It was a global battle of the bands. Bruce vs Billy.
Seventy-three-year-old New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen and his E Street band. Versus 73-year-old Long Island, New York, native Billy Joel and his fine musicians.
Two of the best singer-songwriters the U.S. has ever produced.
Facing off on consecutive nights, Thursday and Friday, on neutral turf.
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No, not Central Park. Hyde Park. And no, not Hyde Park, New York.
Hyde Park, London. Some 60,000 folks attending each night of the British Summer Time series.
The British venue appropriate. Both Springsteen and Billy Joel are huge fans of, and have played with, members of England’s finest – perhaps the world’s finest – rock ‘n’ roll band, The Beatles. (Joel even did a cover of “Hard Day’s Night” in his encore.)
Still these two artists have a 50-year-long track record that stands on its own. Both have been turning out albums since the early ’70s. Most have gone platinum or gold. Each performer has sold 150 million records… and counting.
And their New York-New Jersey blue collar roots are well known. Billy Joel played the last concert at Shea Stadium. Bruce Springsteen closed down Giant stadium. Their tributes following 9/11 remembered by all. Springsteen’s “My City of Ruins.” Joel’s “New York State of Mind.”
But that’s where things start to diverge. Springsteen has turned out 22 studio albums so far. Joel 12, basically stopping after 1993. (As Joel likes to note, the Beatles also “just” released 12 albums.)
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Springsteen treated his audience this week to cuts from his latest two albums. Joel remarked,, “I’ve got bad news and good news for you. The bad news is you won’t hear any new material at this concert. The good news is you won’t hear any new material at this concert.” (Still, it must be said, Springsteen leaned heavily on older material himself. He did most of the ‘80s “Born in the USA” album and much of the ’70s “Born to Run” disc.)
They both looked great for their 73-years. Both wearing “dad jeans” and displaying just a bit of a paunch under their black shirts. Bruce does have more hair. Joel at one point looked up at a jumbo screen version of himself and said, ‘Hi Dad… I never thought I’d look like my father.’
And Bruce definitely ran around more, including up and down stairs to work the audience (though his dancing on top of the speaker days are over).
Both remain in fine voice. (No near-turtle-croaking Dylan for these two.) Joel’s is in better “nick,” as we say here in the U.K. Springsteen’s sometime gruff vocals a product of 50 years of arena screaming.
For better or for worse, both stayed remarkably clear of politics either international (read Russia’s war on Ukraine) or U.S. (read the 2024 race for the White House). That’s if you exclude ’80s recession anthems like Springsteen’s “USA” and Joel’s “Allentown.”
Both had a sense of humor… but different. Bruce’s leaned more to locker-room and rough-housing antics with his beloved E Street band on songs like “Glory Days” and “Mary’s Place.” Joel’s was more wise-acre self-deprecating lines.
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In fact, Billy’s relationship with his songs was pure Brill building, that ‘50s and ’60s factory of hits. When he’d introduce songs like “My Life,” “Innocent Man,” “Sometimes a Fantasy” and “Don’t Ask me Why,” he’d say stuff like “This song was from so-and-so album” or “This was an album cut that never was a hit.”
Most of Springsteen’s songs had no verbal introduction. As if the opening chords and building melody were enough for eager and dedicated fans to recognize huge epic songs like “The Rising,” “The River” and “Badlands.”
They were, in fact, two completely different concerts. Springsteen’s was an epic and sprawling three hours… 28 songs. Joel’s set was a more well-honed two hours, and still 23 songs, no doubt polished during his Madison Square Garden residency shows.
This was my eighth Springsteen concert and the big difference this time was his awareness of mortality. In songs from his latest album like “Last Man Standing” and transformed older songs there were references to friends who have passed. Including late band members like sax player Clarence Clemons.
While I’m sorry to say as a Long Island boy I’ve only seen Joel twice. About the closest he came to noting his time on this planet this week was his closing salute to the London crowd : “See you again… maybe.” And of course, his classic, “Only the Good Die Young.”
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As for the audiences, both it must be said, ranked a bit high on the demographic meter. “Boomer or bust” with well-worn tour T-shirts. But with enough adult age and younger children intermixed to give the feel of a broader audience.
And both audiences, equally, in their own way, dedicated to their artist.
Bruce’s fans were more dedicated and obsessed. One fellow we spoke with from Newton, Massachusetts, said he’d been to 150 Bruce concerts…11 on this tour. Accompanying the end of each song, fans howled the trademark, “Bruuuuuuuce!’ (which always sounds like “Boo!” but we know it isn’t).
Joel’s fans, I’d say, were more loving and caring… and a bit old-fashioned. Each song was one big karaoke. One concert neighbor gave running analyses of each song. And one nearby young couple decided that each love song deserved accompanying affection.
At the start of this story, I described this as a “battle of the bands.” With the assumption that I would declare a winner at the end of it. Sorry, but I am going to “cop out” and call it a “draw.” But a “good” draw with everybody as winners, musicians and audience.
Both Bruce and Billy have been turning out and/or playing songs for decades. They and their bands looked like they were having a ball on stage. Bruce’s songs, I would say, are more roots-driven and impassioned. Billy’s inventive and pop.
And neither “Born to Run” or “Piano Man” needed anyone singing on the stage! Especially poignant as this “old world” audience adopted these “new world” bands as if they were their own.
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Aside from the ubiquitous cellphones in many outstretched hands seeming to record every minute of the concerts, it was a few hours for all to get together, forget about their range of problems and issues big and small, and have one big communal love-in.
To quote another line from those four British “mop-tops,” “A splendid time is guaranteed for all.” And it was.
(this story has not been edited by TSA Mag staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)