Folk? He's boss of that, too

The Times, 2006-05-08, by: Pete Paphides
With Norris McWhirter no longer around to measure these things, it may never be a matter of public record. Nonetheless, you would struggle to recall a crowd that took less time to warm up than Bruce Springsteen's audience in Dublin.

Twelve seconds I made it -just long enough for a bleary fiddle and an unsteady brass section to clamber aboard for the opening boom-thump of O, Mary, Don't You Weep.

As a country where the singing storyteller has long enjoyed privileged status, Ireland has always had a soft spot for Springsteen -and that was before he went and released a folk album. The adoration by his audience, then, was no surprise.

Whether he would manage to reproduce the tipsy conviviality of The Seeger Sessions in an 8,500-capacity hangar was another matter.

Perhaps it was the liberation of singing lyrics that originated in a place other than his own head, but at times he brought a physicality to historical ballads such as Jesse James that was almost comical: cocking his leg up like an over-watered labrador when his excitement could no longer be contained; and accidentally thumping his wife Patti Scialfa with the neck of his guitar on Open All Night.

Not for Springsteen, then, the folk-singer's default tendency to present these tales as if they were sonic museum pieces. The voice he found for Old Dan Tucker and John Henry sounded like a lifetime of cold showers -hoary, magnificent and alive. And, while his spoken introductions revealed a keenness to convey the history of these songs, he also wasted no opportunities to highlight their contemporary relevance.

The mass displacement of Americans that is described in the Dust Bowl ballad My Oklahoma Home threw up parallels with scenes in New Orleans that, in the words of Springsteen, "none of us thought we would ever see". When his 18-piece band finally came to play the song, they did so like a phantom Mardi Gras, triggering a dip in the emotional temperature that rose only with a riotous Pay Me My Money Down.

So Bruce Springsteen can now add the title of folk-singer to his long list of achievements. In fact, the writer of Born in the USA and Nebraska (from which he performed two numbers) was a already a folk-singer in every sense that mattered.

It was a point gracefully underscored when he returned to encore with a Celtic soul reading of his own My City of Ruins from his post-9/11 song cycle The Rising.

As Springsteen drove the song home to its affirmative gospel coda, the line between the Telecaster-wielding rock star of yore and his new downhome incarnation finally evaporated.

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2006-05-05 The Point, Dublin, Ireland