When the band arrives on stage, promptly enough at about 8:15, for in true E-Street style there is no support, they are all business. Sporting matching uniforms of black pants and coloured waistcoats, they are here to work. They are not here to stare at their feet, they do not think that they’re doing you a favour by being here; this is not some crowd of indie chin scratchers. Each and every one of the four hundred or so (closer to fifteen really) road-hardened bastards on the stage look ready to fight to win you over. The best bands, like this one, know they have a job to do. If you have an arse at all, they are here to kick it for you.
And then there are the backing singers. Jesus Christ, the backing singers. If I said to you imagine a cross between Charlie’s Angels and Tina & The Ikettes, dressed like the welcoming party on some pleasure planet from an adult version of Star Trek, you might have some inkling as to what was going on. Amazon Queen Jessie Wagner is, I swear, at least seven feet tall with an afro at least five feet wide, and looks like she could kick your scrawny carcass from here to the sea, in what would be the greatest twenty seconds of your life. Van Zandt refers to them more than once as “The Wonder Women”, he is underselling them.
Steve himself comes on, more scarf and bandana than man, in a heavy coat that isn’t going to last long in this heat, all smiles, to a wild reception. This is the man who helped direct the E-Street Band, perhaps the greatest live act of all time, so he knows a thing or two about putting musicians together, and it shows right from the throw in; they’re as tight as John Holmes’ pants. ‘Soulfire’ and ‘I’m Coming Back’, both from the much better than expected new album, are Springsteen without Springsteen. All the ingredients are there – the punchy horn section, the screaming guitars, and the call and response vocals – proving that Van Zandt wasn’t just holding the Boss’ jacket all these years. He displays Albert King style chops for a cover of Etta James’ “Blues Is My Business’, but, in proper band leader style, he generously hands the solos around. Trombone, Hammond organ, Piano, saxophone – everyone takes a turn.
In a very recent Hot Press interview, Van Zandt spoke of his love for The Promise, the album of Darkness On The Edge Of Town outtakes that Springsteen finally released in 2010. ‘Love On The Wrong Side Of Town’, a Van Zandt/Springsteen co-write originally recorded by Southside Johnny and The Asbury Dukes, is very obviously from the same period and is one of tonight’s highlights. The band go full revival meeting before a powerful ‘St. Valentine’s Day’. ‘Standing In The Line Of Fire’ deliberately evokes Ennio Morricone with appropriately twangy guitar, congas and a trumpet solo. ‘I Saw The Light’ kicks off and you think to yourself “this is a rockin’ tune!” but then the backing singers start oohing, aahing and dancing, and every man in the room loses five minutes of his life in the gazing. I had to remind myself to take some notes.
He could certainly never be accused of having anything less than the most catholic of tastes; there’s a fabulous doo-wop tribute in ‘The City Sleeps Tonight’, we go back to the movies for an extended take on James Brown’s ‘Down And Out In New York City’ from the Black Caesar soundtrack, a beautiful mandolin and accordion scored ‘Princess Of Little Italy’ from his first, underrated, solo album Men Without Women follows, then a three song reggae set (‘Solidarity’, ‘Leonard Peltier’, and ‘I Am A Patriot’, getting another Vicar St airing following Jackson Brown’s residency last week), and on to the infectious Latin rhythms of 1987’s ‘Bitter Fruit’. The problem with a lot of eighties records is that they sound like records made in the eighties. The sheer muscle of the Disciples of Soul, and drummer Charlie Drayton (Keith Richards, Paul Simon, Miles Davis, everyone) in particular, takes care of that problem. ‘Forever’, again from the first album, sounds like some long lost Motown nugget, and the band are roared back on after a short break for the closing ‘Out Of The Darkness’, which, in an alternate universe, provided the soundtrack to one of those “Rocky” training montages, and that is very high praise indeed.
Van Zandt’s lifetime love affair with rock n’ roll, in all its myriad forms, shines through in every note played and sung tonight. A great show.
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