It’s four in the evening and sunny. That’s not unusual for a mid-July day in the Northern Hemisphere. But I’m writing this on the outskirts of Limerick city and anyone familiar with Ireland’s third largest city will be only too aware that it’s not noted for its sunshine. Recently, however, the Limerick of Frank McCourt’s raintrodden Angela’s Ashes, like the rest of Ireland, has been experiencing its hottest summer in seven years and there’s no sign of it abating. The unusual weather has brought warm days and nights, sunshine and no rain. As a result, people are constantly in a good mood, more optimistic and far happier. This unexpected heat wave has had to compete with two other unusual events this week. On Sunday, the Limerick hurling team won its first Munster championship in 17 years, when they defeated provincial rivals Cork in front of 30,000 sports fans at Limerick’s Gaelic Grounds in Ireland’s national sport. Two days later, at the home of the Munster rugby team, Thomond Park, over 30,000 music fans came to watch Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band make it a memorable few days for the city by the River Shannon. Many people got to experience the weather, the hurling and the music. Due to work commitments, I could only watch Sunday’s final on television, but I was there on Tuesday to see the concert of a lifetime by my favourite performer.
Last year, rumours began circulating that Bruce and the E Street Band would be returning to Ireland in 2013 and my friend John and I resolved that we’d go see him for the third time since 2008. We couldn’t believe it when it was announced that Springsteen would be playing Limerick’s Thomond Park! We knew there would be huge demand when the tickets went on sale, but John managed to get them easily and we were able to relax for a few months. All of a sudden, July 16th, 2013 rolled around and Limerick were Munster champions and the sun shone, having no alternative, on everything new. Naturally, the combination of the hot nights and my excitement about seeing Bruce and company in Limerick meant that I didn’t get much sleep the night before. Around lunchtime, I took the bus into the city to meet John and met a lovely couple from Cork named James and Sineád who, judging by James’s Springsteen t-shirt, were also going to the gig. I commiserated with them about Sunday’s match and the three of us took the bus into town, met John and stopped of at The Curragower for lunch and liquid refeshments along the way. We were joined by our Bob Dylan-loving friend Jimmy, who had only ever seen Springsteen at the Seeger Sessions.
A combination of the lovely weather, the knowledge of being Munster champions and the expectations of Springsteen’s visit meant that there was a nice buzz around town. We decided to hit out to the ground to sample the atmosphere, and more importantly, to get in line to get the magic wristbands that would allow us entry to the pit in front of the stage to join the uberfans who had been queueing up for days. Even though they were both working and had to drive up from the county of Cork, my sister and her husband were already at the ground and were in a second queue for the pit after about 800 early birds had already gotten in. When we got to the ground around 3.30, there were a lot of people around and, after quite a bit of misinformation from various stewards, we managed to get into the stadium and get our hands on those valuable wristbands. The stewards and security seemed a bit taken aback by having to deal with such large crowds before 5.00 and nobody seemed to be searched as we entered the ground.
The reason for this panic soon became apparent when Bruce appeared on the stage for a rare and unexpected solo acoustic session. The pit was nearly full at this stage and the roar that greeted his arrival on stage around 5.30 emptied the bars and brought more people onto the pitch and into the stands. The early arrivees were rewarded with a couple of songs from his first album and a song he wrote for Southside Johnny. Though primarily associated with songs about cars, he opened this impromptu set with Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street, a song about a mode of transport that’s more familiar to me. After that, he put down his acoustic guitar and went out to the fans who’d been hanging around for days for a moment like this. It’s a tradition for fans to hold up signs with the names of songs that they’d like him to play. The most committed fans were at the front of the stage and I was amazed when he started greeting some of them by their first names. He rejected some of the titles on the grounds that they’d be better with the full band, but he surprised everybody again by sitting down at the piano to perform a great version of For You.
He finished this short set with a song he wrote for Southside Johnny called Hearts of Stone. He claimed that this was his first time performing it at a gig and I’ve found no evidence to suggest he’s wrong. It was certainly the first time the song was played on the Wrecking Ball tour and would be the first of three tour premieres heard in Limerick. At the end of this short ten-minute set, Bruce bade us goodbye and said he’d see us later. If the beautiful weather and sporting success weren’t enough of an omen that this was going to be an exceptional gig, then this special treat confirmed that it was time to get the superlatives out. Perhaps he would do something else that he’d been doing on this tour. In the UK, and some European cities, the band had been performing one of three album in their entirety. Those albums were Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in the USA. I felt that if things kept going the way they were then we might get one of those in Limerick.
Bruce returned with this expanded version of the E Street Band just before 7.30 and launched into a couple of songs that only appear on the Live in Dublin album. The opener was the gospel tune, This Little Light of Mine, which also received its tour premiere and was followed by American Land. These two songs set the tone for the evening and got the crowd going right from the start. The show began for me with Badlands, the first of two songs from my favourite album. Such an early appearance for that album’s opener quashed my hopes of hearing the band play the Darkness album all the way through, but I only thought of that later. The versions of that song and The Promised Land were brilliant and I hold out hope that I still might hear the whole album in Cork. I’m really getting into the new album as well and one of its standout tracks, Death to My Hometown, was the first of five tracks from Wrecking Ball that also included We Take Care of Our Own, Jack of All Trades as well as the title track before 9.00 and Land of Hope & Dreams nearer to the end. These are probably the album’s strongest tracks and each of them sounds better live than they do on the album. Other highlights of the first hour included a mass singalong on The River’s Hungry Heart and another early favourite of mine, Spirit in the Night.
Bruce went looking for signs after Spirits and, while he grabbed a load of them, he only played one. It was the third and final tour premiere of the evening and the first of two soul covers: Ain’t Too Proud to Beg (an ironic choice considering that the sign holder did have to cajole the song from The Boss). It’s a song the band has hardly ever played and a brief discussion between Bruce and Stevie helped them figure out what key to play the song in. The world’s greatest bar band then played it like it was one of their own, including a brilliant sax solo from Jake Clemons, who was impressive throughout. Everyone on stage, on the pitch and in the stands was having a lot of fun at this stage, but Bruce also has a serious side and it was time for the first of the evening’s more poignant moments. Recent events in the United States have seen the reintroduction of American Skin (41 Shots) into the set. Bruce introduced the song by saying, “I want to send this one out as a letter back home. For justice for Trayvon Martin.” The ten-minute version that followed was full of anger and emotion, best exemplified by a raging guitar solo that recalled more renowned axemen like Hendrix and Neil Young. The band stopped playing towards the end as the crowd chanted out the coda of “41 Shots” in a very moving conclusion. Once the dust had settled it was time to get the crowd to join in on a more traditional singalong for the title track of Bruce’s fifth album, The River. We were now thirteen songs and nearly an hour and a half into a gig that hadn’t slackened off for a second. It was well on its way to becoming the best gig I’ve ever witnessed and what happened next confirmed just that.
The name of this blog takes its name from the title of the song I’m holding in the sign at the top of this post. Thunder Road opens Springsteen’s breakthrough album and it’s one of my favourite openers on an album, one of my favourite songs and, surely, my favourite song by Bruce. It’s generally accepted to be one of his best and most distinctive songs and it certainly sums up my relationship with Springsteen and his music. On the one hand, it’s about those two constant themes that his detractors use against him: cars and girls. I’ve nothing against the latter, but I’ve little interest in the former. In fact, I don’t even know how to drive, though this disinterest doesn’t preclude me from enjoying his many songs about this subject. On the other hand, Thunder Road also focuses on the themes of redemption and freedom and I think it’s this that draws me to Springsteen’s music and Thunder Road in particular. Nevertheless, Bruce doesn’t perform the song as often as he used and only occasionally in Ireland. He didn’t play it at either of the previous two gigs I’ve attended, so I decided to make the sign.
As it turns out, I needn’t have bothered. Bruce and the band took a break as he decided to say a few words. He revealed that the Limerick weather wasn’t what he had expected and told us that the heat and the sunshine and the freshness of the air reminded him of summer nights in New Jersey. He said he set a lot of his songs at this time as it meant that the characters were more exposed. He then announced that he was going to play us an album he wrote when he was 24 and when he took his harmonica out of his pocket, I knew what was coming. The next five minutes delivered an amazing version of Thunder Road and I, and many more, sang along with every word, perhaps a little too enthusiastically. You see, I wasn’t really in control for those five minutes as the song sang me instead of me singing the song. The last line was a bittersweet moment as it means a lot to me, but also highlights that there are no more words left. However, it also contains a pretty powerful outro and I quite enjoyed that as well. I thought I’d get a bit emotional, but I held it together and really enjoyed the band’s performance of the rest of the album.
Jake was wonderful again on a fine tribute to his late uncle and the title track was its usual barnstorming self. I felt that some of the audience’s attention may have waned as the band played Born to Run’s more relaxed two closing numbers. Bruce probably knew this and, following a well-deserved bow from the band, got everybody going again with the popular Waitin’ on a Sunny Day, featuring a special guest appearance from 12-year-old birthday-boy Ross. A couple more of Bruce’s best recent songs followed before the band took another bow before the encore, though they didn’t actually leave the stage. The closing set included nearly half of the Born in the USA album and began with the most powerful version of My Hometown that I’ve heard. That might have been because Bruce dedicated the song to the injured Limerick jockey, JT McNamara. A few songs later, Bruce and Stevie donned some funny hats for a version of Glory Days that he dedicated to the newly-crowned Munster champions! These shenanigans summed up the sense of fun that was evident on stage and around the stadium all night. Earlier, Bruce accepted a gigantic Irish passport in his name from an audience member and, to prove his Irishness, he grabbed a pint of beer from another person in the audience and downed it in one go.
Back at the encore, more fun was to be had from Bobby Jean and Dancing in the Dark. These songs bookended the night’s third track from The River and an unbelievably soulful rendition of Drive All Night, another request from an audience member, who couldn’t contain her emotions right from the start. Of course, Bruce wanted to send us home on a high and he and the band achieved that with a rousing version of Shout by The Isley Brothers that had the whole joint jumping. And then we were right back where we started three and a half hours earlier when the opener, This Little Light of Mine, returned to close the show. Apparently, this may have been another first at a Bruce gig and it was a nice touch that suggested that the whole gig took place in the middle of this song. Then the band took their bows again and reluctantly left the stage. We were half expecting them to come back, but it was now 11.00pm and the lights came on. This is a residential area, after all, and we didn’t want to spoil the excellent reputation that Limerick has recently built up locally, nationally and internationally by waking up those who have the ability to sleep at 11.00pm on a warm summer’s evening when The Boss is in town and Limerick are Munster champions. Instead, we all walked quietly into the heart of the city where the powers that be had had the oversight to extend pub opening hours for the night that was in it. What else could we do but continue to celebrate the fine weather, the Munster title and the visit of The Boss until it was four in the morning and no longer sunny.
The second image above is taken from the cover of the July 20th, 2013 edition of The Limerick Leader