Beneath light cloud, Madrid's Bernabéu Stadium radiated both heat and noise, with three sides of the stadium towering with tens of thousands of fans. In contrast to San Sebastián, where Bruce had played to the pit by way of introduction, on stage in Madrid he quickly launched into "Badlands," shouting only "Hola Madrid!" before igniting the fire of the entire Spanish audience. With "Badlands" leading into "My Love Will Not Let You Down," it was clear that Bruce's focus was as much on the 80,000th fan as it was on the 1st. With no pause, the opening continued with "Cover Me," which featured a blistering guitar solo from Bruce — a potent reminder of Springsteen's own guitar prowess, in a band home to Nils Lofgren and Steve Van Zandt. In his element, engaging his audience as much with his electric guitar as with his voice and personality, Springsteen surveyed his massive audience, clearly enjoying the sight: tens of thousands of people jumping with their fists in the air. This image, accompanied by massive a wall of sound, set the tone for last night's concert in Madrid.
Bruce was quick to respond to the intensity of Bernabéu, capitalizing on it with stadium rocker "Wrecking Ball" before one of the defining moments of the concert. Enshrouded in darkness, Bruce paced the stage for a moment before a soft purple light descended upon the E Street Band. "My City of Ruins" made its tour debut, transforming Bernabéu stadium into a cathedral. Walking down to the center thrust deck, Bruce raised his hands in a movement which was mirrored by the crowd. Stripped down compared with the Wrecking Ball Tour, this rendition of "My City of Ruins" was characterized by a simplicity of sound. With fewer musicians on stage, and despite the absence of the conversation that came with the song in 2012, "My City of Ruins" conveyed intimacy while maintaining intensity. With sweat already dripping from his arms, Bruce conducted the E Street Band from the thrust deck as arms raised from the front row to the last. Roy Bittan's piano proved to be spectacular, a sonic metaphor for the narrative of the song itself, as he and Bruce took the crowd to near silence and then almighty crescendo.
This experience was nearly repeated with one of the only sign requests of the night, "Trapped." Few songs showcase the E Street Band's ability to command an audience like this one, with the crowd reduced to somber silence and then brought to an emphatic celebration of hope and determination within the space of only minutes. In Bernabéu, "Trapped" took us from one extreme to the other, much to the satisfaction of Springsteen, smiling as the song reached its climax.
"The River" transitioned into "Point Blank," more poignant and fine-tuned with every rendition, before the River album was put aside, exchanged for a collection of Born in the U.S.A. tracks, which Springsteen must deem more appropriate to please massive crowds. For those who love The River, the 1984 emphasis mid-set can prove disappointing, fun though it is. It might be hard to imagine it in a stadium, but for Springsteen to combine a U.S. River Tour setlist with a European audience would be to create magic.
The main set concluded with another tour premiere: "Land of Hope and Dreams" recaptured the profundity of "My City of Ruins" and offered another moment of communion. The expression on the faces of the E Street Band combined enjoyment with a serious understanding of the profundity of the moment. This juxtaposition encapsulated a memorable sign from the Magic tour: "It's only rock 'n' roll, but it feels like love."
An encore similar to previous nights followed, before the high-powered concert drew to a close with "Bobby Jean" and "Twist and Shout." After this intense but relatively shorter concert of just over three hours, Bruce remained on stage while the E Street Band filed out, taking an acoustic guitar and harmonica from Kevin Buell. Returning to the center microphone, Springsteen led the 80,000-strong crowd in not "This Hard Land" but "Thunder Road," its acoustic premiere on this tour and a true moment of magic.
Before leaving the stage himself, Bruce stood above the audience, holding his guitar into the air. Taking a moment to appreciate the spectacle, Bruce shouted, "Remember, the E Street Band loves you!" Hesitating briefly on the staircase before descending, as though teasing at the prospect of another song, Bruce left the stage and an audience that continued to call out his name. He also left a concert that raised questions as to the nature of the ongoing River Tour. As the tour progresses through the UK & Ireland in the coming weeks, its arc may bend toward the magic of his 1980 masterpiece, or toward a series of concerts lacking in narrative but generating massive energy.
Casually walking on stage a little before midnight to little fanfare and no introductory music, Bruce and the Band immediately ripped into the same opening three-pack that began Barcelona's concert. Yet the differences between the two shows were immediately apparent: not only was the festival sound system jarringly flat, the crowd, despite its size, initially seemed to be one of the most tepid of the entire tour so far — American leg included — with very few even fist-pumping to "Badlands." Further, the festival's stage design literally separated Bruce from his audience by an uncomfortable distance, figuratively symbolizing the chasm that he would have to cross to engage this more reserved crowd.
Springsteen, as you'd expect, stepped up his game in the face of such a challenge. Forgoing the usual River songs, he hit the crowd with a killer one-two punch of "Cover Me" and the tour premiere of "Darkness on the Edge of Town." By the time he began physically interacting with the crowd during "Hungry Heart" by walking down the long catwalk and all over the field — which was dwarfed by a colorful Ferris Wheel in the distance and had a zip line (yes, a zip line) literally above it which festivalgoers periodically zoomed across during the concert — Springsteen had already begun massaging the crowd into the palm of his hand. They may not have been familiar with the "wife and kids in Baltimore Jack," but their voices were definitely heard for the chorus.
Even though it was technically another stop on The RiverTour 2016, the featured LP on this night was — unsurprisingly, given the greatest hits expectation — Born in the U.S.A, with nine of its 12 songs being played, three times as many as from the tour's titular album.We're now a "My Hometown" away from the entirety of Born in the U.S.A. being played in Europe before the entirety of The River. Though Bruce and the Band brought out the expected heavy-hitters from the 23rd best-selling record of all time globally, the crowd also lapped up the deeper cuts, including the unexpected tour premieres of "Downbound Train" and "I'm on Fire." The latter received the loudest sing-along of the night.
Bruce's focus on Born in the U.S.A. also stretched to the other album from the era, Nebraska, with two songs to satiate fans: "Atlantic City" — unfortunately, a song that really suffers from a lack of widespread crowd involvement — and the tour premiere of "Johnny 99," a rollicking rendition that highlighted the mighty power of the entire E Street Band (we'll forgive Jake for coming in a bit too early with his cowbell). Sandwiched between these two relatively lesser-known-songs were the often-inseparable Born in the U.S.A. twins, "Darlington County" and "Working on the Highway," both of which had Bruce really playing to the crowd on the catwalk and beyond.
This stretch of four songs encapsulates the subtle brilliance of the evening's setlist construction. Bruce knew he had play to the festival's expected greatest hits crowd, yet he did so without disappointing his loyal fan base. For perhaps the first time all tour, fans truly had no idea what song was coming next (until the encores, but by then everyone was having too much of a blast to care), and it was refreshingly thrilling. Take the "night" two-pack in the middle of the show: for every tour staple like crowd-favorite "Because the Night," Bruce threw in a tour premiere such as "Spirit in the Night," a more obscure track during which he made a point of physically interacting with the audience more than normal to ensure everyone was always along for the ride.
Yet the ride on this night didn't just include those at the concert; thanks to a high-quality live stream, Bruce fans from nation to nation were able to tune in to watch. Even though Bruce had won over the enormous crowd by the end of the show — with the set-closing, acoustic "This Hard Land" eliciting tears from locals in my vicinity — what they lacked in typical E Street Band crowd energy was more than made up for by E Street Nation's participation all across the world. My phone was blowing up throughout the concert, with enthusiastic messages from fellow fans following along at homecommunally sharing in the rock 'n' roll spectacular.
Though the concert was on the shorter side — clocking in at a little over two-and-a-half hours, Springsteen's shortest show in a long time but still the longest set of the day — it served as yet another reminder that no matter the country, no matter the venue, no matter the makeup or size of the crowd, very few people in the world are as good at what they do as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
Beneath a warm blue sky, shortly after 9pm, the E Street Band ascended to the stage, followed by Bruce Springsteen, to rapturous applause. Despite the Basque audience being only half the size of their Catalan counterparts, the anticipation was palpable, as Anoeta Stadium erupted with a roar few audiences can achieve. For this second concert of the European River Tour, Bruce arrived armed with an acoustic guitar, clearly relishing the opportunity to indulge in his deafening welcome.
With his eyes set on the center thrust deck, Bruce shouted, "Kaixo Donostia!" — "Hello Donosti! — and smiled as though laughing before dancing down to the thrust deck. Immediately, the opening chords of "Working on the Highway" set the crowd alight, with Bruce thrusting his way into the song. Surrounded by hundreds of fans who had queued for more than two days to achieve their position at the front, Bruce was playing to and partying with the diehards.
The E Street Band launched into "No Surrender," with Bruce back on the stage and jumping in place, in both a response to the audience's movement and a feeding of their hunger for intensity. This ferocity continued until, upon collecting a sign request, Bruce introduced "Independence Day." Cut from the set in Barcelona three nights earlier, "Independence Day" allowed the E Street Band to transform vigor into intimacy, with Bruce introducing the song as being about "fathers and sons, fathers and sons."
With the complete album performance dropped for the European River Tour, "Independence Day" provided a welcome return to the narrative which defined the U.S leg, in which Bruce felt able to introduce and contextualize music that is now 35 years old. "Independence Day" clearly resonated with the crowd, which fell silent as the E Street Band played cloaked in a purple-blue light. Despite the age of both the song and band, the performance of "Independence Day" felt distinctly youthful: the E Street Band channeled the energy of youth and coupled it with the experience of their age. This culmination created a highlight of last night's concert; to close one's eyes would be to exist either in 1981 or 2016.
The reinventon of "old" songs continued as Bruce granted a request for "Fire." Springsteen collected the sign, written modestly on the back of an abanico (hand fan), before teasing the crowd with the possibility of it being played. He held the fan to his face, pouting into the camera, flirting with the crowd, before announcing, "We haven't played this in a real long time." With the stage turning red, the renowned bassline of "Fire" echoed through Anoeta Stadium, almost pulsating.
Despite the 35,000 fans in the stadium, Bruce played "Fire" almost entirely to Patti. Beckoning her to the center mic, their lips almost touched as Patti joined Bruce to harmonize. If "Independence Day" channeled the youth of the original River Tour, then "Fire" channeled the sensuality of the Tunnel of Love Express Tour. The band was particularly tight, with Steve and Nils directing, allowing Bruce and Patti to get lost in the lyrics.
"Point Blank" followed "The River," with Roy's piano intro continuing to prove a musical feat. Bruce adopted a serious tone and expression, looking almost angry as the band embodied the song's solemn nature.
"Murder Incorporated" premiered next and allowed for an epic guitar showdown between Bruce and Steve, who traded notes as though dueling. With the entire crowd jumping and throwing their fists to the air, Bruce turned to the camera and screamed, baring his teeth before jumping in place. At this point, Bruce had established Donosti as being a concert which walked a line between profundity and rockabilly party. "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," less profound, had its tour premiere, too — the enthusuastic sign-holder getting a ride on Springsteen's shoulders — before they dug deep again on "Drive All Night."
A set similar to Barcelona continued, until the concert ended with a solo-acoustic performance of "This Hard Land." Upon completing "Bobby Jean," Bruce told the Basque audience to "remember, the E Street Band loves you!" It was an emotional climax to a high-energy performance which lasted some 3 hours and 40 minutes. Despite having already played an additional song in the encore, with the E Street Band having left the stage, Bruce paused on the steps while in the process of leaving.
With his head bowed, Bruce took a moment to himself, before turning to smile at the roaring crowd. Clearly moved by his audience, Bruce collected an acoustic guitar and harmonica and returned to the center microphone. With the house lights up, alone on stage, Bruce began strumming the opening chords to "This Hard Land," which the crowd accompanied him in singing nearly in its entirety. To hear a stadium of 35,000 people singing together epitomized the magic that draws fans to Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band.
Bruce thanked the audience before reminding them again, "the E Street Band loves you." Leaving the stage, Bruce glanced back and smiled before disappearing into the darkness. With what appeared to be a tear in his eye, Bruce's final expression was one which encapsulated the story of the night: "the older you get, the more it means."
With a full River album performance no longer part of the tour, "Meet Me in the City" was dropped for the first time, too, as the European leg kicked off with "Badlands." Followed by "No Surrender" and "My Love will Not Let You Down," it was a blast of any opening three-pack that put everyone on their feet. Bruce and the band then dove into The River and performed the majority of the double album, 12 out of 20 songs; 16 River songs had been setlisted, but he ended up skipping four of them and also interspersed songs from other eras. "Independence Day" was dropped when Bruce decided to pick a sign for "I'm Goin' Down" instead — funnily, the same song that made us miss "Drive All Night" at the 2008 show in the same venue.
The middle part of the show, which loosely followed The River's second LP, featured some of the night's most memorable performances: "Point Blank," with its amazing piano intro, was followed by an intense "Atlantic City"; it was a powerful juxtaposition that showed off the advantages of Bruce mixing up the setlists again. Later, setting aside "Wreck on the Highway," Springsteen closed the River portion with — finally, for Barcelona — a long, heartfelt "Drive All Night."
In between, it was sign time. Bruce picked up a lot of requests, skipped "Cadillac Ranch" and "I'm a Rocker," and delivered more crowd favorites: "Darlington County" and "Glory Days." (He showed the other side of that sign, which had "Growin' Up," and allowed the audience to choose; the older gem lost, sadly for hardcore fans). By then the excitement level was off the charts, the crowd's energy feeding the band and vice versa, so it was time to rock some more: "I Wanna Be With You" (finally a River outtake!) was a most-welcomed addition, followed by a loose, butt-shaking "Ramrod" and a beautiful "The Price You Pay."
The post-River segment was a blast, too: intense and hard-rocking, with a great vintage solo from Bruce on "Prove it All Night" and Nils Lofgren's stratospheric guitar on "Because the Night," which was mesmerizing. An audible, "She's the One," brought some of that cherished '70s feeling to the show before a great Bruce/Patti duet on "Brilliant Disguise," always underrated and underplayed.
"Thunder Road" closed the main set at the three-hour mark, with the whole stadium singing Bruce's most cherished and unforgettable lyrics. He thanked Barcelona and Catalunya again, as he had on multiple occasions during the night, and surprised us with an unexpected "Purple Rain" to open the encores. With "Born in the U.S.A." — which was loud, louder and beyond that — the whole building was literally moving. That was the beginning of half an hour of total crowd happiness, everyone dancing non-stop, raising fists, singing along, jumping (and some, with too much to drink, literally falling down)… basically, enjoying every minute of it. A moving "Bobby Jean" felt like a bonus song after "Shout," but just when it seemed like could be no more, Bruce came back to the front with his classic "No more! Yeah? No!" routine, which forced another encore and the whole place exploded again to the rhythm of "Twist and Shout."
Was this one of his best shows ever? No. Was this up to his best nights in the city? Certainly no. But it doesn't matter. He came, he delivered (plenty), he rocked, he spread tons of happiness, he conquered. Again, and again, and again.
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