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Colleen Sheehy, Published August 15 2013

NxNW: Springsteen’s Ireland show a pilgrimage of sorts

Rolling Stone magazine recently rated Bruce Springsteen No. 1 in their “50 Greatest Live Acts Right Now.”

I learned the news just after seeing Springsteen perform in Kilkenny, Ireland, one of the last concerts of his 16-month “Wrecking Ball” tour that took him around the U.S. and Europe.

Our trip was a pilgrimage of sorts.

Springsteen figured into the life and work of my late brother, John Sheehy. As an attorney, he was known for his “Springsteen defense” for frequently quoting the singer’s lyrics in closing arguments. His favorite Springsteen song was “No Surrender.” He never lost a civil case.

As a tribute to John, I traveled with his wife, Kathleen, and their three daughters to see Springsteen perform in Ireland. The concert surpassed Springsteen’s reputation.

At the age of 63, he pours his heart and soul – and body – into 3½-hour performances with as much energy and conviction as he did when he was 25. He also connects with his audiences with palpable love. It’s a two-way love affair.

When Springsteen first took the stage in Kilkenny, fans held up hundreds of printed “Thank you” signs, creating the first choked-up moment of the marathon show. They were grateful he had come to this small Irish city. But their message also spoke of his fans’ appreciation for what the singer has given them for the past 40 years. His music offers meaning and solace for millions around the world. He gives voice to those with heavy hearts while also offering lighthearted fun and booty-shaking high spirits.

In Kilkenny, Springsteen got close up to the crowd, allowing fans to touch his leg, shake or slap his hand, play his guitar, or sing a chorus into the mic. Several times concertgoers got on stage to dance, sing along, hug and kiss him. He smiled through it all. No bouncers escorted fans off stage.

About six songs in, the singer recounted memories of a 1985 concert at Slane Castle near Dublin, saying it was one of their first outdoor concerts and their largest at that time – about 100,000 people who hovered on the brink of chaos. In honor of that concert, Springsteen announced they would play the entire “Born in the USA” album.

What a treat! And we got to hear “No Surrender.”

Our John Sheehy memorial tour dovetailed with Springsteen’s own memorial for his sax player and close friend, Clarence Clemons. This was the first tour without Clarence blowing sax and acting as a foil to Springsteen’s stage antics.

In Ireland, “10th Avenue Freeze Out” was one of the last songs of the night and included video clips on the jumbo screen of Clemons playing over the decades. The song recounts the story of how Clemons joined the E Street Band: “When the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band.”

Then came an even more touching moment: Springsteen playing an unplugged “Thunder Road,” one of his early hits, a story of young love and great dreams.

When the breaks came where Clarence would have played sax, the singer said, “Come on, you sing!” And sure enough, 30,000 people sang, “Da da da da da. Da da da da da da da da.” We all filled in for Clarence. We knew all the words and all the notes.

NxNW is an occasional arts and culture column written by Colleen Sheehy, director and CEO of the Plains Art Museum in Fargo