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Bruce Springsteen – ‘Birmingham, Villa Park’ live review & setlist

By Vinh Nguyen on Jun 18, 2023

The law of Rock ‘n’ Roll is one of diminishing returns with age. The Rolling Stones, Kiss, Bon Jovi and Aerosmith are all touring bands with singers who are not really able to hit the heights of their previous 70s and 80s glories and bands whose studio output is way past their best. Not Bruce Springsteen. At 73 years old his live shows are still a thing of legend and his last original studio album, ‘Letter To You’ contained all the hallmarks of everything Springsteen fans have come to expect from him over the past 50 years.

Walking on stage at around 7.15pm on a sunny, hot night in Birmingham, UK, Springsteen and the E Street Band launched into ‘Born in the USA’ deep-cut fan-favourite “No Surrender.’ He left around 10.15pm after bringing a sizeable chunk of this football stadium crowd to tears with the emotional, heartfelt ‘I’ll See You in My Dreams’ which he played solo on an acoustic guitar, serving as a kind of soft goodbye to his fans should circumstance mean we never get to see this iconic, authentic artist again.

In-between those two songs, Springsteen rocked this soulless football ground in the only way he can. A see of arms greeted almost every song and multiple cries of ‘Bruuuuuuuuuuuuce’ resounded around the stands as song after song came in fiery blasts and heartfelt hammer-blows. The elephant in the room, when you are playing a stadium show in the middle of June in the UK, is that it is going to be light until at least 9.30pm so performers can’t rely on lights, bells and whistles to augment their songs but Springsteen is one of a rare breed of artists that don’t need that, as was proven by the seven song encore which was largely played under the full glare of the stadium lights and little else.

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Early songs, like ‘Ghosts’ and ‘Prove it All Night’ had to stand or fall on the strength of Springsteen’s performance alone and, by god, he nailed it. The church of Rock ‘n’ Roll is still alive and well in the hands of this unique artist. ‘Out in the Street’ saw him prowling the front rows like a man possessed, imploring the crowd to join him on this musical journey. The way Springsteen connects with his fans, from the hard core fan right down at the front who had been queueing at the venue since midday, to the bloke in the top corner of the Holte End stand who only came because he is an Aston Villa supporter who bought ‘Born in the USA’ on cassette back in the 80’s out for a good time on a Friday night, is amazing and something I’ve rarely seen in all my 30+ years of concert going.

When you go and see a band like Bon Jovi the setlist is often pitched to please the casual fan. I’ve read numerous interviews with Jon Bon Jovi over the years in which he states his job is to please the person attending their first Bon Jovi gig. For any artist with a sizeable back catalogue, this is a crime, ignoring the hard core fans that got you to where you are now. Springsteen refuses to do that, so “Candy’s Room’ and the seven minute Jazz-Rock epic, ‘Kitty’s Back’ were played for the long time fans leaving a good portion of the crowd a little confused as to what they were listening too although the power of the individual performances on display were fascinating to watch even if you hadn’t heard those particular songs before. Similarly, songs like ‘Last Man Standing’, which was beautifully introduced by The Boss with a touching speech about him being the last man alive from his original band that he joined back in school in 1965, and ‘Wrecking Ball’, a gaelic-tinged romp from the 2012 album of the same name, might have been unfamiliar to some but were performed with such style and verve that it didn’t really matter whether this was the first or the four hundredth time you’ve heard them.

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Springsteen’s iconic ‘Born in the USA’ album was well served in Birmingham with six songs being pulled from it. Another highlight was the tour debut of ‘The River’, delivered beautifully, as always. ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out’ is also an emotional cornerstone of the set these days since the passing of E Street legends Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici. Images of them were broadcast on the video screens, serving as a wonderful tribute to their time, impact and talent. They say time is a cruel mistress and the older Springsteen has got the more it has crept, naturally, into his writing. Both ‘Last Man Standing’ and ‘Ill See You in My Dreams’ deal with loss explicitly but a large portion of this show hints towards goodbyes, gratitude and gratefulness with Springsteen, always front and centre. The conductor of a Rock ‘n’ Roll orchestra, old father time himself, content with his life’s work but still cradling the burning flame of creative passion deep inside, as was proved by his recent outstanding stint on Broadway and the ‘Only the Strong Survive’ covers album.

At 73, Bruce Springsteen has lost none of the fire or the passion that he had in 1983 and neither has his fans. This show in Birmingham was a triumph: an inclusive stadium gathering for hard core fans and casuals alike, all gathered to worship at the altar of the high priest of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Three hours of the finest showmanship and skilled, musical talent that has gone unrivalled now for nearly 50 years. Times change, fads come and go and even Springsteen himself has gone through multiple eras (to borrow a term and a mindset from Taylor Swift) but through it all the flame endures.

Setlist: 1. No Surrender 2. Ghosts 3. Prove it All Night 4. Letter to You 5. The Promised Land 6. Out in the Street 7. Candy’s Room 8. Kitty’s Back 9. Nightshift 10. Mary’s Place 11. The E Street Shuffle 12. My Hometown 13. The River 14. Last Man Standing 15. Backstreets 16. Because the Night 17. She’s the One 18. Wrecking Ball 19. The Rising 20. Badlands 21. Thunder Road 22. Born in the USA 23. Born to Run 24. Bobby Jean 25. Glory Days 26. Dancing in the Dark 27. Tenth Avenue Freeze Out 28. I’ll See You in My Dreams Venue: Villa Park, Birmingham Date: Friday 16th June.

                                                       By James Daykin


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