Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Sydney Morning Herald, 2003-03-24, by: Bernard Zuel
Somebody got greedy, so we had to pay.
There's a degree of contempt in any decision to stage an outdoor concert. No matter how it's dressed up, the bottom line is the bottom line came first, not the fans, not the music. You simply can't have the best sound, the best sightlines or the best atmosphere in an outdoor stadium or racetrack. But you certainly can make the most money in the shortest possible time.
It matters less then that people 500 metres or more from the stage can only see tiny figures and must spend their time watching the action on screens; that they may have disconcerting echo bouncing off the stands; that they have to hope that winds don't blow the sound away before it gets to them.
Normally the person blamed for this situation is the promoter. But in many cases, as I suspect it is with Bruce Springsteen's tour, the promoter is had over a barrel by the artist's management who demand so much money that the only chance to make a profit or avoid a loss is to bung on one big outdoor concert.
Sometimes, as with U2, you can get away with it, just. Other times, as with this Springsteen concert, you fail miserably.
Unbelievably for a production and act of this level, the sound failed four times within the first hour. It was poor organisation and frustrating for both band and fans, particularly as each time the power went out it was just as the songs were shifting up a gear. But as Badly Drawn Boy can attest, bad things happen and equipment failure can work under Murphy's Law no matter who you are.
What can't be forgiven, though, was the woefully inadequate sound provided for the bulk of the audience who weren't in the high ticket-price seats near the stage. At the back of the ground it was thin, wafty and inconsistent, draining the songs of a lot of their power, physical and emotional.
You're supposed to feel an E Street Band show but the best way to describe what we could hear at the SCG is to imagine you put on a CD at home but instead of it coming through your expensive stereo speakers, it comes out your television's tinny ones.
The guitars, bass and backing vocals were absent from the mix pretty much the whole night. Springsteen's vocals often dropped by half, rousing songs such as Badlands, Mary's Place, Born to Run and Rosalita were limp, and intense, quieter songs such as Empty Sky, You're Missing and Into the Fire sounded like they would be special but didn't have the sonic presence to fill the space.
These failures weren't because the songs were being played poorly. As much as could be told from up the back, the band seemed in fine form, particularly on the live arrangements of songs from the recent album The Rising. And not because the song selection didn't work. This was a set list for diehards (throwing in Darlington County, Out in the Streets and Darkness on the Edge of Town thrilled) as well as casual fans (who got their dose of Dancing in the Dark and Glory Days). The failures were because no one, it seems, paid attention to what would have been best for the audience.
I have to confess that this hasn't been an objective review. I didn't go as an impartial observer curious to see how this would work. Like most people there I went as a fan, excited by the prospect of seeing one of the great rock performers, the writer of some of the finest songs in contemporary popular music, put on the kind of show I've only read about or heard two steps removed on CD or television.
Instead I left depressed and angry, wondering would it have hurt Springsteen, his management, the promoter, anyone, if they had played maybe two shows, to roughly the same number of paying customers, at the Superdome? It was good enough even for the Rolling Stones, a group not known for forging money, who could have filled the SCG if they had chosen.
Judging by the reactions of those in front of the stage there was a good, maybe even great show going on last night. Somewhere. Just not where most of the people who paid to see it were.
2003-03-22 Cricket Ground, Sydney, Australia