By Erik Flannigan
Looking back today, as Springsteen winds down over a year of solo shows in a 975-person theater, the 2012-13 Wrecking Ball tour stands in stark relief. Far from going it alone, Bruce augmented the first E Street Band tour of the post-Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici era with a horn section, back-up singers, and a percussionist for his biggest on-stage line-up since Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom. It was a band built for stadiums, and many did it play, including two runs through Europe in consecutive years.
But upon his return to the United Kingdom in the summer of 2013, it is said Springsteen himself requested that he and the band christen the newly constructed First Direct Arena (also known as Leeds Arena). The 13,000-seater is configured so all seats face the stage, and it boasts superior acoustics because it wasn’t designed for basketball or hockey like most arenas. “This is a great room,” Springsteen tells the Leeds faithful. “You play anything in here, it’s gonna sound good.”
Moving his biggest band indoors from stadiums and in doing so becoming the first artist to play the state-of-the-art “super amphitheatre” would prove to be a tasty recipe for a memorable performance. Leeds 2013 is not only chock full of treats, but it captures Bruce and the band at their road-tested yet relaxed best.
Bruce fires the special-setlist flare right from the start, opening the show with a rare and potent “Roulette.” It’s the first shot in a staggering top of the show that continues with “My Love Will Not Let You Down” into “No Surrender.” With the final note of “No Surrender” still sustaining, the set slides down gorgeously into “Something in the Night,” a performance that reinforces the song’s beauty and majesty. The same can be said for “American Skin (41 Shots),” a tale as relevant, a crescendo as cathartic today as ever. Perhaps it is going too far to call both songs underappreciated, but the pairing here reinforces their stature in Bruce’s songwriting canon.
The mood lightens through “The Promised Land” and “Hungry Heart,” leading to a trio of tour premieres, the kind of sequence many fans dream of, where it feels like anything can (and will) happen. It commences with the delightful “Local Hero” from Lucky Town, a song rarely performed with the E Street Band and arranged here (in its only Wrecking Ball tour appearance) as a best of both worlds, matching E Street muscle with backing vocals a la the 1992-93 tour courtesy of the E Street Choir.
Turns out fans aren’t the only ones who appreciate rare tracks. “Steve always complains that we don’t play anything off this record,” Bruce admits, introducing “Gotta Get That Feeling.” “This is an outtake from Darkness on the Edge of Town…for Steve Van Zandt.” As Springsteen counts the song in, he is interrupted by a spontaneous chant of “Steven! Steven!” as the crowd voices their support for the man and his request. A Stone Pony benefit set and the 2010 promo shoot at the Carousel in Asbury Park notwithstanding, this is the only tour performance of “Gotta Get That Feeling” to date, and the expanded band does it justice, with horns soaring and Steve’s harmony vocals pure soulfire.
Surprises continue, as Bruce heeds a sign suggestion from a traveling Spanish fan for Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” arranged on the fly and performed with exuberance and fearlessness earned through months and months of successful rounds of “stump the band.”
“We’re gonna try one more crazy request,” Bruce says, extending the controlled chaos. “‘Thundercrack’…was written to be our first showstopper. This used to end our set when we [would] play for crowds who didn’t know us at all.” After name-checking some of the acts they once opened for (among them Black Oak Arkansas, Sha Na Na, Mountain, and Aerosmith) and warning the audience the middle of the song could prove tricky, Bruce and the band confidently crush “Thundercrack” in its only 2013 outing.
While Leeds boasts ample rarities, Wrecking Ball material gets its due as well, with robust versions of the title track, “Death to My Hometown,” “Shackled and Drawn” (aided by a fine gospel-tinged solo from Cindy Mizelle), “Land of Hope and Dreams,” and “This Depression.” Making its last appearance to date this night (and one of just seven performances ever), “This Depression” impresses through its admirable lyrical candor, gripping arrangement, and affecting musicality. It’s a performance that should win over a few converts, and the coupling with “Because the Night” is another slice of Leeds’ setlist genius.
To the encore, and Springsteen has one more trick up his sleeve, bringing “Secret Garden” back to the set for the first time in 13 years, moody, measured, and matrimonial. Credit Jake Clemons for doing right by his uncle with a poignant sax solo to bring the song to conclusion. Sublime.
A marvelous night in Leeds concludes with a scarce Wrecking Ball tour airing for “If I Should Fall Behind” followed by “Thunder Road,” both performed solo acoustic. Towards the end of “Thunder Road,” Bruce invites the audience to join him in singing, “La da, da, da, da,” which they do in full voice, giving back generously to the performer who gave so much to them all night long.
Leeds may be the fourth archival release from the Wrecking Ball tour, but it stands strongly among those peers on the strength of its distinctive setlist, stellar performance and the sense of Springsteen’s personal motivation to showcase his expanded band in this optimal indoor venue.