When The E Street Band lost its Big Man last year, some of us wondered if we’d ever see Bruce Springsteen take them out on another big tour, or if their shows would ever be quite as good again. We didn’t have to wait long to find out, and not even a day of torrential rain could dampen the spirits in this night of fantastic music, treasured memories and at least one spectacular tumble.
It had been a lousy day in Manchester, with rain lashing down until not long before The Boss took to the stage, having swapped his footballing allegiance following a date at Old Trafford last time out. But his sunny infectious enthusiasm seemed to defeat the elements, and only a couple of brief showers dared try to rain on his parade, which lasted well over three hours and packed in some great new songs, some old favourites and a few rarities too.
With any stadium gig, it can take a little while to really get going, and the early start (which is necessary when you’ve got 30 songs to fit in, along with a load of testifyin’) only adds to that strange feeling of watching live music while it’s still daylight. But with Badlands, No Surrender and We Take Care Of Our Own, the Band did they best to blast away the chatter from those who were still busy discussing the rain and their exciting trips to get booze. By the double-header of Wrecking Ball and Death To My Hometown, the band were cooking and the gig was flying.
Even by this early stage, it was obvious that while Clarence Clemons has left an unfillable void in the E Street Band, his nephew Jake is the only person who could ever come close to filling it. Throughout the night he plays his uncle’s famous saxophone parts and exudes the kind of character and personality that have already made him popular beyond the sentimental value of his family connection. During Dancing In The Dark, one girl managed to get her ‘Dance with Jake’ sign seen by Springsteen and was able to boogie along next to him on-stage. It was hard to tell which of them looked more thrilled, but one thing The Boss and his band do very well is making every song in every gig seem like the most fun they’ve ever had.
Jake Clemons is one of a group of new musicians playing with them on this tour to provide the extra instrumentation needed for some of the Wrecking Ball numbers, and they actually do somehow add a lot to what was already a huge sound, and The E Street Shuffle has probably never sounded as funky as it does now. Curt Ramm on trumpet certainly made a name for himself towards the end when his moment to shine alongside Springsteen came and instead went head over heels and almost broke his instrument, as well as reducing The Boss to fits of giggles. Luckily, neither Ramm nor his trumpet seemed to suffer any ill effects beyond irreparable damage to his dignity.
Of course, the big numbers were always welcomed by the crowd, but some of the quieter moments were also special, not least a wonderfully defiant Jack Of All Trades from the new album, and a solo piano performance of The Promise and a requested Save My Love. The best crowd sing-a-long was the timely Waitin’ On A Sunny Day, which came moments after a downpour and helped keep the rain away until Thunder Road in the encore, and the riotous trio of Prove It All Night (with the electrifying extended ’78 guitar intro), Two Hearts and You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch) saw Springsteen and Stevie Van Zandt doing their best bromance schtick.
Into the encore and Born To Run was typically amazing, as was Bobby Jean, but the closing duo were particularly memorable. The first was Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, which began after the 62-year-old Springsteen feigning exhaustion and needing to be revived with the magic sponge by Miami Steve, before climbing on top of his piano and doing a strip tease. The song paused when it came to the famous line about The Big Man joining the band, with the musicians falling silent while the screens showed images and clips of Clarence. It could have been mawkish, but was perfectly judged and a fine tribute.
That would have been a touching finale to the night, and has been the closer a lot on this Wrecking Ball tour, but Springsteen wasn’t done with Manchester yet and launched into a version of Twist And Shout that came close to eclipsing everything else they’d played. The crowd were in the palm of his hands, singing and dancing along like we hadn’t all been doing it for more than three hours. By the time that finished, everyone really did have to go home, but they’d seen another legendary gig by the greatest showman in rock and roll. His band may have been a Big Man down, but were just as good as ever and still look like they could keep on doing this for many more years to come.