DONOSTIA Analysis: It’s Basque Time

Click here for a more conventional, specific recap of the Donostia concert.

At every stadium concert in Europe, two different flags flank each side of the stage high above the crowd. The stage left one is always the American flag, representing where Bruce and the Band were born. The stage right flag, however, changes based on the country in which they’re playing. Here’s the flag that was flown inside of Donostia’s Estadio de Anoeta on Tuesday night:

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No, that’s not the official flag of Spain;[1] it’s the ikurrina flag, otherwise known as the official flag of Basque country, in which Donostia is located.

“Wait…” you may be asking yourself, as I was every time Bruce referred to the crowd using this term, “…what the hell is this Donostia business?! I thought the concert was in San Sebastián!!!”

Turns out, San Sebastián is the Spanish name for the city. The local name, the real name, the Basque name, is Donostia. And I only know this because a Basque man who I met during one of the pit roll calls informed me the night before the concert. Many, many times.

For those unaware of the European system to get into the pit, I’ll try to explain because it bears no similarity to the American lottery. Back in the day, the European pit system – much like its American counterpart – was simply first-come, first-served, aka you basically had to camp out to get a great spot. But for a myriad of reasons, the system has changed to one involving roll calls. Let’s say you arrive at the stadium the day before the concert. If you walk around the exterior, you’ll find a collection of fans sitting around chatting, one of whom will be holding a marker. This person will write a number on your hand after they write your name on their list of numbers – these numbers correspond to how many people have shown up at the stadium before you. If you get number 157 – as I did in Donostia – that means 156 other people have already checked in and gotten a number on their hand. As long as you check in at every subsequent roll call, you will be the 157th person let into the pit.

Wait, roll call? Yes, roll call. Instead of forcing you to pitch a tent and camp out overnight for days and days and days, a roll call system has been implemented. After you get a number written on your hand, you will be directed to a sheet of paper with a list of all of the times you’ll have to be back at the stadium to check-in. Each roll call – as long as it’s run well – is super quick; the amazing fans running the line[2] simply start at number 1 and work their way down the list. Once your number is called, all you have to do is confirm to them that you’re present and then you’re free to go enjoy all of the pleasures that each European city has to offer. There are a few check-ins per day – usually pretty evenly spaced out – up until the day of the concert, at which time you basically have to join those running the system in waiting in line outside of the stadium beginning at around noon.

Though this roll call system leaves ample time to be a tourist in these foreign cities, many still complain that it’s a waste of your traveling time, arguing that you’re still choosing to wait in line instead of enjoying all that these cities have to offer. Those naysayers, however, do not understand that the local fans you meet on line[3] will often show you a more authentic side to a city that travel books simply cannot guide you to…

…as was the case for me at the final roll call on the night before the Donostia concert. Having befriended a local couple at the Barcelona concert who also made the trek across Spain, they invited me to join them for a meal. Though they were Catalan and Spanish, respectively, they brought me to a meal that was dominated by a Basque man, as it should be since we were in his hometown. This man held court for the duration of the delectable meal – at which pinchos galore were consumed[4] – and he was mostly concerned with educating me on all things Basque.

Though I thought I was in Spain, he informed me that I was actually in the heart of Basque country, a very small region of a few million people that stretches across the Spanish and French border. Though most of the world simply believes Spain is one unified country, he let me know that Basque is really an independent nation within Spain because their taxes do not go to the Spanish government; they go to the Basque government. He spent an endearingly excessive amount of time championing the many virtues and accomplishments of his fellow Basque people – some of which may have been apocryphal, such as claiming the Basque language is the oldest in the world. Simply put, the man was fiercely passionate and proud about all things Basque.

And you know what he may have been the proudest of? The fact that the rock and roll God known as Bruce Springsteen and his apostles by the name of the E Street Band have been kind enough to grace this small region with their presence so many times.[5] Not only that, he believed that Bruce made a point of coming here so often because he understands that playing in the more conventional, big cities like Barcelona and Madrid just isn’t the same to the locals. For small towns such as Donostia, a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert may be one of the biggest events of their year, and they feel an intense sense of pride and gratitude towards Bruce and the Band simply for showing up. The Basque people want a Boss concert in Basque country, so that’s what Bruce gives them.

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A fan-made sign outside of Estadio de Anoeta

 

I was pretty skeptical of this point…until I saw that ikurrina flag flying above the stadium.[6] My skepticism all but evaporated when Bruce walked onstage and immediately greeted the crowd by yelling the Basque name for the city: “DONOSTIAAAAAAAA!”[7] Though foreigners were probably confused – or more likely apathetic about it – every single local must have felt an immense sense of pride at hearing Bruce calling their home by its proper name.

 

If it weren’t for the roll call system, I probably wouldn’t have given any of this a second thought. But because the system allowed me to get to know and subsequently be culturally educated by the locals, I felt a much stronger connection to the fans around me throughout the concert. And whereas Barcelona’s concert was more of a rock-and-roll extravaganza – as you’d expect in the party capital of Spain[8] – the show that Bruce played for the Basques in Donostia can be described using adjectives that befit such an ancient culture; it felt a bit more communal, a bit more soulful, perhaps even a bit spiritual – with especially transcendent performances of so many of his simultaneously tragic yet hopeful introspective songs. The most memorable of these had to be the last: the tour premiere of “This Hard Land,” which he decided to play after the rest of the Band had already left the stage. Realizing he still had a few minutes to spare before the supposed 1am curfew, and hearing the never-ending cheers from the crowd, Bruce came back onstage with his acoustic guitar for a soul stirring rendition of this farmer’s anthem.

Though Bruce has ended many a European concert with “This Hard Land,” it seemed to be received better here than I’ve ever experienced before, and I only have one explanation for that: the Basques have long considered themselves livestock farmers, people who work on the land much like the characters in “This Hard Land.” Lines such as, “It’s me and you, Frank, we’re lookin’ for lost cattle” pertain to the locals in such a way that only heightened the song’s emotional resonance, which was probably the reason the stadium became as quiet as a church…until the crowd erupted in unison to sing with Bruce, “Stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive!”

These songs simply would not garner the same level of response if the audience did not feel like Bruce was singing to them, but due to the culturally-observant nature of the ikurrina flag and his exclusive use of “Donostia,” Bruce ensures the audience feels like an integral part of an E Street Band concert.

Many have often wondered why European audiences seem much more energetically engaged than their American counterparts, but no one reason can entirely explain this phenomenon. Though I do think the added time and effort that’s required to get into the pit in Europe results in increased anticipation and thus greater release once the show begins – as he always says, the more you put in, the more you get out – Bruce ensuring his audience and their culture feel integral to the show is a major part of it. Whereas Americans feel like Bruce belongs to them because that’s his home, Europeans view the Boss as a visitor to their world…but a visitor who has not only taken the time to understand their culture, but seemingly goes out of his way to play to as many different cultures as possible.

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Though a superficial read of this tour’s itinerary would have you believe there were simply three shows planned in Spain, understanding the local culture makes you aware that each of these three shows are located in vastly different areas of Spain; the Spanish are as appreciative that Bruce plays in Spain as the Catalans are that Bruce plays in Catalonia as the Basques are that Bruce plays in Basque country. As such, they each feel a much stronger desire to externally express their gratitude. Some say this show of gratitude often goes too far, with the hordes at concerts perhaps rudely pushing their way forward to get closer to the man as he passes by, not to mention all of the masses that wait outside of his hotels. These instances make Bruce out to be some sort of religious figure.

Though it’s been said many times before – including by yours truly as recently as in the end of my show report from Barcelona – a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert often does feel like a religious experience. Many probably view this sentiment as trite, but there’s really a lot of validity to it. When a religious person goes to a church or synagogue or mosque or what have you, they are seeking a place where like-minded individuals can gather as a community to celebrate and reaffirm their similar values and beliefs and ideals – all often rooted in text. The text in this analogy would be Bruce’s music – which is packed full of values and beliefs and ideals – and our place of congregation would be his concerts, which – like any religious service – ranges from silent, respectful contemplation (like during “This Hard Land”) and impassioned, communal singing (“Got a wife in kids in Baltimore, Jack…”). Heck, we even engage in repetitive communal rituals.

There is no better example of these rituals than “Badlands,” which fittingly ended the main set in Donostia. The song almost acts like a thesis statement for Bruce’s music, with every lyric capturing the values and beliefs and ideals put forth not only in his all of his songs but in his concerts too. Take the chorus alone:

Badlands, you gotta live it everyday

Let the broken hearts stand

As the price you’ve gotta pay

We’ll keep pushin’ till it’s understood

and these badlands start treating us good

Hard work, everything coming with a price, committing to your life every single day, overcoming obstacles through relentless never-ending pursuit, the use of “we’ll” instead of “I’ll,” and ultimately, all that hard work paying off with something good – these are the tenets of the Gospel of Springsteen. As such, the song comes with the most rituals on the part of the audience: the nonstop jumping during the chorus, the fist bump to “Badlands,” the hand-raise for “faith will be rewarded,” and of course that iconic chant that sounds a whole lot like other religious chants. Though many people may not be conscious of the meaning behind these ritualistic actions because they’ve become nothing more than tradition to some – which happens with religious rituals and holidays so often – they all symbolically reaffirm the aforementioned tenets.

Though the song plays like gangbusters no matter the country, there’s simply nothing like the feeling that you encounter in Europe after Bruce counts “one-two” into the song and a stadium full of tens of thousands of people begin jumping and chanting. Whereas America has become more agnostic in recent years, Christianity is still very much a crucial cornerstone of European culture, especially in Spain. At my dinner with the Basque man, he casually referenced God and Jesus almost as much as Bruce, not to mention the fact that it felt like I ran into a church wherever I walked in Donostia. And if all of that’s not enough proof of religion’s heightened importance in the area, a giant statue of Jesus looms over the city atop Monte Urgull. Perhaps more comfortable with religious fervor, Europeans tend to much more palpably express their love of Bruce, his music, and the entire E Street Nation community for, as a great prophet once said, “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”

Though Bruce is well aware of the differences in culture across this community, his music and shows also foster an educated and informative conversation between those cultures. Just as I learned about Basque culture from my friends that I met through the roll call system, hopefully I in turn educated them on American culture. I know for a fact that Bruce’s music definitely taught an entire generation about the U.S.A. through the album that partially bears the name of the country, which was a lot of European fans’ introduction to Bruce. He probably plays “Born in the U.S.A” almost every night in Europe because of this reason – which is also why it receives such a better response here. Yet it also serves as a nightly reminder of the start of the cross-cultural conversation that began with the album, which in turn expanded E Street Nation into the type of unified, global community that feels comfortable enough with each other to freely share the water bottles that are thrown into the crowd every night.[9]

One of the most surprising singalongs in both Barcelona and Donostia was for the chorus of “Brilliant Disguise.” Though I was mostly confused in Catalonia, after spending time and getting to know some of the people who had added their voices to the chorus, I found myself emotionally moved by the singalong in Basque country. Even though the song may be about the inability to ever truly know another person or even yourself, the way crowds express themselves and their love of Bruce during these concerts really feels genuine and authentic. Perhaps because they feel like Bruce not only knows but cares about them and their culture, they’re more comfortable in expressing their love of all things E Street. In an age of increased cynicism all around the world,[10] it’s rare to find a place where positive sincerity prevails.

A Bruce Springsteen concert is just such a place, and everyone’s welcome to, well, let their true flags fly.

 

 

FOOTNOTES

[1] We’ll have to wait for Madrid to see that one…

[2] Seriously, kudos to all of the fans who are nice enough to run these lines. Though Bruce’s team liaises between these people and each venue to ensure those who participate in the roll calls are the first ones let into the building, the system is almost entirely fan-run until the day of the concert. Yes, they’re rewarded with being front row…but they damn well deserve that privilege after basically waiting around the stadium for days giving out numbers so that the rest of us don’t need to camp.

[3] And you meet A LOT of fans in line. E Street Nation is full of chatty folks, all of whom have at least one great Bruce-related story that they’re anxious to share.

[4] If you’re unfamiliar with pinchos, I describe them here.

[5] This was the third show in Donostia since 2008, and he’s played in other nearby Basque cities as well.

[6] Similarly, the flag of Catalonia was flown above Barcelona’s Camp Nou last Saturday night.

[7] I just wish the official merchandise also bore this name.

[8] With ample respect paid to Ibiza, of course…

[9] The pit is too packed to allow people to make water runs, thus Bruce’s security provides water to the front of the pit to prevent dehydration.

[10] Obama actually talked about Bruce and cynicism in his commencement speech at Rutgers this week.

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