Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Dave Matthews Band, Gaslight Anthem, Mumford and Sons - Hard Rock Calling, London Hyde Park
Michael James Hall 07/07/2009
Hard Rock Calling, London Hyde Park, 27th & 28th June 2009.
Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Dave Matthews Band, James Morrison, Gaslight Anthem, Ben Harper, Mumford and Sons, Seasick Steve, The Pretenders etc.
So I've dragged everyone around the outskirts of Hyde Park and across Marble Arch in search of this pub I once drank in - I'd liked it because it seemed to have been designed by a satanic librarian with a penchant for drunk Goths - just my cup o' rum. My protests as to how good the place is become more and more irrelevant as the sun burns down mercilessly and our clothes stick closer and closer to our bodies, jeans and t-shirts clinging to limbs and torsos glued with sticky sweat. We give up and land outside an anonymous bar. The whole place stinks of sewage and the heat just accentuates the stench. Fucking London.
By the time we stagger back up toward Hyde Park, spotting the pub we were looking for on the way back of course, we're weary, stinky little creatures sucking at energy drinks as if they were the answer to something.
The queue is enormous and The Pretenders are on.
Doesn't really matter how good that bar may have been, we're missing 'Brass In Pocket'. This is what self-defeat smells like.
We get in, gather up s'more Red Bulls (£2.50 for a small cup - motherless fucks) and get a spot near the back of the gloriously packed, sun-drenched lawn.
Chrissie Hynde announces their last song and instead of it being a big hit that we all know and love and that will earn me some forgiveness among my companions, it's an anonymous rock chugger that we don't, won't and doesn't.
Laying behind the sound desk having met up with our vital last man we lounge and luxuriate as much as pale Celtic humans can in Mediterranean conditions with a distinct paucity of sun cream and tout hats.
Seasick Steve is greeted by a massively enthusiastic response, I'm guessing from thousands of people who've never heard him but have read about him in a Sunday supplement. The cheers sound hollow to my ears, as do the repetitive, droning back-to-basics blues numbers meted out by Mr Steve and his drummer.
He's got a neat little gimmick but it wears thin quicker than you'd hope, it becoming more and more clear that this act is all about the myth and nothing about the tunes.
He plays for an age and I enjoy the lyric 'I wear my socks up to my knees'. It's an endearing sentiment.
As the big screens bombard us with more vital news from the LiveNation / Hard Rock Caf√© universe we retreat from the corporate shilling and nauseating heat to the other stage which is in a big tent and is dark and cool.
Mumford and Sons, who I imagine to be ok having briefly listened to them earlier in the week are, as it turns out, a really great band.
Heartfelt balladry, stand-up bass, instrument switching and damn fine country-tinged tunes all present and correct, the relatively packed tent loves them and they seem humble enough to be the kind of band you want to see do well. Their first album, out in the Autumn, should be a treat.
After inhaling a lungful of piss at the face-to-face urinals we're back to the main stage where Ben Harper and the Restless Seven (or something) jam interminably. They are a festival goers nightmare: all extended, pointless soloing, a line of lyric repeated over and over in an attempt to give it some meaning and the obligatory lack of any actual songs.
Then it starts raining heavily and I get kitted up in my floor-length black waterproof jacket. When I pull up the hood it looks like I'm going to abscond with your soul. Not before Live Nation and the Hard Rock Caf√© can though, surely.
The gloom and thunder are welcomed, by me at least, like old comrades and as a result of the crowd dispersing to find shelter we gain our spots at the left of the stage, dead on the barrier. God loves me again.
After a little bit of wish-fulfilment banter concerning what Ol' Shaky is going to open with, he actually kicks off with the mighty Hey Hey My My, the ultimate rock n roll song about rock n roll, Young's guitar squalling and squawking like a portent of apocalypse as he shudders across the stage.
The set is immaculate with Young playing everything from hardcore fan favourites like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and the strummed, wistful beauty of Harvest Moon's Unknown Legend to the simple, stone classics like a solo Needle And The Damage Done and the anthemic folkfest of Heart Of Gold.
The response is borderline rapturous and Young is in strangely high spirits, bantering with the crowd between songs almost as often as he chokes the life into (rather than out of) his oft-battered selection of guitars.
His digressions into wild, passionate, hypnotic soloing are at their finest tonight - songs like Words and an absolutely immense Down By The River benefiting greatly from the added intensity Young's far-from-virtuoso but always compelling playing brings.
A brief soujourn to the piano bring us Are You Ready For The Country while Mother Earth is beautifully and touchingly delivered at the pump organ (snigger), these moments of relative reflection acting as shadowy counterpoints to Crazy Horse era material like the ramshackle Fuckin' Up and the utterly euphoric set closer Rockin' in The Free World which builds to its climax on no less than four separate occasions before launching back into that inimitable chorus for 'one last' singalong.
It's uplifting, liberating and a finer evocation of the power of irony in rock music has yet to be heard by these ears.
So, what an amazing show right? Blinding set, brilliantly played, wonderfully received. Everybody's happy.
Of course what happens then is that Neil Young comes back on with his sickeningly talented band and they launch into 'Day In The Life'. Tears are thoroughly jerked.
Then Paul McCartney comes out and duets with Young on one of the many songs he never had the chance to play live while in The Beatles.
There is an air of disbelief combined with a subtle type of mania in the audience that I've never before experienced at a live show. It's almost completely overwhelming. More tears are shed, throats screamed hoarse, friends embraced.
Macca bows in praise of Young before leaving the stage then returning to close the track with him.
Then they do a thirty second xylophone duet (I'm still being totally serious) and leave the stage for the last time.
Jaws swing low as we troop dutifully toward Oxford Circus, ears ringing. Grins pop onto faces that become impossible to remove. This is what it's all about, man.
7 O'Clock, Sunday morning. I was unaware that this time on this day actually existed. I mean, I've been up at this time before, sure, but always because I was still awake, never because I'd chosen to get up. Zombified but still buoyant from the fresh memories of last night's show combined with the sweet promise of what's to come we gather fruit and water and yes, more fucking Red Bull (this article is in now way affiliated with Red Bull and any opinions expressed are entirely the author's own) and head back to Hyde Park.
We arrive at 9.20 am and there are a good three hundred Springsteen fans already milling around the entrance, threadbare tour shirts proudly displayed, litres of water being chugged, the fan-run system of fair entry order being, sadly, disputed.
It's a simple system whereby you take a number and get to go through the gates first and line the barrier depending on when you arrived.
It works in America, it works in Europe.
But will it work in London? Will it fuck. The miserable, self-righteous, self-centred nature of the city is evident even on this bright, breezeless Sunday morning. Urgh.
So, system abandoned we crouch, lean and sway in the relentless sun for three and a half shadeless hours until we are granted entry.
We sprint the length of the field, dodging jobsworth security guards attempting to slow us down by standing directly in front of us. If a few get a little nudge it's only their own dumb fault.
We're at the barrier baby - for a summertime Springsteen spectacular - and it feels fucking good.
Collectively the crowd already stinks like a campsite toilet and those of us foolhardy enough to volunteer for this endurance test take the early opportunity to sit, smoke, run for a piss and procure merch.
I am transfixed by the bombardment of advertising being thrust at us every single moment we are in attendance. Giant flags boast of Hard Rock's close affiliations with, well, Hard Rock while even the lucky few with VIP passes have their necklaces branded 'The Live Nation Experience'. Christ it's oppressive. Between this and the heat the revolutionary in me is about ready for a bloody coup.
Stll, too hot for political activity right now, it's time for the first band and it's Some Awful Talentless Los Angeles Session Musicians. I won't waste your time. They're utterly shit, an embarrassment to both humanity and music and you'd expect better in O'Neill's on a Thursday night. They have clearly been booked by our lovely sponsors at the Hard Rock Caf√© and play just like one of their burgers tastes.
Gaslight Anthem are great. A proper New Jersey bar band with punk inspirations and stadium aspirations. They nod to the Boss as often as they nod to Strummer and their sentimental tunes are both melodic and memorable.
They are also very charming and are somehow able to continue their set after Springsteen himself has graced the stage with his presence for a storming take on new single 'The '59 Sound' without losing momentum.
They've been accused of being 'fake' but I knew they were a good, honest band and this set proves me absolutely correct.
Smugness not being a marketable commodity I'll move swiftly on to James Morrison.
He's a white-boy-soul-Top-Shop-fake-X-Factor-Britain's-Got-No-Talent-Vapid-Vacuous-cunt of a Musically Transmitted Disease.
I sit in the front row with my back to him listening as well as I can to Shellac on my I-pod. Because I'm a fucking child like that.
The crowd is now immense. Sprawling multi-colured humanity as far as the eye can see. Beautiful, but my back really, really hurts and there's not enough sun lotion in the world to stop me burning in this heat.
The Dave Matthews Band have their fair share of followers here today and they earn the respect of many others watching just 'cos they're waiting for Springsteen by avoiding most of their more annoying tendencies to endlessly jam, fiddle and twiddle in order to display their precise, dexterous musicianship and stick mainly to faintly familiar college rock songs. Which are ok. There is, though, a drum solo and they do All Along the Watchtower. Which segues into Stairway to Heaven. Then back into Watchtower. Which makes me hate them.
But Matthews himself looks like an exact cross between two of my most lovely friends so I find that I'm hating without much passion, which is no fun at all.
It's 7pm and we've been stood here for more than six hours. At least it's a bit cloudy. Spines ache, legs cramp, sanity wavers, bladders burst.
It's all going to be alright though, because next we get Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Anticipation is palpable and we're re-energised not just by the prospect of being at the front for a show like this but also simply because we've made it this far.
Springsteen jogs onstage behind Steve Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren, Max Weinberg, Clarence Clemons and the rest of the usual suspects. By way of a suitable greeting he gives us a roaring rendition of 'London Calling' and the crowd, as if there were any doubt before, is his in an instant.
There is no-one in the world that can work a stadium crowd like Springsteen and as he tears through classic after classic, 'Badlands' into 'The Night', a revamped 'Johnny 99' into 'Youngstown', these tales of working class romance and hardship are ours and ours alone, every tender sentiment, every rebellious notion mirrored and amplified by the voice of the crowd.
He wanders down the stage steps and to the barrier, communing with his people during 'Out On the Street' and again during 'Waiting On a Sunny Day' when he not only takes requests in the form of signs from the masses but also lets a small boy sing the chorus into his microphone and yes, finally, like a teenage girl I get to lay my humble hand on the sweaty chest of my hero. I think I actually cry at this point.
The band are absolutely phenomenal. With no set list to speak of the Boss simply calls out the songs as they come to him or holds up the request signs for them to see before quickly intoning those hallowed Springsteen words '1,2,3,4' and we're off again into another rocknroll rampage.
Him off Gaslight Anthem gets a welcome return to the stage to sing 'No Surrender' alongside his hero and he clearly loves every minute, as do the fans.
By request we get the rare chance to hear one of his finest, most underrated songs 'Bobby Jean', a touching ode to lost teenage love and the most heart rending of all his songs, the sparse, resigned tragedy of 'Racing In The Street'.
He plays the harmonica solo on 'The Promised Land' leaning into the crowd no more than five feet away from us. You can see the creases in his face as he strains to breathe life into the instrument.
After this brief stretch of balladry we are hit with a five song home run as the band absolutely shred through 'Radio Nowhere', 'Lonesome Day', 'The Rising', 'Born To Run' and, wildly unexpectedly, 'Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)'.
The whole park is alive with unison voices, arms raised to the sky as those legendary lyrics are intoned, those breakdowns broken down, those racing guitars scraping the darkening night.
So as the booming 'Broooooce's echo up from us to the stage, the band returns to hit us with another batch of classics including 'American Land' and, another late request 'Jungleland' which is delivered with such emotion as to be almost breathtaking.
Curfew broken, it's time to close the show with back to back Born In the USA classics 'Glory Days' and 'Dancin' In The Dark' so it's also time for the gathered 50,000 to bounce and scream like it was the first day of pre-school.
The band trot down to meet their people, shaking hands, taking signs and pointing out the faithful who had followed them from Glastonbury the previous night to be here today.
It's a show where there is no show. The show is the man and his band. There's no pretence, no bullshit, no fa√ßade. When he's 'fucking tired' he says so, when Van Zandt finds Springsteen's inability to climb the stairs properly funny he laughs long and hard into his microphone. This is all for real, all absolutely genuine. It's a near-spiritual experience.
We fade into the night, blissfully munching on vege-burgers and choking down Pepsi Cola, utterly exhausted and utterly empowered by such an intense and incredible experience.
Whatever else we've seen this weekend, from the breakout support acts like Mumford & Sons and The Gaslight Anthem to the divine duetting of Neil Young and Paul McCartney right down to the laughable bullshit of James Morrison and Ben Harper, nothing comes close to this feeling, this knowledge, this moment.
You've seen the Boss and you'll never, ever forget it.
PS I forgot about Fleet Foxes, they played Saturday in the rain and they were ok. The ones the guy did on his own were better than the full band stuff.
Photo the property of http://www.flickr.com/people/iwoosh/