The Boss unplugged
The Guardian, 2005-05-01, by: Sarfraz Manzoor
Bruce Springsteen trades pomp for pared-down brilliance in Detroit on the opening night of his world tour
There are two Bruce Springsteens. There is Bruce the messianic rock icon, the Telecaster-wielding guitar god and E Street Band front man whose natural habitat is a football stadium of 60,000 disciples punching their fists in unison to 'Born to Run'. And there is the Bruce Springsteen who began his world tour amid the ornate and chandeliered splendour of Detroit's Fox Theatre in front of a full house of 5,000. The Springsteen they were about to see was the anti-Boss; the Bruce of the bleak and brutal 'Nebraska', the whispered fury of The Ghost of Tom Joad and the latest album Devils & Dust. With the album not on sale until the morning after this opening night, few in the audience had heard the new material; strangers chatted to strangers, rumours were exchanged and stories swapped as they waited for the lights to dim and the night to begin.
The last time Springsteen toured acoustically was nine years ago, following the release of The Ghost of Tom Joad. The stark and spare musicality of that album made the tour a rather austere affair that was respected more than it was loved. Judging from this opening night, Springsteen seems to have learnt some of the lessons from his previous solo concerts. As on the Tom Joad tour, he began the show with a request for silence during the songs as it would affect 'my already tenuous sense of rhythm'. Dressed in an untucked black cotton shirt and worker jeans and armed only with a harmonica, he unleashed a barely recognisable 'Reason to Believe'. With his left foot stomping out a beat and wailing into a microphone which distorted his voice so starkly that it was only towards the end of the song that most of the audience recognised what it was. That was followed by the title track of his new album.
The song 'Devils & Dust' is about the dilemma of a soldier in a war trying to wrestle with his loyalty to his government and his own sense of right and wrong. The rest of the album occupies similar terrain; if there is a common theme in the songs it is one of moral ambiguity. Like so many of the characters Springsteen has sung about in the past, the cast of his new album want to do the right thing - but these days, knowing what that might be is not as simple as it used to be. As he observed on 'Blood Brothers', 'what seemed black and white turns to so many shades of grey'.
Unlike on stage, on the record the songs are fleshed out with strings, horns, violins and organ. Aware that most of the audience had not heard the songs, Springsteen was careful to explain the context to the new ones. He spoke movingly and honestly about fatherhood and how when his son was born it was as though Jesus had arrived, but 'these days my son treats me like I am a tolerable idiot - and that's OK: parents are meant to be uncool', before launching into 'Long Time Comin' from the new album. The song is about the joy and fear that comes with parenthood and it prompted reminiscing about his own childhood and life with his parents. 'When you have children,' he reflected 'you try to give them the best of what your parents gave you and save them from the worst, that's how you honour your parents.' Of course it never works out like that, he added with a rueful laugh, 'because children have their own destiny'. Later he recalled how his father used to tell him that 'marriage was a government conspiracy to force you to pay taxes', before performing a stirring and stunning piano version of 'For You' that had the audience on their feet.
With his easy conversational manner and careful explanations, the new songs were received enthusiastically, particularly 'Leah' and 'Maria's Bed', but inevitably it was the oldest songs that were given the most ecstatic reception: a ghostly 'Highway Patrolman' and a spiky 'Part Man, Part Monkey' among the highlights. Springsteen also excavated the great but underrated 'Real World' from 1992's Human Touch album, playing it on a baby grand and revealing the desperation that was missing from the final studio version. For the hard core, the night's finest moment came when Springsteen began talking about having seen the film Two-Lane Blacktop with James Taylor and Dennis Wilson as two lost souls whose lives are about nothing more than driving their '55 Chevy from race to race. Springsteen told the audience that he wrote the following song before he had seen the film but later was struck by how similar it was in its theme. Describing it as a 'love song from 1978', he sang an acoustic piano 'Racing in the Street'. The song weaves together familiar themes of friendship, escape and the search for meaning through movement and love and is arguably Springsteen's finest moment. The standing ovation began before the song was even over.
The show closed with a couple more tracks from the new album, including 'Matamoras Banks', which tells the story of a Mexican immigrant who dies from drowning where 'the turtles eat the skin from your eyes so they lay open to the stars' . By way of reward, Springsteen gave the audience the chance for a communal singalong of 'Waiting on a Sunny Day' before ending with a reworked 'The Promised Land'.
The joy of seeing Bruce Springsteen with the E Street Band is the thrill of seeing the greatest rock performer of the age. But it is a performance. What made this night so special, and why seeing Springsteen acoustic in an intimate setting is for my money preferable to a full arena rock concert, is the feeling that we are not witnessing a performance. Instead we are seeing Springsteen raw; honest, intimate, insightful and funny in a night that was beautifully simple.
2005-04-25 Fox Theater, Detroit, MI