Springsteen Stands Alone -- Brilliantly

The News & Observer, 2005-07-26, by: David Menconi
Bruce Springsteen left no doubt that he wanted the crowd's cooperation for his solo show at Charlotte Coliseum. He came onstage, nodded at the applause and said, "The only thing I need tonight is as much quiet as I can get." That was one of the few appearances of Springsteen as himself. For the next two-plus hours, he played the battle-scarred soldier in "Devils & Dust," the shellshocked observer of "Into the Fire," the broken-down boxer in "The Hitter." The show was spectacular, as multilayered a performance as imaginable for a one-man band.

Like Springsteen's solo shows for "The Ghost of Tom Joad" a decade ago, Sunday's set concentrated on serious-minded songs. It was also consciously theatrical, with different lighting to accentuate each song's character and story. For "The River," what looked like cracked glass covered the backdrop to emphasize the broken lives described in the song. And the lighting on "The Rising" went from sunrise to sunset, with Springsteen backlit to cast a huge silhouette at the back end of the arena.

The tour does feature expanded instrumentation, including keyboards on nearly half the songs. But one of its most amazing moments was stripped down to almost nothing -- a ghostly wailing harmonica, a static-filled vocal through a harmonica microphone and Springsteen's foot stomping out the beat on "Reason to Believe." It sounded like doom itself, as if Springsteen had summoned the ghost of Howlin' Wolf to come back from the dead and sing.

That was but one of many ghosts Springsteen conjured. He occasionally backed away and sang off-mike to get more of an atmospheric effect. He also made frequent use of an ethereal, high lonesome wail of a falsetto, which sounded as if it had wafted in from another dimension. It came through like pure pain on "The Hitter" and pure bewilderment on "Two Faces."

As before, Springsteen used the solo format to recast songs with inventive new arrangements. "The River" was a dramatic piano number, somewhere between jazz and gospel. "Jesus Was an Only Son" included spoken-word interludes about parenthood and sacrifice. And he turned "The Promised Land" into a prayerful eulogy to "blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted."

After starting on a solemn note, Springsteen lightened the mood a bit with a middle segment of "Part Man, Part Monkey" and a rollicking "All I'm Thinkin' About," in which he appeared to be channeling Sam Cooke. But things quickly got serious again with "Highway Patrolman" (prefaced by a plug for the activist group People of Faith Against the Death Penalty) and "Reno," still the prettiest song ever about a tawdry encounter with a hooker.

Other highlights included "Real World" (slowed way down from the 1992 studio original), "Matamoros Banks" and "Racing in the Street." Try as it might, the crowd couldn't contain itself from whooping it up on the latter. But Springsteen didn't seem to mind. In fact, he was loose enough by the encore to make "Blinded by the Light" an audience sing-along. He even gave a sheepish grin to a bum note on "Wild Billy's Circus Story." That was about the only missed note of the night.

If you're going to his show in Greensboro, you're in for a treat.

Notes

Topic

2005-07-24 Charlotte Coliseum, Charlotte, NC