Another Black Hole scrollerIt’s just over six months since Malcolm Holcombe’s last album “The RCA Sessions” was released, so he’s obviously not spinning his wheels at the moment. “The RCA Sessions” was a retrospective with a twist, while “Another Black Hole” is ten new songs in the inimitable Malcolm Holcombe style. If your idea of a great voice is the kind of sanitised autotuned pap that you hear all over the radio, then we’d better say goodbye right here. Malcolm Holcombe has a voice that’s full of rugged character, matching the themes of his songs to perfection. As he sings in the title song, ‘The radio plays for the happy go lucky, that ain’t my set o’ wheels’.

Throughout “Another Black Hole”, most of the usual collaborators are present, including Jared Tyler, David Roe and Ken Coomer and there are a couple of guest appearances from the legendary Tony Joe White, notably on the album’s rockiest song “Papermill Man”, which combines the themes of nostalgia and life at the bottom of the ladder that run through the album with a raucous, rambunctious musical romp.

The language and imagery are more measured, but this album reminds me of Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball”, contrasting the Carveresque characters of the songs with the ‘suits and ties in the cubicles’ (“To Get By”) and the Vanderbilts who ‘hold the keys to the city’ (“Papermill Man”). If there was any doubt about where Malcolm Holcombe’s sympathies lie, “Don’t Play Around” nails it with the line ‘fuckin’ damn frackin’ and backroom stabbin’ knocks me down on my knees’. This is the ordinary, everyday Joe sitting in a bar and venting his anger over a beer before going outside to smoke a cigarette (and he makes it clear where that highway’s always going to end).

Malcolm’s voice may be a taste that you need to acquire, but the songs on “Another Black Hole” are beautifully-crafted vignettes of American life on the other side of the tracks, just out east of Eden. The playing’s perfect throughout, matching the music to the lyrical themes, without ever becoming overcooked. What more do you need?

Out now on Gypsy Eyes Music.

 

Wrecking Ball tourYou have to wonder what was in Jon Landau’s mind when he made this statement in a 1974 article in The Real Paper: “I saw rock and roll’s future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.”  At that time Bruce had released two critically-acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful albums (“Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” and “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle”) and “Born to Run” was just a twinkle in his eye; either Jon Landau was incredibly prescient or he made a very lucky guess.  Whichever way you look at it, surely even Landau wouldn’t have predicted that The Boss would still be playing stadia and arenas forty years later.  The band on Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball” tour, now in its second year, includes five musicians (Max Weinberg, Gary Tallent, Roy Bittan, Steve van Zandt and The Boss himself) from the “Born to Run” album which was released in August 1975.  However unlikely it is, that’s why I’m in the Olympic Park in Stratford to watch the E Street Band for the first time as part of the Hard Rock Calling festival on a rare sunny summer day in London.

The Boss is one of those artists I’ve loved since the very early days but always avoided seeing live.  I know this sounds weird but there are artists whose work I love so much I didn’t want to see them live and possibly be disappointed.  You have to admit there’s a kind of twisted logic to it.  Anyway, call it the bucket list if you like but I finally saw sense this year and decided to go to the Hard Rock Calling gig.

The support line-up of the Zac Brown Band (great country music throwing in “Kashmir” and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” towards the end of the set), Alabama Shakes and Black Crowes who dropped a Georgia medley of “Hard to Handle” and the wonderful Joe South song “Hush”.  And then it was time for the The Boss.

The E Street Band hit the stage slightly early with a high-powered version of the “Wrecking Ball” song “Shackled and Drawn” which slid straight in to “Badlands” and the audience were hooked from the start. As usual, Bruce picked request placards from the audience, walked back up to the stage, showed the band the card and immediately launched into the song.  The first song to get this treatment was “Johnny 99”, transformed from the stripped-back album original to a full-on band arrangement with horns and fiddle from Soozie Tyrell which was followed by a rock version of  “Reason to Believe” driven by Steve van Zandt’s guitar riff.  The two audience requests obviously had The Boss in a “Nebraska” mood because “Atlantic City” completed a run of three songs from the album before rousing versions of “Wrecking Ball” and “Death to my Hometown” brought the first part of the show to a close.

The band has been playing entire albums throughout this tour and tonight it was “Born in the USA”.  If “Born to Run” was the album which made Springsteen famous, “Born in the USA” was the one which made him a global phenomenon with its crowd-pleasing anthems.  It’s easy to forget how many classic songs come from the album until you hear it all live. With such a huge amount of great songs to choose from, it’s obvious (even with a three hour set) that some fans won’t get to hear their favourite song.  I would have loved to hear “Highway Patrolman” or “Factory”, but I did get to hear “Bobby Jean”, so I’m pretty happy with that.

As if we hadn’t heard enough anthems, after a relatively low-key close to the set, the encores kicked off with “Jungleland”, “Born to Run” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “American Land” before closing with the downbeat but very moving acoustic rendition of “My Lucky Day”.

As a bit of break from forcing my opinions on you, I decided to get some feedback from Faye and Alice who came from Birmingham for the gig.  Alice (who’s been going to Springsteen gigs since before she was born) loved the gig (not surprisingly) bouncing about and singing along to all the songs while Faye (who was seeing The Boss for the first time) was amazed at how good the show was and loved the idea of the band playing songs chosen by the audience.  So, a big thumbs up from Faye and Alice.  I hope you both had a safe journey home.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are a live phenomenon; they can play for three hours without even scratching the surface of their repertoire and drop immediately into any song called by The Boss without missing a beat, but it’s not just the musicianship I admire.  The E Street Band (and Southside Johnny, Gary Bonds, Bon Jovi and Billy Walton) are all part of a Jersey shore tradition of bands that give a hundred per cent and want to play all night because they love playing and they understand that a mainly blue-collar audience wants their favourite bands to give them everything they have; you work hard to earn your dollar and you expect bands to work just as hard to earn it from you.

But there’s more to it than that.  The Jersey shore bands are part of a family, literally and metaphorically.  The Boss demonstrated that at Stratford by bringing his mother on for “Dancing in the Dark” and his sister Pam to accompany him at the close of the set.  And don’t forget Clarence Clemons’ nephew Jake playing tenor sax.  I’m convinced that “We Take Care of Our Own” from “Wrecking Ball” isn’t flag-waving patriotism, it’s about all the players, singers and songwriters whose spiritual home is The Stone Pony.  It doesn’t matter how successful you become, you’re still just one of the Jersey crew; for every Bruce, Steve van Zandt and Jon Bon Jovi, there’s a Soozie Tyrell, Ed Manion and Bobby Bandiera and they all have a huge amount of mutual respect.

If you can still get tickets for Springsteen gigs in the UK or Europe, then you should really give it a try; you won’t be disappointed.

Wrecking Ball tourOn Tuesday Hampden Park was blessed with one of the most gorgeously sunny days seen all year and a fittingly spectacular concert. For three and a half hours, Bruce Springsteen used his usual magic to turn Scotland’s national stadium into the most intimate of gig venues through a mixture of well-known hits, lesser-known wild cards, sing-alongs and a masterful command of the art of audience participation.

This concert was particularly notable for being on the two-year anniversary of Springsteen’s long-running saxophonist, Clarence Clemons’, death. This occasion was marked by “My City of Ruins” returning to the setlist after being  in semi-retirement for some months. The singer told the crowd to dedicate it to anyone they might be missing in their life and once he began singing the line “when the change was made uptown…” over and over, a line lifted from “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”, a song which details the first meeting of Bruce and Clarence, it was clear where the sentiment was coming from.

As surprising as the return of “My City of Ruins” was, the fact that this was one of the lesser shocks of the evening illustrates just how unpredictable and consistently wild Springsteen shows have always been. After the opening “We Take Care of Our Own” and an unexpected “The Ties That Bind”, Bruce immediately dove into the audience fetching sign requests that have become so standard in the touring process. After collecting what seemed to be at least six (including this reviewer’s own!) he called upon the band to play the almost unknown “Jole Blon”, a cajun traditional which he had recorded with golden oldies singer Gary U.S. Bonds. He described it beforehand as a “band stumper” but given the level of performance the E Street Band gave it was hard to tell and any fans left unknowing of the track were singing the “sha-la-la” chorus by the time it was over. From here, two more requests took place in the form of the early-career “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” and post-2000 “Radio Nowhere”. It was as if Bruce was trying to show how any request no matter how old or unexpected could be pulled off with a great deal of ease.

One might think that with a show as unpredictable and career-sprawling as this, it could end up feeling directionless and inconsistent but watching, it seemed that every step of the way seemed to be very carefully calculated. The request of “I’m on Fire” into “Tougher Than the Rest” flowed perfectly and when “Atlantic City” and “Murder Incorporated” followed, the thematic and musical fluency was so astounding it was as if this setlist had been planned and rehearsed for weeks.

Throughout the night, the New Jersey singer seemed to be in great spirits, copying the dance moves of anyone who seemed to have a particularly visible groove in the audience and sharing banter with anyone who seemed to have something to offer. At least four fans managed to get up onstage: two women were pulled up for a dance during “Dancing in the Dark” as well as a younger girl getting to play guitar and sing backing vocals on the same track (but not without taking a few pictures while up there). During “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” Bruce performed the usual ritual of letting a small child sing the chorus through a few times before shouting “come on, E Street Band!” and kicking the song off again. A boogie-woogie version of “Open All Night” showed  Springsteen promising to have everyone in the stadium on their feet within thirty seconds, a promise which was very easily kept.

The night seemed to go on forever and in the least tedious way possible. And just when it seemed it was all over after the poignant tribute to Clarence Clemons in the form of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”, Bruce let everyone know that this was far from true. “Oh, we ain’t done yet!” came the cry and so the house party was extended through the devices of covering both “Twist and Shout” and “Shout”, especially meaningful given Scottish singer Lulu’s successful version. No party, including the band, seemed to want the marathon gig to end. Even following this and the exit of the band from the stage there was one more surprise for the still eager Glasgow audience: a “rock and roll lullaby” as Bruce put it in the form of a solo acoustic “Thunder Road”, one final heartfelt sing-along before the stadium collapsed with exhaustion and satisfaction.

On a more personal note, walking out of the venue myself and those I had attended it with were literally speechless. Watching a Springsteen concert feels less like being at a gig sometimes and more like some sort of religious enlightenment. To think nights like this happen up to 100 times a year and have been occurring for around 40 years is extraordinary. I whole-heartedly pray more than anything else to do with the music industry that these sort of shows remain a constant for a good while longer.