Bruce almighty

St. Petersburg Times, 2005-11-05, by: Sean Daly
Springsteen guides his adoring fans through 21/2 hours of blue-collar bliss
Behold the power of the Blue-Collar Bard.

With the exception of the pope and my mother, there aren't many people who can successfully shush a roomful of 10,113 people quite like Bruce Springsteen.

Performing on a stage as stripped of arena-rock artifice as the 20-plus songs he unveiled at the St. Pete Times Forum on Friday, the pride of Freehold, N.J. - not to mention a denim-clad prophet for millions of doughy, middle-aged white guys the world over - demanded quiet as he worked through a two-and-a-half-hour solo show that was a far cry from his rocking ways with his E Street Band cronies.

So adamant was the 56-year-old icon about the crowd's reverence that he demanded the shutdown of concession sales (read: beer) during the show. Also, if you weren't in your seat by showtime, you had to wait out the first three songs before you could take your seat. (Part of the arena was closed off to give the gig an intimate, theater feel.)

Kinda sounds like a rock 'n' roll librarian, doesn't he? Well, remember that these were Springsteen fans, a beyond-zealous crew that actually prefers crowd silence so they can hear every one of the rarities (Cynthia! Be True!), sorta hits (Atlantic City, My Hometown), and stark, lovely songs from new album Devils & Dust.

Even without regular saxman Clarence "the Big Man" Clemons or drummer Max Weinberg, Springsteen was still a spectacularly captivating showman, chatting up the crowd in his trademark folksy style and alternating between such instruments as guitar and electric piano.

Looking like he just rolled out of bed, the uncombed Boss opened with Fade Away, from 1980 album The River, a boy-craves-girl tune that he sold with his trademark raspy croon. He then followed with one of the most mesmerizing performances of the evening: With just a stomp of his foot, some wheezy harmonica and a cleverly distorted microphone, the rocker channeled the spirits of gutbucket Delta bluesmen on Reason to Believe. It played like performance art - but, you know, good performance art.

He might be a millionaire with a mansion on the hill, but Springsteen's gift, forever and always, is his ability to get real with the Everyman. That was prettily, painfully clear on such brutally honest new gems as Devils & Dust, about a desert soldier filled with questions of faith and fear as he puts his finger on the trigger, and the utterly devastating Reno, about a Nevada drifter who beds a prostitute but can't stop thoughts of a lost paramour from echoing in his head. (That tune famously earned the Boss his first parental-advisory sticker.)

He gave a few of his classic "talks" during the gig, my fave being a hilarious tutorial in how all rock 'n' roll songs, even the peacenik tunes of the '60s, "were written because somebody wanted somebody else to pull their pants down." The randy troubadour then sang a "new" chorus to epic anthem Born to Run: "Tramps like us, baby we were born to run . . . now will you pull your pants down." Oh, how the doughy, middle-aged white dudes roared!

Some of the biggest crowd response came for a pair of tunes off 1987's Tunnel of Love: a twangy take of Ain't Got You and - get your Kleenex ready - One Step Up, a song Springsteen ignored for years before finally acknowledging its heartbreaking pop perfection during this tour.

Strumming a ukulele (yep, that's right), the Boss opened his encore with The River's sweet slice of utopia I Wanna Marry You. He then rousingly stole back his Blinded by the Light from Manfred Mann.

After the topically optimistic Land of Hope and Dreams, he slowed and stripped The Promised Land until it was unrecognizable from the E Street version. It was one of several times when Springsteen stepped away from the mike to sing, a bit of aural trickery that's not nearly as effective as he thinks it is.

But hey, a minor quibble. After Springsteen sat behind a pump organ for a show-closing hymnal cover of Dream Baby Dream, originally done by '70s New York punkers Suicide, his loyal, loving fans once more unleashed the ultimate compliment for the ultimate live-show king:

"Bruuuce!'

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2005-11-04 St. Petersburg Times Forum, Tampa, FL