Review 2013-07-24 First Direct Arena, Leeds, England

LIVE AT LEEDS WITH THE E STREET ORCHESTRA

A rare U.K. arena show from 2013 for November's "Second Friday"

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Such is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's popularity in the U.K. that they typically appear in large outdoor venues to meet demand. For the Wrecking Ball tour in 2012, it was business as usual: four stadium and festival appearances that summer. It was a big show by a big band in big venues: with many open-air dates, Springsteen and his 16-piece band would cover North America, South America, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, and tour Europe twice in consecutive summers.

Near the end of that 18-month trek, however, on their 2013 European "victory lap," they scaled things down for a comparatively intimate night, christening a brand-new indoor arena in Leeds.

It was Springsteen's first concert in this northern city since 1985, when he played for 80,000 people at Roundhay Park; the new arena had a capacity of 13,500. Tickets sold out in minutes, and fans began arriving several days early to secure a place at the front. Today, Leeds, July 24, 2013 joins Wrecking Ball-era recordings from the Apollo Theatre, Helsinki, and Rome, making a worthy addition to the archive series.

When Springsteen and the E Street Big Band (including five horn players and three backing vocalists but without Patti Scialfa) walked onstage at the First Direct Arena, it had yet to officially open. Elton John was due to perform the inaugural show in September, but press reports suggested that Springsteen requested this special "pre-launch concert" at the £60 million venue.

After more than 120 shows, the band was firing on all cylinders. The concert began with Max Weinberg's pounding introduction to "Roulette," and the barrage continued with "My Love Will Not Let You Down" and "No Surrender." The tempo slowed for a deep-cut pairing of a majestic "Something in the Night" and the U.K. debut of the brooding "American Skin (41 Shots)."

As a tour progresses, Springsteen shakes up the setlist, throwing in rarities, curve balls, and one-offs. Leeds was one of those nights, with four tour premieres, five U.K. debuts, and two European debuts.

Three tour premieres in a row came after Springsteen scooped up armfuls of request signs. The first selection was already on the setlist. "We knew this was coming, and we've done a little bit of rehearsal on this," he admitted. With the relevant sign ("Local Hero – We Dare U!") placed in front of his microphone stand, he began the first performance of the song in a decade. Extended to six minutes and driven by the horn section, it reinforced the argument that all those early-'90s albums needed was some serious E Street muscle.

The only tour performance of Darkness outtake "Gotta Get That Feeling" from The Promise ("Steve's always complaining that we don't play anything off of this record…") was followed by the Creedence classic "Bad Moon Rising," last played with John Fogerty on the Vote For Change tour in 2004. This two-and-a-half-minute classic was flawless, a reminder that the E Streeters have always been a top-notch covers band.

"We're gonna try one more crazy request here," Springsteen announced, adding, "We may not get through the middle of this, because it gets tricky…." With multiple twists, turns, and shifting tempos, the U.K. debut performance of 1973's "Thundercrack," a quirky ten-minute opus, made for a joyous blast from the ancient past.

Five songs from Wrecking Ball dominated the show's second half, including the exuberant, gospel-flavored "Shackled and Drawn" ("Preach it, Cindy!"), the set-closing "Land of Hope and Dreams," and the rarely played "This Depression," one of the record's superior cuts. It's a song of quiet desperation that many can identify with, and it always deserved greater exposure.

Returning for the encores, with just a few stops left on the tour (two shows to come in Ireland and four in South America), Springsteen took a moment to acknowledge the efforts of his travelling army of diehard followers. "They're there every night, and they provide a tremendous amount of fuel and inspiration for our band."

"Secret Garden," a surprise request, led the encore, performed for the first time since June 2000 in New York. "A song we might have played once or twice," Springsteen rightly noted — and they've only played it a few times since. "Atlantic City" preceded a string of greatest hits that ended with "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out."

The band left after a climactic, eight-minute version of the Isley Brothers' "Shout" — but Springsteen wasn't finished. He returned alone, his T-shirt soaked with sweat after nearly three-and-a-half hours onstage. "Nothing to it," he said, pausing to take a breath. Ending the 29-song show with solo-acoustic renderings of "If I Should Fall Behind" and "Thunder Road," he added, "Thanks for a great night. This is a beautiful building! It's a great place to play. Really loved it here."

Local press concurred: "If last night's opening showcase was anything to go by, the future looks bright for the city's First Direct Arena," said the Yorkshire Evening Post, describing the concert as "the most anticipated gig of the year in Yorkshire" and emphasizing that it was "one of the most intimate shows that Springsteen will play on his global tour."

The indoor setting allowed us to fully appreciate the power of the E Street Orchestra, the contributions made by the horns and singers, and the amazing energy that Springsteen exerted. It's bound to come through in the recording. This was truly one for the ages: a show that had apparently been organized at Springsteen's request, in a venue that was half the size of most American arenas, with a setlist to die for.

By Mike Saunders via Backstreets.com.
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