While other men mellow with age and wealth, Bruce Springsteen grows angrier. His latest album, Wrecking Ball, is a tirade against the dark forces behind the financial crisis, and he spent the opening hour of this performance – the first of three UK dates – prowling the stage, like a raging militant might work an Occupy rally. He thundered through “Badlands” and “We Take Care of Our Own”, before his E Street Band – minus Springsteen’s soulmate saxophonist, the late Clarence Clemons, but supplemented by a five-strong brass section and Clemons’s nephew Jake – marched forward into battle for the brooding “My Hometown”.
The Boss hasn’t written many songs about rainy nights in Sunderland, but narratives of industrial decline, broken promises and false dawns are as woven into recent histories of north-east England as they are into Springsteen’s New Jersey. “I know you’re having hard times here too,” he spoke out into the gloom, to a stadium of anoraks, umbrellas and more than a few empty seats. Hard times make £60 tickets a difficult sell. He banged a drum, literally, in the protest waltz “Jack of all Trades”, while for “Youngstown” he contorted his body in a scream for a steeltown robbed of youth by economic depression and foreign wars.
A second hour brought more smiles, as Springsteen and fans began having fun with “Johnny 99”, “Working on the Highway”, “Out in the Street” and – oh, the irony – “Waiting for a Sunny Day”. Springsteen, inspired, he said, to pick up a guitar by the “passion in Elvis’s pants”, shook his booty in homage.
And on he danced, jogged and shadow-boxed, with barely a pause, into a third hour of hits from what seem now to have been happier times. Through “Thunder Road”, “Born to Run” and “Hungry Heart” we witnessed a 62-year-old who can still hula-hoop a Telecaster around his neck, joust with guitarist Nils Lofgren and enjoy sponge-and-water high-jinks with Steven Van Zandt, before closing with a raucous “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” tribute to Clemons.
His energy was infectious. Springsteen may trade in, as he describes, “songs about things we can do nothing about”, but it’s in towns and times close to running on empty that fans seem happiest to park up in his land of hope and dreams.