jole Blon. It was one of those moments that splits a Springsteen crowd: many not knowing the track while the fanatics were going crazy. It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City from Springsteen’s debut album and Radio Nowhere followed, also requests. Things then settled down a little with No Surrender, Wrecking Ball and Death To My Hometown all delivered perfectly.

After such an eclectic opening to a show the practice recently has been for a complete album to be played. But not this time, which pleased me as I much prefer spontaneity, especially with an artist who plays very different shows every night.

My City Of Ruins was originally written about Asbury Park, New Jersey, but it has come to have a wider significance as song of remembrance. The extended version here saw Springsteen go through the band intros before asking, “Are we missing anyone?” We all knew the answer.

Bruce repeatedly began to sing a famous line: “we made that change uptown,” but left it unfinished. Then he stood with his head bowed. A moment of silence was called for as he pointed to the vacant spot stage-right that was occupied by Clarence Clemons for so many years. Poignant doesn’t come close; many of us in the front pit had tears in our eyes. And I saw both Nils Lofgren and Steve Van Zandt wiping their eyes too. The song restarted and a video montage featuring both Clemons and organist Danny Federici, who died five years ago, played on the screens.

It was back to the oldies next with both Spirit In The Night and The E Street Shuffle given the extended treatment. There was a loose feel to these jazz influenced songs, with Roy Brittan on piano quite outstanding. Bruce looked to be having a ball, and more requests followed. I’m On Fire was followed by a slow, beautiful rendition of Tougher Than The Rest, played for a young woman whose father who had died recently. And Bruce returned the sign to her afterwards, a lovely touch.

The music kept coming, the band kept playing and the crowd was in great voice too, joining in with every song. A murder themed three pack of Atlantic City, Murder Incorporated and Johnny 99 was an intense period. Darlington County was a party, The Rising a song of defiance and Badlands an anthemic classic that had fists pumping all over the stadium. The soulful Land Of Hope And Dreams was the 23rd song, closing the main set.

The immediate encore followed the pattern of recent shows with the addition of the wonderful Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) to staples Born To Run and Dancing In The Dark. Bruce had earlier promised a women from the crowd a dance, and he didn’t forget. Another woman had a sign asking to dance with Jake Clemons, Clarence’s nephew who was on fine form with the sax all night. She came up on stage and looked to be having a great time – even before being given a guitar to play along with the end of the song. What a memory to have.

Tenth Avenue Freeze Out provided another Clarence moment. The biggest cheer of the night came as the line familiar to all fans was this time completed: “We made that change uptown  … and the Big Man joined the band.” It was a fitting celebration of the life of a musical legend.

Was this the end? No, the band started up once more with a glorious Twist And Shout, followed by an equally joyous Shout, a song best known locally for the Lulu cover. With more false endings that I’ve ever seen, it appeared that the show was never going to end – not that anyone wanted it to. But finally the band left the stage. And then Springsteen himself reappeared to end the night with “a rock n roll lullaby”, a tender acoustic performance of Thunder Road. He left the stage for the last time clad in a tartan scarf thrown to him earlier with applause echoing around the still full stadium.

What an amazing night. Three and a half hours of music from the best damned rock and roll band on the planet, led by a man who takes stagecraft to new levels. He played the crowd, running back and forth, often leading others from the band along. He directed every moment, controlling the massive supporting cast throughout the show. And his voice was strong and true on every single track – he added some meaty guitar solos too, reminding us of just what a good player he is. It was a simply incredible performance from a man in his seventh decade.

After arriving at the venue at 6:30am I was lucky enough to secure a place very near to the front, with only one person between me and the barrier at the front, so I had a perfect view. It is an incredible experience to see a show like this from so close, to witness the effort and energy that is put into the performance. To see every expression on the band’s faces as they marvel at The Boss.

Quite simply, no one does it better.

 

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It is an astonishing 39 years since the first Springsteen album, and the release of Wrecking Ball shows that The Boss has no plans to slow down just yet. But one of the reasons for his longevity is the variety of the music he produces. We all know he can do flat out blue collar rock as well as anyone, but unlike many artists Springsteen doesn’t just churn out formulaic records that sound much like their predecessors.

This album does have some familiar Springsteen themes and characters, and there are a couple of typical rockers in there. But musically it also draws a lot from the Seegar Sessions folk stylings, and there are elements of country, gospel, Celtic rock and even rap in there too. In fact this American album draws from almost every strand of American music– and that’s no coincidence. I’m sure. Add in some electronic samples, a couple of choirs, a whole host of backing singers and you have a unique musical background on which Springsteen can work his magic.

And this is undoubtedly a Bruce Springsteen solo album; it’s not an E Street project. Drummer Max Weinberg and Patti Scialfa get credits while the late, great saxophonist Clarence Clemons makes his final appearance in typical style. But much of the record relies on the Seegar Sessions Band along with producer Ron Aniello and guitarists Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine and Marc Muller.

Wrecking Ball is an album of two halves – side one and side two of a record for those of us who still think in these terms. And I believe that the famously perfectionist Springsteen probably does. His song choices and their order on the final product are always carefully thought out to create the effect he has in his head.

Side one opens with the single We Take Care Of Our Own, which is the most E Street Band sounding song on the album. But the message is not the one that the title implies. There is an irony here: just as Born In The USA was an angry song misinterpreted as a patriotic anthem, this is a call for justice rather than a description of a caring modern day America. It’s a plea for jobs: “Where’s the work that’ll set my hands, my soul free?”

Easy Money has a character with another answer. He goes out with his thirty eight and his girl and simply takes the money he needs to survive. Well, if it is good enough for the fat cats to steal, then why not, he rationalises? And the joyous nature of the music shows that he does not feel in way guilty about the choice he has made.

Shackled and Drawn is an old style protest folk song. The central character loves “the feel of sweat on my shirt” and again wants to work. But what’s “a poor boy” to do if there is no work? And the cause of this unemployment is clear: “Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the price”. The track ends in a church with a spiritual call to arms.

In the next track we again have a narrator desperate for work. And he will do anything to make a living, this Jack Of All Trades. No manual task is beneath him as he struggles to feed his family. This beautiful slow, piano driven song with its mournful trumpet solo is sung has a delicious empathy and a resignation to fate. He knows these economic problems have happened before and that they will inevitably happen again. But there is a deep seated anger too: “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight.”

Death To My Hometown is something of a dichotomy. Musically it is a rich, Celtic rocker, stomping along in true Irish fashion with penny whistles and violins picking out the melody. But there is an anger at the destruction that has been wrought without the need for cannon balls or powder flashes. For this death was caused by ”the robber barons” and “greedy thieves”.

What I think of as side one ends with This Depression, a slower brooding song that is lyrically quite simple. The depth of feeling displayed is terrible to hear as the protagonist struggles with both kinds of depression, economic and medical. It features an excellent Tom Morello guitar solo that wouldn’t be out of place on a Pink Floyd track.

Side two begins the fight back against the despair and disenfranchisement with the title track. Wrecking Ball is superficially about the demolition of the old Giants Stadium in New Jersey, where Springsteen debuted the song in its last ever concert. But there is a call to arms, “Hold tight to your anger”, and a recognition that hard times will come and go, but will always come again.

You’ve Got It is a simple upbeat love song with more excellent lead guitar work. It acts as a break from the darkness before the closing songs of the album, where Biblical language comes to the fore and a spiritual redemption is sought from the earthly trials that the earlier songs have described.

I don’t get Rocky Ground at all in a musical sense. There’s a lot going on with a Michelle Moore rap, an electronic sample and a trumpet as well as the vocal and it sounds confused to me. The lyrics are clear though, with money changers, shepherds and a forty day exile all referenced before the exaltation that a new day is coming for those who have kept faith.

Land Of Hope And Dreams is an old song, familiar as an encore in Springeteen’s shows, but recorded in the studio for the first time. It uses the old metaphor of a train as the vehicle through which the journey to salvation can be made. All are welcome to board, the whores and gamblers as well as the lost souls and the broken hearted. But “dreams will not be thwarted” and “faith will be rewarded”.

I wondered how this song would translate to the studio, but it retains all of the energy and exuberance that make it a live favourite. The track also marks the final contribution of Clarence Clemons to Springsteen’s work and it is a bitter sweet moment when the sax kicks in.

The album proper closes with We Are Alive, an acoustic track full of resurrection imagery that grows into something spiritual and even borrows a melody from June Carter Cash’s Ring of Fire. The memory of those killed in struggles over the years are invoked as the dead rise from their graves and “Our souls and spirits rise to carry the fire and light the spark.” There is not just recognition of the enduring human spirit but an echo of the earlier call to arms here.

There are two bonus tracks on the deluxe version of the album. Swallowed Up (In The Belly Of The Whale) is dark yet not depressing, slow yet not a dirge. It’s as moving as anything I’ve heard in a very long time. And American Land, familiar to Seegar Sessions fans, is a jubilant celebration of the contribution of immigrants to the rise of the USA.

If the previous Springsteen album, Working On A Dream was an optimistic look forward to the new Obama administration, this one is very much grounded in the current economic climate.

Springsteen himself has called it his most direct album. At times the songs seethe with righteous anger about the way the poor pay for the excesses and the mistakes of the rich. But it does so in a fashion that doesn’t preach; rather it draws the listener in and creates empathy with his characters.

Wrecking Ball is yet another fine album from Bruce Springsteen. It is, at its core, a very American album, written for an election year, but is one which travels well. Dealing primarily with the fight for economic justice in times of recession its theme will also resonate with a European audience.

 

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We Take Care Of Our Own

We Take Care Of Our Own in the opening track and lead single from the soon to be released Bruce Springsteen album, Wrecking Ball.

Talk of the new album has been that it is an angry record and one that has a focus on economic justice. Typical Springsteen territory then, for those who know his work well. And at exactly the moment when such a focus is most needed: not just an American election year but a time when major decisions need to be taken about the future economic direction of so many countries.

We Take Care Of Our Own is an American song. But its message is one that strikes a chord on this side of the Atlantic too. And the message is not the obvious positive one that you might take from the title, or even from the chorus:

“We take care of our own/ Wherever this flag’s flown/ We take care of our own.”

No, there is an irony in Bruce’s words. Just as Born In The USA was an angry song misinterpreted as a patriotic anthem, this is a call for justice rather than a description of a glorious modern day America. Because clearly, as in this country at present, there are many people who are not being taken care of by their country and their government.

In the song, Springsteen describes the current America: one where “The road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone”. And there isn’t any help coming any time soon; “There ain’t no one hearing the bugle blown.”

He then pleads for attention to be given to the problems of the unseen poor. “Where’re the eyes with the will to see?/ Where are the hearts that run over with mercy?” Just where is the compassion to deal with the problems?

But this is not a call for welfare, for hand outs. It’s a plea for jobs: “Where’s the work that’ll set my hands, my soul free?” The blue collar message is startlingly simple. Give us jobs and we will look after our own. And it is a message that even many on the right will agree with: work leads to self-respect.

The most important line in the song is Springsteen’s return to an oft used theme: The Promise. This is Springsteen’s description of the bargain that stands at the heart of the USA, where citizens will work hard and play their part in return for a decent standard of living and a good life for them and their families. But he has made clear over many years that The Promise has been broken.

“Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?” he asks.

The latter part of the line is a reference to a song called America The Beautiful. (America! America! God shed His grace on thee, And crown thy good with brotherhood From sea to shining sea.) So the problem is not just all across the geography of America, it also refers to the brotherhood of the nation. Broken America?

At a time when so many families are struggling to find work, Springsteen clearly stands on their side. He wants the government, those with the power, to intervene, to make a difference. He wants them to take care of everyone in the country and to repair The Promise.

It has been suggested that there is another way to read the song. If we take the chorus to mean that the rich take care of their own while ignoring the plight of the poor then we get a slightly different meaning. One in which bankers pay themselves big bonuses while others struggle to eat. Where the city has money but the country doesn’t.

But whichever way these few words are interpreted, the sentiment is similar. There is no economic justice in a land where the rich get richer while the poor suffer. And that’s exactly where the song applies to the current day UK just as much as it does to the current day USA.

Are we all in it together, as our government likes to tell us? Do we take care of our own? Or has The Promise, the social contract if you will, been broken here too? In a land where unemployment is rising while top pay rockets it is hard to draw any conclusion other than that it has. The impact of public sector cuts has led to both unemployment and the closure of vital services just when they are needed the most.

Bruce Springsteen is a proud American who writes about life in the USA. His call for economic justice though is just as necessary in our country as it is in his own.

But who is making that call on this side of the pond?

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A total of 113.2 million albums were sold in the UK last year – a drop of 5.6% on the 2010 figure of 119.9 million.

Predictably sales of CDs have fallen sharply, from 98.5 million to 86.2 million, and now make up only 76% of the total. The growth in downloading of albums has seen a rise from 21.0 million to 26.6 million, meaning that almost one in every four albums sold is now downloaded.

But Geoff Taylor, the chief executive of the BPI, said reports of the CD’s demise had been greatly exaggerated. “Physical ownership is important to many fans and the CD will be a key element of the market for years to come,” he commented.

A 5% fall in total album sales is perhaps not the worst result, given the current economic conditions and the continuing strength of the illegal download market. But no business can continue to see falls in sales every year and survive.

In contrast, the singles market has undergone a total revolution, with physical formats now accounting for less than 1% of the market.

Singles sales rose for the fourth straight year. Total singles sales increased by 10.0% overall to 177.9m in 2011, with the vast majority (99.3%) sold as digital tracks and bundles.

Perhaps this indicates a more selective buying approach from many consumers? It is, after all, very easy to download individual tracks rather than purchasing complete albums on iTunes and similar sites.

And as many people now use iPods, phones and the like to listen to music the old notion of listening to an album from start to finish is perhaps less common than jumping from track to track. And with the ability to create playlists of your favourite song, or just hit shuffle and let the device decide what to play, this trend may well continue.

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The recently released Adding Up The UK Music Industry report for 2010, compiled by PRS for Music, makes grim reading.

As the economic position worsens for many people, it seems that buying music and going to gigs are both seen as expendable extras. And this has led to many big acts playing arenas rather than stadiums for fear of declining ticket sales.

The music industry saw its total revenue decline 4.8% to £3.8bn in 2010. That’s £189 million lower than in 2009. And it wasn’t just the continuing fall of CD sales to blame, as live music revenues declined 6.8% to £1.48bn last year after a decade of growth.

“It comes as no surprise that the overall numbers are down 5% as consumers are feeling their wallets tighten,” said Will Page, chief economist for PRS for Music.

The decline in acts touring the biggest venues was evident in a 70% fall in revenues from stadium gigs. Revenues from acts playing at arena-sized venues also suffered with revenues down about 14% year on year.

But the festival scene is vibrant, with a 20% rise in revenues from ticket sales, thanks to existing festivals increasing in size and the launch of a number of new events.

Sales of CDs fell by 7.9% to £1.24bn as music piracy and the shift to listening to music via digital services such as Spotify and Pandora continues to take its toll.

Despite increased growth in revenue from digital services in the UK, up almost 20% year on year to £316.5m, the report says that the promise of legal streaming and download services appears to have been overstated.

It is also worth noting that half of the top 10 selling albums in 2010 were either releases from 2009 – such as Lady Gaga and Michael Bublé – or compilations like Now That’s What I call Music 76.

In addition, the number of breakthrough acts, those who pass 100,000 album sales for the first time, hit a new low in 2010, with just 17 passing the mark. In recent years the average has been about 25 a year. This can partly be explained by overall falling sales, but it could also indicate that money is not being invested in new artists.

Overall the report shows a bleak picture at the top of the music business. Meanwhile at lower levels there are many talented acts playing shows in all major cities, dreaming of that big break – however difficult it might be.

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Illegal drugs are always something to look out for at the major music festivals. But at Glastonbury they are going one stage further. Police have set up an off-site lab to test “legal highs” seized at the festival.

Police spokesman Paul Bunt said: “Because there are so many new drugs, we know very little about them.”

Brunt also said that it was “essential” that festival organizers co-operate with the project, adding there were a number of legal high shops on the Glastonbury site. Shop owners have worked with police to narrow down the range of merchandise they sell to make sure their products do not contain illegal or harmful substances.

Police take drugs seized at Glastonbury to a laboratory located several miles off site where they are tested, identified and catalogued. With all sorts of substances available on the web there are genuine concerns that potentially lethal drugs can be obtained legally.

As one music fan commented to the BBC, “It doesn’t make sense that things like cocaine and weed are illegal but you can buy stuff over the internet totally legally that somebody has made in a lab and you don’t know what it is.”

Festival organisers at Glastonbury turned down a police request to access the festival toilets to allow scientists to test sewage for traces of illegal drugs. Police argued that they could trace substances being used across the site.

But because the event takes place on private land, any search had to be permitted by the owners.

In a statement, organiser Michael Eavis said: “The drug culture these days has changed beyond belief. What a cheek to even suggest there’s a problem.”

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RIP Clarence Clemons

Clarence Clemons, sax player with the E Street Band, and a key part of Bruce Springsteen’s music for forty years, died last night in a Florida hospital following a stroke.

The Big Man, as he was known throughout the musical world, was an integral part of the E Street Band, contributing massively both on record and on stage. In any Springsteen concert it was a magical moment when Clarence moved forward to take his first solo of the night.

And when it came to the band introductions, Clarence was always left until last, a mark of respect from the Boss. The elaborate homage described him at various times as master of the universe, king of the world, the next President of the USA and, at Hampden Park, “the biggest Scotsman you will ever see”.

Clarence Clemons was born in Norfolk, Virginia to a southern family and grew up listening to gospel music. He started playing saxophone at the age of nine and quickly mastered the instrument. The young Clemons was a promising football player and attended Maryland State College on both music and football scholarships.

And the pros were looking at the big lineman. He had a trial lined up with the Cleveland Browns, but was involved in a car crash which ended his sporting dreams. Football’s loss was to be music’s gain.

It was in 1971 when, as Springsteen’s Tenth Avenue Freeze Out records it, “we made that change up town and the big man joined the band.”

The young Springsteen was already a fixture in the music scene of Asbury Park, New Jersey. One night, as he told the story on stage many times, the door blew off when he was playing at the Student Prince and the biggest man he had even seen walked in, dressed in a white suit. Clarence asked if he could join the band on stage, Bruce agreed.

And the rest is history. The two men formed a deep friendship that was to last forty years. And their musical collaboration was to change the face of rock music. In the scene everyone had a nickname. The Boss, Miami Steve (Van Zandt), Phantom Dan (Frederici). What else could Clemons be called but The Big Man?

From the very first record he recorded, 1972’s Greetings From Asbury Park, Clemons was by Springsteen’s side. His sax solos became a vital component of the E Street sound and it’s hard to imagine Thunder Road, Badlands, Born To Run, Jungleland or so many others without his contribution. For almost forty years he was by Springsteen’s right hand on stage, often playing the straight man. But always with a smile on his face.

Clemons was in demand outside of his main job. He played with, among others, the Grateful Dead, Aretha Franklin, Jackson Browne, Ringo Star and Lady Gaga, with whom he made his final appearance. He owned night clubs, acted in several films and tv programmes and wrote a book. He was married four times and is father to five sons.

In recent years health problems dogged Clemons. Both knees were replaced, he had back surgery and severe hip deterioration. But he continued to tour with the E Street Band and even when he was unable to walk he played sitting in a golden throne. Everyone knew he was in constant pain but nothing would stop the Big Man from doing what he did best.

And then came the stroke that was ultimately to prove fatal. At first it seemed like he would pull through, amazing his doctors by recovering from the paralysis that had affected his left side. But last night Clarence Clemons died.

Bruce Springsteen summed up his fiend’s contribution.

“His loss is immeasurable, and we’re honoured and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly 40 years,” the Boss said.

“He was my great friend and my partner. With Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music.

“His life, his memory and his love will live on in that story and in our band.”

Rest in peace, Clarence.

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