DONOSTIA Recap: The Pinchos Land

Amidst the beaches and Basques of Donostia – commonly referred to as San Sebastián by those unfamiliar with the difference between the Spanish and the Basques[1] – my favorite treasure found within this small yet beautiful city were unequivocally pinchos. Lining the narrow streets of this glorified village-by-the-sea are quaint little restaurants whose bars are literally overflowing with tiny delicacies. Though most associate this region with Michelin star joints – locals claim they have more of those than any other condensed area in the world – such upscale fare could not satiate this down-and-dirty Bruce fan like the overwhelming number of delectable pinchos beckoning me from the street around every corner.

Comprised of odd mixtures of seemingly every different type of classic Spanish cuisine – Ibérico ham and chorizo and fish and vegetables and many other items I did not recognize yet still feasted upon, all served atop bread with toothpicks through them[2] – pinchos may be the ultimate form of grab-bag snack food…except a snack quickly becomes a meal when you walk from one pincho bar to the next stuffing your fat face with every little treat that catches your eye. Just look at this madness:

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PINCHOS!!!

Are you also salivating? Now imagine walking past such spreads almost everywhere you go.[3]

“But wait…” you may be asking, “…why am I reading about pinchos on a Bruce Springsteen blog?!” More than just providing you with a sense of the local culture in the latest city that The River Tour 2016 passed through, the experience of eating these pinchos fairly accurately reflects the type of concert that Bruce and the Band performed for about three hours and forty minutes at the (much like pinchos) down-and-dirty-on-the-outside yet gorgeous-on-the-inside Estadio de Anoeta[4] on Tuesday night.

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The gorgeous inside of Estadio de Anoeta

Still trying to figure out the best way to merge the stable setlists of the American leg with the E Street Band’s customary ‘fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants’ approach, Bruce treated the crowd to a grab-bag collection of songs – some River songs from the previous show in Barcelona, some that Catalonia didn’t receive, some tour premieres (four to be exact!), some tour staples, some out and out rockers, some slow ballads, some old, some new, etc. etc. etc. Much like a pincho meal, even though almost every individual song completely worked in its own right – many were given some of their best performances of the tour, with many less musical miscues than in Barcelona (though there were still a few VERY noticeable ones) – Bruce still hasn’t totally solved how to make these setlists result in a seamlessly paced meal show with songs that completely fit together. But what he’s lost in communicating an overarching story over the course of these show, he’s made up for by having a lot looser fun.

Bruce throwing together a pincho-esque collection of random songs actually began hours before the real concert began. The future pit denizens waiting outside of the stadium since the crack of noon were able to hear Bruce and the Band’s midday soundcheck. And much like a pincho meal, they ended up enjoying way more songs than they would’ve originally predicted, including (in the order they were played) “Spirit in the Night,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “Johnny 99,” “Murder Incorporated,” “Youngstown” (sounded like Nils took the guitar solo), “Working on the Highway,” “Waiting on a Sunny Day” (which was greeted to hilariously ferocious boos from the line), “Death to My Hometown,” and “Land of Hope and Dreams.”[5] Given the fact that he opted against playing a majority of these songs during the actual concert, you’ve got to assume the soundcheck was less for this specific show and more intended to prepare them for the next few weeks. Soundcheck now, play later.[6]

Given the surprising length of the soundcheck,[7] Bruce was clearly in the mood for music from very early in the day. Fittingly, the music during the actual concert began earlier than normal; instead of waiting until after the rest of the band joined him on stage, Max immediately drummed out the opening beat of “Working on the Highway” as everyone else took their place a little after 9pm. Finally, Bruce walked up the steps and headed directly for the downstage platform, surrounding himself with the Basque crowd and successfully forging a special connection with the audience – both physical and emotional – from the get-go. Though they may not have been as energetic as their Catalonian counterparts, the crowd’s palpable affection for the Boss brought out a more soulful side to him that was somewhat obscured by his nonstop rock-and-roll approach in Barcelona.

Another, more corporeal reason for why they were less energetic: it was legitimately one of the most packed pits I’ve ever experienced. Actually, it may have been one of the tightest crowds in which I’ve ever been sardined in any context.[8] I honestly had to decide if I wanted to keep my hands up or down the entire night because moving them from one to the other wasn’t really an option. Though some may have been uncomfortable, I really think this physical closeness only enhanced our figurative closeness; we were a united band moving to the music together.

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After the musical surprise of “Working on the Highway,” Bruce repeated the one-two punch of “No Surrender” and “My Love Will Not Let You Down” from Barcelona.[9] Yet tonight they were played at even more of a breakneck speed, with Max seemingly drumming into the next song before the previous one even finished. By the time “My Love” came to a close, Bruce had already removed his scarf – it was too hot for such accoutrement, and I ain’t talking about the weather.[10]

Replacing his American introduction to The River songs by simply yelling, “Are you ready?!?!” Bruce once again played four of the first five songs from side one of the album…except not the same four. After slightly switching up the blocking by having Patti and Stevie individually disperse to one of the five front stage platforms during “Sherry Darling” – which only served to reinforce the connection between the crowd and the Band – Bruce decided against taking us down into the “Jackson Cage.” Instead, “Two Hearts” was followed by the first of many soulful performances of the evening: “Independence Day,” which was also the first of many River sign requests. Oddly, Bruce collected the sign – amongst many others – to a rare sound during an E Street Band concert: silence. Instead of drawing out the last note of “Two Hearts” to fill this aural void,[11] it appeared as if he wanted to give the Band – and himself – a short break, the first instance of the pace jarringly shifting at a moment’s notice. Perhaps that breakneck speed caught up with them…

If that was the case, “Independence Day” – which included his customary American introduction – gave them a sufficient respite[12] because the mood picked back up for “Hungry Heart,” which saw Bruce once again running around the pit to be amongst the Basque people on the center platform.[13] Now a bit more familiar with the new stadium layout, Bruce gave himself and Jake – who once again played his solo on the other center platform – ample time to reach their spots. As such, instead of choosing a slower song to to catch his breath after “Out in the Street” – during which Nils once again inserted the city’s name into his, “Meet me out in the San Sebastián street tonight,” proving it’ll probably be a nightly occurrence[14] – Bruce offered Europe their first full taste of the second side of the album that was a consistent highlight of the American leg. Sadly, “Crush on You” – another sign request – lost a little of its luster due to the fact that the crowd literally only knew two sounds and five words from the verbose song: “Ooh, ooh, I gotta crush on you,” a rare instance of a song stumping the singalong-obsessed crowd. Even after a false start,[15] “You Can Look” played better, with the blue lights – perhaps signifying the color of the lead character’s balls[16] – making a return to the show.

Another sign-collecting silence returned after “You Can Look,” but this time it actually led to a surprise, and the first tour premiere – and absolutely one of the highlights – of the night: “Fire.” The first performance since 2012 – or, as Bruce said, “We haven’t done this in a loooooong time” – it was a vastly different rendition than normal. Starting by flamboyantly fanning himself with the fan the request was written on – one of many such fans in the pit – Bruce began on a hesitant note: “Who has the harmonies?” And then, his normal confidence returned: “We’ll figure it out when we get to it!”

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And boy did they ever; it was a riotous and fantastic performance, starting with multiple intentional false starts to build the audience’s anticipation – because isn’t sex all about building anticipation? – by having them sing the first line over and over again. Having sufficiently teased us, he finally launched into the song after intensely whispering, “Let me. Hear You. Screeeeeeeeam.”

For those wondering who would replace Clarence’s customary role in the song, Bruce gave them an answer early on by beckoning Patti over: “Patti, come close to me, baby.” She obliged, and they slowly went in for a passionate kiss after the bridge…but they dovetailed into, “Romeo and Juliet…” right before their lips touched. Patti returned to her mic during Bruce’s subsequent sensually smooth guitar solo, but Bruce amusingly summoned her back because he wanted to reprise the last two verses, transforming the brief ditty into more of a full song. By playing it in the slot usually reserved for “I Wanna Marry You” – which Bruce cued up next – he made “Fire” feel almost like a sexual prelude.

And now, a rare criticism of the Boss: though I fear y’all may come for me with pitchforks after making this point, I really don’t think he should continue to play “I Wanna Marry You,” “The River,”[17] and “Point Blank”[18] in a row. They were all given excellent performances – and of course each is a musically breathtaking song – but it’s tough for 30,000 people to keep their energy up over such a long downtempo stretch. Though the stadium remained quietly respectful throughout, bringing “Cadillac Ranch” or “I’m a Rocker” – which have both been inexplicably ignored so far in Europe, even though they’re some of the more stadium-appropriate tracks on the album – back to the set instead of one of these three will prevent the audience’s energy from waning.

Yet because this three-song stretch had put the crowd into a more relaxed mood, they were unable to give the next song the energetic response it deserved. The Band ripped into “Murder Incorporated” – the second tour premiere of the night – and it was a performance that can best be described simply with the title of the first tour premiere: fire. Though they really slowed down the tempo from years past – as they have with a lot of songs on this tour – it ended with a searing guitar duel between Bruce and Stevie that fully re-engaged the audience.

You know what also re-engages European audiences? Born in the U.S.A. songs. As such, “Darlington County” followed, which provided Soozie and Jake an opportunity to match Bruce and Stevie’s solos. The song ended with the entire band lining up downstage, almost a form of a bow after their consecutive killer solos.

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“Ramrod” – yet another sign request – kept the high energy going,[19] with Bruce busting out some ridiculous dance moves.[20] Before reaching his guitar solo, a sign held by a man on someone’s shoulders caught his eye. After the sign made its long handoff trek to the stage, Bruce cut out the band to ask the crowd, “What time is it?!” in Spanish. He then held up the sign to the rear camera: “It’s boss time.”

The rocking continued with “I’m Goin’ Down.” Though not a huge surprise since it was played in Barcelona as well, their performance here far exceeded that one, with Bruce cutting out the band both at the beginning and end of the song to let the crowd handle, “Down, down, down, down, down” duties. This little ditty is really one of Bruce’s most fun live songs.

From one of his most fun songs to one of his least liked – at least amongst die-hard fans – next up was the DREADED but inevitable return of “Waiting on a Sunny Day,” the third tour premiere of the evening. Perhaps a sign from the heavens, the band started and ended the song totally out of sync[21]…but truthfully, it was actually a tolerable performance, aided greatly by the fact that the little girl with whom Bruce shared the mic looked genuinely overjoyed to be on stage, and her delivery of, “C’moooooooon…E Streeeeeeeeet!!!” in a thick Spanish accent cracked up everyone. At the end of the song, Bruce hoisted her on his shoulders to receive a much-deserved ovation. Though I actually enjoyed the performance, I’m a little nervous that its quality may convince Bruce to make it a nightly phenomenon. Please let me be wrong…

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Following “Waiting on a Sunny Day” with “Drive All Night” may be the most extreme spectrum shift for diehard fans, but nonetheless it was an exceedingly soulful performance, ending with Bruce giving both Jake AND Roy well-warranted shout-outs at the end. Unlike the previous transition, going with “The Promised Land” next perfectly continued the emotionality while simultaneously picking up the pace, with Bruce leading the crowd in a synchronized “Hey! Hey! Hey!” chant on every downbeat of Jake’s solo. The emotionality and increased pace continued with another rollicking “Because the Night,” and “Brilliant Disguise” built upon the emotional resonance of this little stretch.

By the time Bruce reached “Thunder Road” after “The Rising,” the audience was once again fully engaged, both vocally and emotionally. He began singing the first verse, but there was no need – the voices of the crowd echoing around the stadium drowned him out. Letting us take over, it was a true communal celebration, with all 30,000 people “la-la-la-ing” to the melody throughout Jake’s concluding solo.

Yet for the first time in many shows, Jake and Bruce didn’t end the song with their running high-five, perhaps because they knew the main set wasn’t going to end – for the first time this tour –  with “pulling out of here to win.” Another unpopular opinion alert: though it may be his most iconic opener,[22] I prefer him starting with a surprise song and ending the main set with “Badlands,” which concluded with Bruce holding his guitar above his head like a trophy standing on the downstage platform surrounded by his adoring fans.

“Badlands” – much more so than “Thunder Road” – also serves as a much better heart-racing, pulse-pounding primer for the stadium-shaking encore opener that is “Born in the U.S.A,” with the crowd’s “Badlands” chant sustaining the energy through the band’s main set bows. It was yet another explosive performance of the song[23] – during which all of the stadium lights came on – with Bruce literally howling at Max during the latter’s mighty drum solo.

Though Bruce fans have become accustomed to the same old encores on this tour, Donostia was actually treated to a few surprises. For the first time this tour, “Born to Run” was not followed immediately by “Dancing in the Dark;” instead, a joyful “Glory Days” was sandwiched in between – making a welcome return to the encores, where it belongs – ending with Bruce taking note of a little kid sitting on someone’s shoulders just loving every minute of it.

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Bruce’s dance partner during “Dancing in the Dark” was a little older, a young man probably in his mid-20s with a sign that read, “I’m not a girl, but I wanna dance in the dark.”[24]

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Like in Barcelona, Rosy didn’t come out, but Bruce also skipped over “Shout” for the first time. The only shouting to be done in the encores was of the twisting variety, with “Twist and Shout” making its second appearance of the tour. And taking another note from his Barcelona playbook, he pretended the show was done afterwards, miming to the nonexistent watch not around his wrist that they didn’t have time for one more…before making time for one more in the form of “Bobby Jean.”

Though this would’ve been a fittingly if not predictably emotional end to the night, Bruce had one final ace up his sleeve. For many of my pincho feasts, I thought I was done…until one final savory treat caught my eye that I couldn’t resist. Often, it proved the tastiest of them all. And this was also true for the final song of the night.

After the band had completely walked off stage and he was halfway down the ramp himself, it looked like Bruce asked someone backstage for the time[25] before beckoning for another guitar. The first true Bruce sneak of the tour! Equipped with an acoustic guitar and his neck harmonica – and after a noticeable delay to allow the teleprompter to cue up the song that left Bruce strumming the opening chords for longer than usual – Bruce turned in a gorgeous rendition of “This Hard Land,” the fourth tour premiere of the night. For the third time of the night, silence returned to the stadium, but it was an appropriate silence this time; the crowd was quietly enraptured…until everyone sang LOUDLY together, “Stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive.”[26]

The performance clearly showed that Bruce is more than ready for his long-promised upcoming solo tour, but first: Rock in Rio in Lisbon on Thursday night…

 

 

I couldn’t fit all of my thoughts on the Donostia concert into this piece without turning it into more of a novella, so you can find the rest of my analysis – which pertains to much more than just this show – here.

 

 

FOOTNOTES

[1] If you’re one of those people – as I was before coming here – never fear! I explain the difference in this piece…

[2] Pincho in Spanish = “spike.”

[3] For those wondering why America hasn’t adopted the pincho phenomenon, let me remind you of our absurdly restrictive health codes, and note how none of the food in that picture is enclosed in germ-blocking containers.

[4] Unpopular opinion alert: though Camp Nou obviously trumps it in historical significance – both in regards to Bruce and Spanish culture at large – I may have preferred the design of Estadio de Anoeta (it’s 1/3 the size!). Granted, there’s probably a reason Barcelona wants to build a new Camp Nou…

[5] Most of these have not yet been played on this tour, minus “Youngstown,” “Working on the Highway,” and “Death to My Hometown.” “Spirit” and “Murder” had been soundchecked previously but never played.

[6] And yes, “play” is a…play-on words here. Shorter soundchecks give Bruce more free time to enjoy these wonderful European cities, not to mention increase our chances of hearing one of his deified preshow acoustic sets, which was once again eluded us here.

[7] Could it be the longest mid-tour soundcheck ever?

[8] The ground in the very front of the pit actually slightly slanted down, which only increased the tightness when the hordes behind us repeatedly pushed forward down the gradual hill every time Bruce came near.

[9] Dear Bruce: as much as I do like these songs – particularly “My Love,” which is one of your best live outtakes – and agree they sufficiently engage the crowd with their rocking pace, please don’t make this two-pack a nightly occurrence. One of the reasons “Working on the Highway” elicited such a strong reaction from the front of the pit – who are the people I think set the tone of the crowd for Bruce more than the rest of these gargantuan stadiums – was because it was a relatively surprising opener. Thanks for reading (a boy can dream). Sincerely, Steven “Checkered Shirt Guy” Strauss. P.S. Thanks for everything you do. P.P.S. I love you.

[10] It was actually a beautifully cool night – perfect outdoor concert temperature.

[11] Which the crowd filled with – shocker – the “Badlands” chant.

[12] Bruce even put his scarf back on!

[13] As Bruce attracts the attention of the audience away from the stage, Stevie actually walks from one band member’s mic to the next to duet with each of them on the song’s harmonies. Though I originally thought he was just entertaining himself, I recently realized that Bruce’s musical consigliere is in fact making sure that each of their mics sounds correct.

[14] Except he should’ve said Donastia! Why? Read this piece to find out…

[15] They had to shake off that one-show-off rust!

[16] Sorry, I had to share this observation in hopes that I now stop thinking about it every time he plays the song!

[17] The cellphone fireflies returned, meaning they’ll probably be a nightly occurrence, as they were with “Drive All Night” in the States.

[18] During the instrumental introduction, Bruce walked around to each band member, presumably informing them what song he wanted to play next. His mind really is in roughly 2,493,753 places at the same time during a concert.

[19] This song may be the worst case of the aforementioned slower tempos.

[20] Patti and Soozie were even dancing together in the corner of the stage – women can ramrod too!

[21] Which, as always, made Stevie laugh maniacally.

[22] With “Born in the U.S.A.” probably being its main competition for that title…

[23] He even began it playing the correct guitar this time!

[24] Bruce also brought a big-bosomed broad onstage who wanted to dance with Steve, and BOY did she dance with him. By the time Bruce returned to his mic, she was seductively pulling Stevie’s scarf back and forth around his neck.

[25]  Perhaps the stadium had a 1am curfew?

[26] You can find more thoughts on his performance of “This Hard Land” here.

 

 

SETLIST

  1. Working on the Highway
  2. No Surrender
  3. My Love Will Not Let You Down
  4. The Ties That Bind
  5. Sherry Darling
  6. Two Hearts
  7. Independence Day
  8. Hungry Heart
  9. Out in the Street
  10. Crush on You
  11. You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
  12. Fire
  13. I Wanna Marry You
  14. The River
  15. Point Blank
  16. Murder Incorporated
  17. Darlington County
  18. Ramrod
  19. I’m Goin’ Down
  20. Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
  21. Drive All Night
  22. The Promised Land
  23. Because the Night
  24. Brilliant Disguise
  25. The Rising
  26. Thunder Road
  27. Badlands
  28. Born in the U.S.A.
  29. Born to Run
  30. Glory Days
  31. Dancing in the Dark
  32. Tenth Avenue Freeze-out
  33. Twist and Shout
  34. Bobby Jean
  35. This Hard Land

 

 

MERCHANDISE GALLERY

 

 

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