Renowned for his epic, three-hour plus, performances in front of arenas and stadiums packed with thousands of adoring fans while being backed by his E-Street Band, the idea of stripping back Bruce Springsteen to an acoustic guitar and a piano and putting him in a small theatre space is instantly a fascinating one, and that is exactly what’s been done for the Netflix special, Springsteen On Broadway.
Recorded during a run of shows that stretched over more than a year in 2017 and 2018 the show presents some of The Boss’ most well-known songs in an entirely new light.
On top of this, while it would have been very easy to simply do a ‘greatest hits’ acoustic set, the show takes the form of an autobiographical journey, inspired by Springsteen’s 2017 book Born To Run, as he charts the journey of his life through his songs.
Within this what Springsteen does is take his songs and rework them to fit with introductions, related stories and asides thrown in to make this very different from a straight rock ‘n’ roll show. In fact he starts the whole thing by breaking the fourth wall and revealing what he describes as the magic of the myth of his version of rock ‘n’ roll and this becomes a recurring theme (largely implicitly) throughout.
From stories of his mother and father, his youth in New Jersey and adolescence on the Jersey Shore the first half of the show sees him become, even more explicitly than usual, a voice of modern Americana, a descendent of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, but with his own unique outlook exploring post-war America very much from ground level.
The choice of songs here is, understandably, somewhat downbeat making it not the most uplifting start to a show but what it does allow is a route in that is different form a big hit like you’d get at a standard rock show.
Playing the songs largely solo on either acoustic guitar (occasionally with harmonica) or piano also shows a different side to the tracks with the multiple guitars, pianos, drums and, of course, saxophone, removed.
On top of which Springsteen’s somewhat idiosyncratic sense of rhythm, all the more highlighted without the band, allows him to draw attention to entirely different parts of the songs than the recorded versions, or full band live versions, do – a fine example is the prominence of the line ‘I want to know if love is wild, I want to know if love is real’ in this performance of Born To Run.
The second half of the show is more of a mixture exploring broader, more universal and political themes (that bring this right up to date showing Springsteen isn’t entirely resting on his laurels quite yet), as well as his relationships with his band (particularly late sax player Clarence Clemons), his wife, Patti Scialfa, and his father as Springsteen himself became a parent.
Scialfa joins him on vocals and guitar for a couple of songs which provide something of a break from solo Bruce at just the right moment and their voices really do work excellently together.
A highlight comes with a take on Born In The USA that before I heard it would have been unimaginable. Armed with a twelve string guitar and a slide the song is delivered as almost a spoken beat poem with the slide guitar providing a bluesy feel beneath the powerful (oft-misrepresented) lyrics which there’s no misunderstanding here.
The show as a whole is shot and edited excellently with a deceptively complex choreography to the camera moves and lightning cues that never overshadow the on stage performance but work very well with it, far more than I was expecting if I’m honest.
This all makes for a thoroughly engaging, entertaining, emotional and revealing two and a half hours that spans a career that whatever your opinion of Springsteen and his music, is extraordinary and, even for a more casual fan like me, held me rapt – though the audience cheering ‘Bruuuuuuuce’ at the conclusion still just sounds like they’re booing!