Just as you can’t judge a Bruce Springsteen album based on the first listening, you can’t judge a Bruce Springsteen tour based on the first show. As it will probably turn out, the tour opener in Cape Town, South Africa, was more like a continuation of where the Wrecking Ball Tour left off in September than what is in store for us in the coming time. If you had come to the show expecting to hear the never-before-played songs from High Hopes, you would have had to settle for “Heaven’s Wall”, oddly positioned between "The River" and"Atlantic City" (shouldn’t it be an encore or something?). But to probably 99% of the crowd who had never seen Bruce Springsteen before, this was exactly the right mix of greatest hits and other battle-tested songs proven to work with just about any audience. In other words, a safe setlist. But of course, a “safe” Bruce Springsteen show is still the best show on the planet, especially to those who have never seen him before.
The safe mode was underlined by the fact that Bruce did not grab a single sign request from the crowd. Whether this is a new policy or just Bruce's way of easing the band, and perhaps Tom Morello in particular, into the tour remains to be seen. However, to be fair, the show did open with a full-blown, and very ambitious, rendition of The Special AKA’s 30-year-old protest song, “Free Nelson Mandela” utilizing every one of the ever-growing E Street Band’s cylinders, including Curtis King on shared lead-vocals.
Still, while the show itself, from the perspective of a spoiled fan from the northwestern hemisphere, may not have been the most spine-tingling, other news surrounding this new tour has made even the most bored naysayer perk up their ears. Starting with last night’s show, Bruce will offer downloads of most shows 2-4 days after the event at the price of $9.99 for the mp3 version and $14.99 for the lossless flac format. At first it was announced that in order to obtain the download rights, you had to purchase a $40 wristband - one for each show - but a fan uproar not seen since the Walmart blunder back in 2009 (when the anti-union, underpaying, worker-oppressing, downright evil corporation got the exclusive rights to sell the new greatest hits compilation) quickly made Springsteen’s management change their mind. Unless you believe the official story that the wristbands were never meant to be the only method to buy these downloads.
Whatever the case, the next few days will tell how exactly this is going to work and - more importantly - how the recordings will sound. For the above-mentioned bored naysayers there may still be plenty of opportunity to turn the thumb down if the sound quality doesn’t live up to expectations or Tom Morello’s guitar is too loud in the mix. But hopefully most fans will have time to celebrate the fact that something we have been clamoring for for 10-15 years, but never thought possible, is suddenly reality.
Another noteworthy development in the last few days has been Bruce’s hint during a press conference that the mega-tours may be a thing of the past. Rather, the future may see shorter bursts of touring activity not connected to any particular release, but instead perhaps a geographical area. And maybe this year’s tour of South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand is the first example of just that, and not the beginning of a new 130-show, twice around the world, tour like the Wrecking Ball Tour, let alone the Born in the USA Tour. The fact is, so far these 2014 shows have not been billed as the High Hopes Tour or anything else indicating what exactly this is. So maybe it isn’t anything other than Bruce’s desire to play, at a particular moment in a particular place, without committing himself to other than what his muse tells him to do.
Nelson Mandela may have been freed long ago, and after having served his people for many years, his spirit is finally roaming free too (perhaps checking out a big, black sax player beyond Heaven's wall) . But Bruce Springsteen is still here, serving us, 50 years and counting, and now granting the previously-so-cursed South African people the ultimate stamp of approval: a visit by the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, hard-rocking, booty-shaking E Street Band.