Springsteen spellbinding in solo show

The Republican, 2005-05-23, by: Kevin O'Hare
When Bruce Springsteen records or tours without the E Street Band, he's fond of pointing out that he was originally signed to his first record deal as a solo artist.

It's taken him a whole lot of years, but he's finally getting the hang of transforming most of the majesty, power and passion of his epic full band rock shows into settings as intimate as the one he played Friday during a spellbinding solo acoustic performance before a full house at the Orpheum Theatre.

For starters, this was much better than the somber and intense solo concert Springsteen staged at the same venue in December 1995, while he was touring on his own for the first time in years, promoting the equally solemn "The Ghost of Tom Joad."

This time, he's hit the road behind his new solo album "Devils & Dust." While it's hardly upbeat, it's a magnificent recording, full of richly cinematic tales, and Springsteen is relying heavily on it in concert, while also pulling out some intriguing, and mostly lesser-known tracks from various other points in his career.

He didn't receive the first standing ovation of the night. That was reserved for Sen. John Kerry, the unsuccessful presidential candidate who Springsteen broke personal precedent for while stumping on the campaign trail and leading the "Vote For Change" tour last fall. Kerry received a rousing reception - and a smattering of boos - when he moved toward his seat prior to the concert.

The crowd also included "Meet The Press" host Tim Russert, and maybe for those reasons this show had a few more stinging political references than have been reported at other stops during the singer's U.S. tour.

Tickets said the concert was to start at 7:30 p.m., but Springsteen didn't make it to the stage until approximately 8:35 p.m., when he took a seat behind a small pump organ and launched into a hymn-like rendition of "My Beautiful Reward."

A jarring, stomping, bluesy, distorted version of "Reason to Believe," followed, with Springsteen pounding his black boots on the stage, wailing a harmonica and growling his way through the cut like Tom Waits on a dark, rainy morning.

"Devils & Dust," one of the only recently written cuts on the new album, followed with Springsteen playing guitar and singing about a soldier's fear and confusion while fighting for his life in a war-torn land.

One very nice aspect of this evening was that Springsteen talked frequently between songs, resurrecting the style of eloquent monologues that helped turn him into a star 30 years ago. The 55-year-old father of three children was especially articulate prior to "Long Time Comin'," a classic about trying to not pass sins and failures from one generation to the next.

He sat at the grand piano for an angelic version of "The River," which he introduced by paying homage to the wonders of women and the wonders of doo-wop groups.

While he was frequently serious, the songwriter was also quite amusing, like when he prefaced "Part Man, Part Monkey," with some political shots about those politicians and others who question evolution.

"In New Jersey, we believe in evolution. It's our only hope," Springsteen quipped.

He rocked while banging on an acoustic 12-string guitar for "All The Way Home," and called the rarely played "Cautious Man," "one of my favorites."

His piano-based, post 9/11 tale about suicide bombers and lives left behind, "Paradise," was positively haunting and arguably the night's most unforgettable song. And he picked up the power considerably with "The Rising."

Among other latter set standouts was an aggressive "Further On (Up The Road)," as well as "Jesus Was an Only Son," and "Leah." Prior to the latter track he told a very amusing story about visiting the late great Roy Orbison, who at the time was writing a song about wind-surfing. Springsteen had doubts about the subject matter.

"As my friend John and I can tell you, the American people draw the line when it comes to wind-surfing," Springsteen said, drawing howls of laughter while referring to Kerry's penchant for the sport.

The rock hall-of-famer's stark tale about a boxer, "The Hitter," followed, prior to a magnificent version of his immigration saga "Matamoros Banks." He introduced the latter by saying "What we need instead of vigilantes across the border is a president who'd come across with a humane immigration policy."

If the night had any downside it's that after 19 amazing songs, Springsteen's encores were slightly disappointing. He did five selections, starting with a rockabilly run through "Ramrod;" a very weird "I'm on Fire," which was marred by his own way off-key whistling; "Land of Hope and Dreams," which was one of the few songs where he really missed having his bandmates with him; and a percussive but unnecessarily subdued take of his classic "The Promised Land."

Two hours and 10 minutes after it began, the concert ended with a real surprise, as Springsteen returned to the pump organ for a mystical and eerie, echo-filled cover of the incredibly obscure "Dream Baby Dream," by Suicide. As he left the stage, the keyboard chords kept playing, with Springsteen's last words echoing into the night, "C'mon baby, keep on dreaming."

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2005-05-20 Orpheum Theatre, Boston, MA