Even the Boss gets the Blues (reflections on the changing nature of stadium gigs)

Off to see U2’s Zooropa Tour at Wembley Stadium, 1993

So Bruce Springsteen’s new autobiography is at the top of the book charts and in it he admits to having suffered from depression for many years. In some ways, it is reassuring to discover that a hugely successful, happily married, multi-millionaire rock idol suffers from his own demons, but in other ways it is faintly disquieting: if he is depressed, what hope do us lesser mortals have?

At a warm and friendly Wembley stadium this summer, Bruce looked to be having the time of his life and perhaps he was, as he writes in his autobiography: “There is something in the gathering of souls that blows the blues away [and] lets the sun in.” And the crowd looked as if they agreed with him. We came for the music, the dancing, the experience, to remember and to forget. Whether you’re a couple on a rare night away from the children (yup, that was us), an inebriated twenty-something there for the greatest hits, a jacketed corporate type or a die-hard fan sporting a 92-93 tour t-shirt, there is something about the collective unspoken agreement to enjoy yourselves that is a great leveller.

The other thing that we had in common was our ability to illuminate the pitch with the lights of thousands of mobile phones; taking videos, posting Instagram photos and checking in on Facebook. A couple next to me took a smiling selfie, hands in each other’s jeans pockets and then didn’t speak or touch for the three and a half hours that the Boss was on stage. The modern phenomenon of the general public looking down at their phones rather than up at the world around them seems to be no different at a rock concert. Bruce didn’t seem to notice and if he did, he was probably used to it.

Things were different in 1993, when my friends and I went to our first stadium concert to see U2’s Zooropa Tour, back when Wembley had twin towers rather than an arch. We were 15 and my Dad (who I am amazed let his unworldly suburbanite daughter go) took us there and then drove around north-west London until it finished. As someone who is now reliant on a mobile phone to make and change plans of any sort, I have no idea how he found us again, amidst the other 80-odd thousand people. But he did and that was just how life worked those days: we looked around us, talked to each other and didn’t have a panic attack if we couldn’t Whatsapp as there was no 4G.

For Bruce at Wembley, it could have been the early 90’s: the show was him, his guitar, his harmonica and his super-cool, and may I say, also ageing gracefully seven-piece E-Street Band. There was no lighting extravaganza, no professional dancers, no gimmicky props and no need for any of that. In the mass-media digital age, people still came bearing cardboard plaques with song requests and messages for Springsteen: “I got Mary pregnant too…”

But the present day was never far away: during a slow-tempo, guitar solo rendition of Thunder Road, one chap’s attempts to slow-wave a lighter in his hand were met by sniggers from the people around. It wasn’t retro, you could almost hear them thinking, it was just pointless. Why wasn’t he watching the show through the phone of the person in front like the rest of us? All in all, some things have changed but the basics stay the same. The maxims of concert-going, whether you are 15 or 38, remain: take your own loo roll, wear decent shoes that you don’t mind getting sticky, do buy a t-shirt, don’t buy a burger and watch out for the flying bottles of beer. The gathering of souls will do the rest.

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