The Boss nails it - all by himself

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2005-07-25, by: Nick Marino
Bruce Springsteen ambled onto the stage, his shirt unbuttoned and tucked into jeans, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, his receding hair swept up and back. Nothing unusual there.

But the man was all by himself. That's right, no E Street Band, which meant no mic-sharing with Little Steven, no breakneck rock 'n' roll anthems, no knee-slides across the stage.

This was Bruce Alone, baby, playing acoustic music on an anti-Greatest Hits tour. You wanna hear "Dancing in the Dark"? Well, that's what albums are for. Geddouttaheah.

The 55-year-old New Jersey bard, who is touring behind his brooding new record "Devils & Dust," is using his solo shows as a forum in which to rearrange familiar tunes, work through some new ones from "Devils" and even dust off some deep catalog material that, against the odds, he'd somehow never performed.

If you didn't know this beforehand, you might've been disappointed with the semi-obscure set list and the bare-bones approach. And indeed the audience --- which was overwhelmingly white and middle-aged --- occasionally got fidgety, as though some fans just couldn't stand sharing a room with the Boss and not yelling their way through a cathartic "Born to Run."

Even if you knew what Springsteen had planned going into his Atlanta show over the weekend, there was some reason for alarm --- this intimate performance was to take place in a not-exactly intimate sports arena, and it was alarming to imagine sitting through two dour hours of Springsteen, seated on a stool, strumming his way through interminable versions of "Racing in the Street" and other dirgelike material.

Fortunately, that's not what happened. At all. The show turned out to be a fan's fantasy, an emotional and sonically varied performance that used the partitioned arena space ingeniously.

Springsteen played a grab bag of instruments (from piano to banjo), varying his deliveries to include drone and echo and percussive guitar, plus a surprising vocal range. Sometimes he even backed off the microphone so his voice could be as unamplified as possible, allowing a rare glimpse at the superstar's music in the buff.

The concert took place over the course of about 120 minutes Saturday night at Philips Arena. By Sunday morning, the vigorous Springsteen fan site Backstreets (www.backstreets.com) was already abuzz over the show's two world premieres, "Sad Eyes" and "Valentine's Day."

There were other gems and surprises: "The Promised Land," "Lost in the Flood," "Darkness on the Edge of Town," a set-closing cover of Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream," a swirling and stomping "Reason To Believe," a Dylanesque "I'm on Fire" and a delicate "Nothing Man" dedicated to Springsteen's Atlanta-based producer, Brendan O'Brien.

The spare arrangements gave listeners a direct connection with Springsteen's lyrics.

A naturalist, his idea of moon/June/spoon is mud/blood/flood, and his strongest themes --- sin vs. salvation, hope vs. regret, idealism vs. realism --- came into sharp relief during (and between) the songs.

"We got a hand that we burn with and a hand that we build with," Springsteen said, introducing the boxer's lament "The Hitter." "That's God's joke. Or maybe it's free will."

Before the border-crossing tragedy "Matamoros Banks," he said, "What we need, instead of vigilantes across the border, is we need a humane immigration policy. We've got people dying just to cut the lawn."

Some of Springsteen's most powerful material addressed spirituality. A divorced Catholic, he clearly has mixed feelings about religion --- and his ambiguities can make for compelling art. During his distorted blues take on "Reason to Believe," he swung an arm away from his body, and it was hard to tell if he was punching the air or making the sign of the cross, or both.

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2005-07-23 Philips Arena, Atlanta, GA