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As many of my fellow rock fans know, a few weeks ago in Finland, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band broke the musical equivalent of the sound barrier when they played a show that surpassed the 4-hour mark, 4:06 to be precise.
As Springsteen gets ready to kick off his U.S. stadium tour tonight at Boston’s Fenway Park, the question remains does length matter when it comes to a concert? If an act plays longer does that inherently make that a better concert than a shorter set?
Following Springsteen’s July 31 feat, several of my Facebook buddies engaged in lively conversations about that subject, and the E Street fans certain hashed it out for days on the Backstreets.com message boards. One of my colleagues, who is a pop fan through and through, asked if a four-hour Springsteen show intrinsically had more value than a pop show by [fill-in-your favorite pop artist’s name here] that might last only 90 minutes?
It’s a fun debate, but there are way too many factors that come into play here: Firstly, Springsteen is drawing from 40 years worth of material here, so four hours doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the wealth of songs he has in his catalog. It’s a little hard to imagine an upstart like One Direction, or even someone like Katy Perry, trying to cobble together a four-hour long show at this point. Even with all her hits, Madonna’s show is clocking in at around two hours.
Springsteen and the E Street Band also have long songs: The 4-hour show only tallied 33 tunes: Imagine if the Minutemen or The Ramones, both of whose songs were notoriously short, tried to stretch their material out to pad for time (if, of course, they were still around). Length was never the point with either of them: it was all about short, lightning bolts of intensity. I recently saw the Beach Boys play a 3-hour show at the Hollywood Bowl and, even with the intermission, they were able to chug through 44 songs since most of their tunes are under three minutes. No one went home feeling cheated.
There’s also a production element to consider: Springsteen’s show, while offering great sound and nice lights, is all about the music. There are no videos, no visuals, no dance numbers, no production changes whatsoever. For someone like Madonna or Britney Spears or Janet Jackson—artists who are changing outfits and themes with virtually every song—trying to put together a four-hour concert is akin to staging a major awards show every night given all the moving parts. The idea of it sounds visually assaulting.
As a major Springsteen fan, do I wish I’d been in Helsinki? Of course, for bragging rights for sure. But also for another reason— for the 62-year old Springsteen and his hardcore fans, playing for four hours meant much more than hitting some ultimately meaningless number: Having lost both founding members Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons over the last four years and feeling mortality creeping up, playing for that long, in what was, by all accounts, a vibrant, robust show, was a big old “Fuck You”—to death, to people who claim rock and roll is a young man’s game, and to all the horrible things that happen to you, your family, and your friends as you grow up that music makes tolerable. Plus, it’s fun.
Regardless of how long a show is, that is the point of all music: for the duration of that artist’s performance, if he or she is masterful enough and the music is powerful enough, it will provide an escape and block out every trouble and worry: Maybe Springsteen fans just need a bit of a longer respite.
Seriously, a few years ago a friend and I were at a show and we decided to leave before it was over. As we walked out, we had quite a lengthy discussion that an artist isn’t necessarily the best judge of how long his or her show should be. We’d gotten our fill and we very satisfied with what we’d seen and we didn’t need any more. It felt right to leave.
Some acts play with the theory of it is always best to leave the audience wanting more. With today’s ticket prices, I don’t buy that. Additionally, I don’t want to hear snippets of hits in a medley, I want the full song (even if it means doing fewer songs). I also don’t want to feel like the artist is phoning it in or that he or she can’t wait to get off the stage. I don’t need a four-hour show, but I do need to feel like the artist has as much invested in being there as I do and that’s something that time can’t measure.
What do you think?