The Twitter updates during Bruce Springsteen’s Glastonbury headline set were telling. “Thunderous!” “Magnificent!” “Glorious!”, they started. Then half an hour later… “Bored now. When’s he going to play ‘Born To Run’?”
There was a feeling of collective deflation – the palpable sense of 50,000-odd people realising that they weren’t quite as keen on Springsteen as they thought they were, and didn’t know as many of his songs as they thought they did.
Up to a point, you can sympathise. It’s safe to say a cover of Stephen C. Foster’s Civil War-era folk standard ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’ – “This is a song from 1855,” he growled, to audible sighs and shuffling of feet – was not exactly what the keyed-up Saturday night crowd had ordered.
And there were times, mid-set, with the ‘hits’ being stubbornly withheld, when the lure of Franz, or 2 Many DJs – or, hell, even The Wonder Stuff on the Avalon Stage, or a nice sit down in the massage yurt – started to seem mighty tempting.
But, in truth, this was a proper fan’s set. It wasn’t pitched at the curious, or those looking for a drunken singalong, or the kind of people who actually call him ‘The Boss’ – a name Springsteen hates, and genuine fans never use.
It was, however, well thought-out. Opening with a cover of Joe Strummer’s Mescaleros-era track ‘Coma Girl’ – hardly a crowd-pleaser, but a song inspired by Glastonbury – suggests Springsteen had digested the Glastonbury information pack that Michael Eavis had sent him when trying to persuade him to sign up.
And for those of us who value the spooked and skeletal side of Springsteen, rather than the fist-pumping cartoon version, the set was crammed with pleasures, in particular a desolate double-whammy of ‘Johnny 99’, a song about a murderer who begs to be executed – and ‘The Ghost Of Tom Joad’, a song inspired by John Steinbeck’s Great Depression novel ‘The Grapes Of Wrath’.
A boozy communal rave-up this was not. But then, no-one should have expected that.
Springsteen’s greatest talent is for articulating male blankness – not the thrilling open highway of ‘Born To Run’, but rather the lonesome road to nowhere depicted on the ‘Nebraska’ sleeve. Indeed, his most anthemic album, ‘Born In The USA’, and ‘Nebraska’, his bleakest, were written at the same time. Strip away the production and they have a lot in common.
All these nuances were in evidence during Springsteen’s two-and-a-half hour set. It wasn’t a knees-up. It required concentration, and patience. But at the tail-end of a festival that offers non-stop ephemeral thrills and untrammelled hedonism, perhaps a drop of the hard stuff was what we all needed.