Bruce Springsteen, Royal Albert Hall, London

Financial Times, 2005-05-30, by: Ludovic Hunter-Tilney
In keeping with the introspective mood of his new album Devils and Dust, Bruce Springsteen has ditched his usual accompanists the E-Street Band and chosen to go solo for this tour, as if the world's cares weighed upon his shoulders alone.

He did the same a decade ago when he toured The Ghost of Tom Joad, an album about economic depression and disenfranchisement made during Bill Clinton's first term as president. Devils and Dust is similarly downbeat and follows Springsteen's bruising first foray into party politics as John Kerry's most prominent celebrity cheerleader in last year's US election. Its songs are stories of loss and grief, told in a tone hovering between disillusionment and sentimentality ("I know what it's like to have failed, baby/With the whole world lookin' on", one track ruefully begins).

The absence of the E-Street Band, who last appeared with Springsteen on 2002's post-September 11 tub-thumper The Rising, might have been regrettable, as there are few sights more stirring than the Boss in full-throttle stadium-rock mode. But his solo performance on a stiflingly warm evening in the Royal Albert Hall, though more reflective, was similarly intense. Stripping his songs down to their bare bones, he held us rapt in a way that would have been impossible with a rock band blaring alongside him.

Although he opened accompanying himself on organ, singing "My Beautiful Reward", an obscure song from his 1992 album Lucky Town, during the bulk of his set he strummed an acoustic guitar like the Dylan-esque folk singer he started his career as in the early 1970s. Steering clear of hits such as "Born in the USA", he mainly concentrated on new material and rarities from his back catalogue. The atmosphere was hushed, though there were more rambunctious moments too: his distorted vocals and wild foot-stamping turned "Reason to Believe", a track from another mainly acoustic album, Nebraska, into a rollicking tribute to Tom Waits. He was also surprisingly chatty, though his good humour faltered when a wag shouted out "Where's Clarence?" in reference to his saxophonist in the E-Street Band ("How should I know where he is?" was the Boss's tetchy reply).

His new songs were impressive. "Devils and Dust", about an American soldier "a long, long way from home", had a simple gravity, Springsteen making his harmonica sound like a rippling lament. There were delicate hints of Spanish guitar on the tenderly sung "Matamoros Banks", which tells of a Mexican immigrant dying in the desert as he tries to enter the US.

But the stand-out song was the most controversial: "Reno", a track about a man grieving his dead wife who tries to console himself by visiting a prostitute. The frank lyrics have caused some consternation in the US, where Devils and Dust has become the first Springsteen album to be awarded a parental advisory sticker (which perhaps is a tribute to the song's emotional power). At the Albert Hall, it was devastating, especially the whispered final line: "It wasn't the best I ever had, not even close."

Springsteen's populism - his blue-collar man of the people routine - can shade into folksiness, as was apparent in this concert by his mawkish tribute to mothers "Silver Palomino" and the earnest "Jesus Was an Only Son". But their rendition live also gave them a degree of dignity and pathos lacking from the recorded versions.

Springsteen in performance remains one of rock's most compelling experiences

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2005-05-27 Royal Albert Hall, London, England