Solo Springsteen narrows gap between old, new

Providence Journal, 2005-10-22, by: Rick Massimo
Last night at the Dunkin' Donuts Center, Bruce Springsteen took material ranging from his 1973 debut album to his latest, Devils and Dust, released in May, and reworked it in a solo performance that cut away the extras from the new stuff and brought depth, dimension and perspective to many of the chestnuts.

Springsteen ranged from acoustic and electric guitar to piano and pump organ, with autoharp and ukulele thrown in for a few curveballs. At times, this led to some fairly radical rearrangements that were the high points of the show.

"Reason to Believe," for example, was done as a one-chord blues stomp with just voice and harmonica through a severely distorted microphone that sounded like a broken bullhorn. It was nearly unrecognizable, but menacing.

At the piano, Springsteen turned "You Can Look But You Better Not Touch," from his 1980 hit album The River, into a honky-tonk number. Springsteen's no Professor Longhair ("This is all I know!" he shouted during his pedestrian solo), but it was a fun romp. "For You," from his debut record, Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey, was also done at the piano. This stripped the song of the near-prog-rock ensemble sound and new-Dylan wiseguy vocal persona of the recorded version and narrowed the gap between old and new.

Devils and Dust isn't a solo acoustic album, but it should have been. The band, including Steve Jordan, the drummer who ruins everything he touches, adds nothing to the songs, as last night's show proved.

The sexually explicit "Reno," about an encounter with a prostitute that doesn't help the narrator forget ("It wasn't the best I ever had/ Not even close"), and the humanizing look at Jesus in "Jesus Was an Only Son" (here done in a sort of annotated version with commentary from Springsteen before each verse about the bond between parents and children) were some of the best songs of the night. But even less consequential songs such as "Walk You Home" and "Long Time Coming," as well as the title track and "Matamoros Banks" (both of which find Springsteen in his less successful rock-Steinbeck mode) were better than their recorded versions.

The show sagged in the middle, with the thematic doubleheader of "Valentine's Day" and "Real World" adding nothing of import, the would-be anthem "The Rising" not doing much and "Darkness on the Edge of Town" missing the E Street Band.

But the show ended strongly, particularly "Growing Up," from Asbury Park, done on ukulele. Springsteen himself laughed at the sight of the tiny instrument on him, but a change to the last three notes of the chorus took a song from a bitter ex-teen and gave it 30-plus years of perspective in one musical phrase. A masterstroke.

Similarly, the near-gangsta tale "Atlantic City" had the feel of someone recounting a time he's glad to have survived. And "Promised Land" was slowed down and muted, but still intense.

I'm not sure anyone can play solo for 2 1/2 hours without a few look-at-your-watch tunes, but last night it was hard to imagine many people coming as close.

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2005-10-21 Dunkin' Donuts Center, Providence, RI