Say it with us now: BRUUUUUUUUUUCEEEEE!! It’s Day Two of the 2012 Hard Rock Calling music festival, and though we had a fantastic roaster of rock ‘n’ rollers on the bill today, there’s one name that shines over the rest. No offense Lady Antebellum, John Fogerty, Tom Morello, Dawes, Gary Clark Jr and the rest of the twenty-three acts who got loud in London – but there was something special in the air tonight. And it smelled like the swamps of Jersey. Bruce Springsteen turned rock performance into an Olympic event, offering up one of his frenzied three hour music marathons. We laughed, we cried, we rocked.
Arriving to Hyde Park in the afternoon, we got the impression that the already-massive festival site had somehow grown even bigger! At first we thought it was just in our heads, but apparently it was true. Organizers have reportedly sold 80 thousands tickets, so many that the gates had to be moved farther back to accommodate the influx of international fans wanting to be honorary Garden State-ers for the night.
We got there just in time to see The Nightwatchman, better known as Tom Morello, take to the stage. Never one to hold back, the former Rage Against The Machine guitarist is still raging, offering a passionately political set in which he touched on everything from the worldwide financial crisis to a British fireman’s strike. In honor of what would have been musical protest pioneer Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday, Morello did a fiery rendition of the late singer’s “Ease My Revolutionary Mind,” fitting in shoutouts to Springsteen, Fogerty and other acts on the bill. “If he were alive today, he would be on the front lines of Occupy movement,” Morello said of Guthrie, who passed away in 1967.
But the highlight of the set was “World Wide Rebel’s Song,” which brought down the house as Morello invited the striking firemen onto the stage to march and sing it with him. “This song is about the kind of world I want to give to my children,” he said from the stage. “The kind of world Bruce [Springsteen] and John [Fogerty] play for. The kind of world fire fighters fight for.”
Lady Antebellum were next up, and they brought it all back home with some good ol’ stick-to-the-ribs country rock that transformed the leafy London park into a Nashville ho-down. “I’m just lookin’ for a good time,” they sang to the crowd, and man did they find it. We sat down with the band shortly before showtime, and they were just as pumped as they seemed onstage. Why, you ask? “One word: Bruce.” said Lady A singer Charles Kelley “We’re so fired up. It’s a huge honor to just be here, you know? You got John Fogerty after us as well. So we’re just fans today, we’re just going to soak it up as much as we can.”
Although the crowd hadn’t quite swelled to Springsteen Size yet, they admitted that it was still a daunting number. “What is it? 60, 70 thousand people? That’ll be the most people we’ve ever performed in front of,” confirmed Kelley. What’s more, they were slightly worried about whether or not their set would be familiar to the mostly British audience. But they could have saved themselves the stress, because the Londoners standing around us sang along to almost every song, never missing a word.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night (well, second biggest) came in the form of John Fogerty. He got a cute impromptu introduction from none other than Bruce Springsteen himself, who snuck out just long enough to say “This is my good friend John Fogerty.” The first Bruce sighting! Well any friend of Bruce’s is a friend of ours. We were pumped to hear the Creedence Clearwater legend uncap some Bayou Voodoo magic with his trademark bark, but we got a little nervous as he started to sing and a sound came out that can be best described by his own word, “fuzzy.”
“If you think my voice is fuzzy, think how it sounds on this end,” he told the crowd. We’re not totally sure what that means, but for the next thirty minutes it felt like watching a vocal tightrope act with no safety net. We were constantly in fear that his straining notes would slip, and the effect was strangely exhilarating. He even did his own version of the classic “Pretty Woman,” which must have had the velvet voiced Roy Orbison spinning in his grave.
But Forgerty turned it all around during a spiraling, overtime version of “Who’ll Stop The Rain.” It’s hard to quantify “rocking,” but we’d put money that Fogerty’s shredding on that song was the most kickass guitar-work of the festival so far. We’re amazed his strings didn’t melt. John Fogerty is no old fogey. Most of his band is at least a good twenty years younger than he is, and he not only held his own against these young turks, but he was running circles around them. And he wailed on a harmonica, too!
He concluded with (of course) “Proud Mary,” before returning to the stage for an encore with….his good friend Bruce Springsteen! The two duetted on the “Rockin’ All Over The World,” a tune most famously done by the British group Status Quo. Their version makes us want to stick napalm in our ears, but these two hoarse-throated guitar gods turned it into something that the crowd would never forget.
Then there was an hour of music-less silence on the main stage, while excitement mounted for The Boss to begin. All 80 thousand were crammed inside by now, and it was so packed you couldn’t reach into your own pocket. Our friendly HRC reps told us that they’ve never seen it so packed. Instead of pot, the unmistakable smell of cigar smoke filled the air. Welcome to the Garden State. All around us were middle aged men screaming “Bruuuuuuce!” as if he were a superhero and they were in desperate need of rescue.
Many began to lead sing-alongs for their favorite Bruce songs. An Englishman next to us burst into “We Didn’t Start The Fire” by Billy Joel, and the result was the largest display of public scorn this side of tar-and-feathering. Whether it was a joke or an honest mistake, the surrounding Bruce People were not amused.
We personally own five or six Bruce Springsteen albums plus a greatest hits compilation. If it were any other artist, we’d say that we feel reasonably qualified to talk about him, and might even bestow the honorary title of “Big Fan” upon ourselves. But in the case of Bruce Springsteen, this is not true. Real Bruce fans are a breed apart. They see his shows more often than the rest of us get haircuts. They require a special shelving unit for their Bruce tapes. We know several people who have gone on Bruce pilgrimages and we have a very dear friend who had a Bruce-themed wedding. We are not at this level. This is our first show, and when we were a kid we erroneously believed Bruce and Steve Guttenberg to be the same person. Both of these facts qualify us as a Bruce Novice.
The sun started to peak through for the first time since the festival began when Bruce finally shuffled onto the stage. He wore that “Aww shucks” look that only he can get away with when headlining in front of 80 thousand people. He also wore a vest. How the hell can he wear a vest and still look so damn cool? They make us look like a 19th century toymaker. It’s the magic of Bruce. He opend with a stripped down version of “Thunder Road,” just him and Roy Bittan on piano, slowed down and somber like a hymn.
The crowd evangelically sings all the lyrics with him. They are fantastically out of time, but it doesn’t matter. These people all sing with such conviction, it’s as if they really remembered the screen door slamming and Mary’s dress waving. They are totally under his spell. The glares we got for taking notes and not singing along were truly terrifying.
What is it about his songs that connects with people so deeply? Thousands of people have speculated much better than we ever could, but a kernel of truth could lie in the fundamental optimism of his music. It’s youthful and hopeful and it manages to kick ass all at once. Songs like “Thunder Road” and “Born To Run” are rhapsodic teenage poetry. It’s like the aural equivelent of falling in love for the first time. The sounds are all encompassing and energetic, the lyrics painfully earnest and totally firm in their convictions. Sure it’s melodramatic and a little embarrassing, (“Wrap your legs ’round these velvet rims and strap your hands ‘cross my engines”) but it makes you want to be something. Be greater! Be bigger! Pull out of here to win!
Soon it’s time for the E-Street Band to come on out and the gang launches into the classic “Badlands” before doing three cuts from his latest album Wrecking Ball: “We Take Care Of Our Own” the title track and “My Home Town,” where he gets a hand from Tom Morello. He then proceeds to seduce London Town by turning “My City In Ruins” into an epic slow jam. “Get ready for a house party,” he says before sounding off a “roll call” to introduce the E-Street crew. But the joyous occasion gets melancholy when he hangs his head and gets an achingly sad look on his face. “Are we missing someone?” he sings.The crowd shouts the name of Clarence Clemons, the E-Street anchor who passed away in June 2011. His sax duties are being filled by his nephew Jake Clemons and judging by the crowd’s cheers, he’s certainly been accepted into the fold.
As usual, Bruce is joined out front by flamboyant lead guitarist Stevie Van Zandt, who stands by his side like a pirate deputy. We were lucky enough to have an awesome chat with “Little Stevie” yesterday backstage, and we asked him if he had any fun Bruce facts that no one else already knows. “He’s really cheap,” he laughs. “He’s one of those guys…We call them guys with short arms. They can never quite reach into his pocket. You know what I mean? People may not know that. But just keep it between us.”
Of course he’s joking. Everyone has their own “Bruce is the nicest human ever” story, and there’s no doubt in our mind that they’re all basically true. During tonight’s show we personally witnessed The Boss make dozens of people’s individual dreams come true. He waded into the crowd and shook people’s hands, sang with them, let them strum his guitar. He invited a little boy onstage to sing backup for a number before gently helping him back into the audience. One dude in the audience had a sign requesting to hear “Take ‘Em As They Come,” a song off of 1980′s “The River.” Amazingly, Bruce recognized the guy, because he always found the “obscure” request funny and a little bizarre. The man in the crowd has followed Bruce all over Europe waiting for the song, and tonight is his lucky night. “You’ve spent a s–t load of Euros and you’re gonna hear this damn thing. It’s your song, buddy.”
During “Dancing In The Dark” he pulled a woman in a white dress up onto the main stage, and they danced and twirled during the sax solo. And they danced well. He picked her up in his arms and dipped her, kissed her on the cheek and they hugged like old friends. Maybe the jet-lag is doing things to our head, but it was one of the sweetest, most pure moments we’ve ever seen on stage. This was not “You’re a great audience!” schmaltz. This was real.
The show builds to a fever pitch as Bruce plays The Two Borns, “Born To Run” and “Born In The USA.” By now he’s made everybody’s musical dreams come true, but he still has one more trick up his sleeve. “If you have a heart problem, do not watch the next part of the show!” he teases. And he’s right, because he brings out a Beatle. Yes, a real live Beatle! And it’s the good one (sorry Ringo). And from that point onward it’s pure fantasyland as he and Sir Paul McCartney take off onto “I Saw Her Standing There,” complete with fireworks. Paul’s pure voice mixed with Bruce’s gravelly growl went a long way to resurrecting the sweet and sour vocal blend of Lennon and McCartney. “I’ve waited 50 years for this!” gushed Bruce. We’ve waited a lifetime.
They team up again for a long and winding version of “Twist & Shout,” trading vocal spars and guitar licks…before they were rudely/insanely/criminally shut down by the park authorities for playing after their stated noise curfew. We’re definitely sending an angry letter to the Queen. But it doesn’t matter. No need to be greedy. We got more than we ever hoped for, and that’s enough.
“I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen,” Jon Landau famously wrote back in 1974. Now Bruce is rock and roll. Tune in tomorrow to see what went down during the Hard Rock Calling festival finale!
[Photo: Getty Images]