Bruce Springsteen @ Villa Park, Birmingham – Friday, 16th June 2023


Reviewed by Paul Quinton

It’s been seven years since Bruce graced the stages of the UK, and even more alarmingly, 35 years since he last played Villa Park, on 1988’s ‘Tunnel of Love’ tour. This time around, we’re nearing the end of a two-month European tour, and as far as Birmingham was concerned, curfews and similar restrictions, matched with the Boss’ habit of playing shows of three hours and longer, mean that his shows have an early start, even with no support, with this one beginning at 7.15.

There’s no big introductory fanfare or music, the band just enter the stage one by one, bearing in mind this does take a minute or two as the E Street Band has 18 members these days. Each one gets their own cheer, although there are noticeably bigger welcomes for the older members of the band, like Miami Steve, Roy Bittan, Nils Lofgren, Gary Tallent and Max Weinberg, although Jake Clemens also had a huge cheer. Bruce himself brings up the rear, with the first of the innumerable cries of ‘Bro-o-o-o-o-ce echoing around Villa Park. Apart from a brief nod to the crowd, the band went straight into ‘No Surrender’, but first impressions were that the sound wasn’t quite right, Springsteen’s vocals being a little low in the mix, but this was soon cured and for an outdoor show, the sound was otherwise pretty decent throughout the set.

Apart from his soul covers album, Only The Strong Survive, Bruce’s last studio album was 2020’s Letter To You, and songs from that were featured in the first part of the set, interspersed with older songs. There was a brisk ‘Prove It All Night’, with Springsteen making the first of many journeys to the barrier to slap the hands of the front row, and the first real crowd participation in ‘Out In The Street’. It felt like everyone, band and audience, were getting well warmed up at this point, and for long standing and serious Bruceologists, following that with ‘Candy’s Room’ was an early high point. But then came something of a flat spot in the show, with an extended ‘Kitty’s Back’, which included a solo from almost everyone in the band. In all honesty, it’s easy to suspect that this may have been to include a break in the set and while the song’s been performed a lot over the years, it doesn’t feature on many ‘Greatest Hits’ or ‘Best of…’ compilations, and you could feel the atmosphere slackening a little, even when he followed that with ‘Nightshift’, from the soul album. A great song, brilliantly sung between Bruce and keyboard player and percussionist Curtis King, but it did little to get the gig going again.

The same happened shortly afterwards, when a rousing ‘Mary’s Place’ was followed by another deep cut, ‘The E Street Shuffle’, and it was noticeable that there wasn’t as much crowd interaction as on previous shows, no taking requests from the crowd, and possibly less spontaneity, but when ‘E Street Shuffle’ was followed by a sublime ‘My Hometown’, and an even better ‘The River’, after which Bruce gave his harmonica to a girl in the front row, you could feel things getting back on track. There was a more serious moment, when Bruce mentioned the death of a former bandmate, from one of his early bands before he was signed as a solo artist, when he realised that he was the only one from that early band still with us, and dedicated a gentle ‘Last Man Standing’ to his memory. This gave way to ‘Backstreets’, then another highlight, ‘Because the Night’. He did slip in another pair of deeper cuts at this point, the title track of the Wrecking Ball album, and ‘She’s The One’, which is the song unlucky enough to follow the title track on Born to Run, but it’s a great song that had the crowd dancing, and it was really at this point that the show took flight, and became the show you always wanted it to be. ‘The Rising’ was as inspirational as ever, then ‘Badlands’ and an epic ‘Thunder Road’ brought the main set to a triumphant close.
Obviously, there was an encore, but this wasn’t a brief run through of an old favourite, then a wave goodbye, this was a seven song, forty-five minute epic, almost a second half of the show. ‘Born in the USA’ was received joyously by the crowd, then, even better, a tumultuous ‘Born to Run’, which brought even those in the stands to their feet and 35,000 people clenching their fists, punching the air and ‘Whoa-ohing’ for all they were worth. Another deep into the deeper tracks for ‘Bobby Jean’, then back to the singalongs for ‘Glory Days’ and a stellar ’Dancing In the Dark’, although this time around there was no plucking people out of the crowd to swing a shoe with. The almost autobiographical ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out’, including introducing this majestic band to the crowd, seemed to end things, with them taking a bow and exiting, but Bruce remerged on his own, to give a brief acoustic version of ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’ and say a final goodbye.

If parts of the show had their flatter spots, the last part, especially the encore, was almost worth the ticket price in itself. Some performers have this magic ability to put on a huge spectacular show while also making you feel like you are in a small club, and although, compared to previous years, this was a less spontaneous, more streamlined show, it was still one of the greatest performers in rock history doing his stuff. This might even be the last time he graces our stages, at least on a lengthy tour like this, but he’s still someone you should see at least once. Three hours of one of the finest songwriters and performers there’s been, with an exceptional band behind him. It was some night.