Springsteen marks anniversary his way

The Globe and Mail, 2003-09-11, by: Carl Wilson
On the eve of the second anniversary of the World Trade Center bombings in Manhattan, the pop musician who's made the single largest gesture to commemorate the event may have felt a bit like he was in the wrong place in the wrong time, playing a baseball stadium in Canada.

His fans, of course, will beg to differ.

But it was conspicuous during Bruce Springsteen's generously proportioned concert in Toronto last night that something was going unsaid. Mr. Springsteen played a large proportion of songs from last year's generally sombre, 9/11-themed The Rising, six out of a 20-song set list. Yet, perhaps feeling that it would be out of place outside his native country, he didn't mention the anniversary.

On the fateful date itself, he is taking a break from his extensive world tour, which was making its second Toronto stop since December. But it was hard not to wonder whether he might rather be home among the people of New Jersey, who lost friends and family in the attacks and for whom The Rising was made.

At times last night, the darkness of the songs from The Rising matched awkwardly with the consummate showman's efforts to establish a party atmosphere, and it took until the encores for the reliable chemistry between a man who might well deserve the title the Last Rock Star and his audience to spark.

Some of that fault lies in The Rising itself, which for all its best intentions is not one of Mr. Springsteen's strongest collections. Perhaps in New Jersey, perhaps among the core faithful, it lives as the album it was made to be, a gathering place for the emotions the disaster created. But in the culture at large, it never achieved that place, and revisiting it now doesn't rouse us as it might have done.

Still, some of those songs, notably Counting on a Miracle and Into the Fire, seem to have grown since the album was made, acquiring a spacious authority in concert not present in the studio recordings. Mr. Springsteen has transformed another one of those tracks, Mary's Place, into the centrepiece of his concert, as if it to make it a Springsteen classic (a designation it's not quite up to) by sheer force of will. Pulling out his every crowd-pleasing, remarkably athletic stage trick, he damn near succeeded.

Two others of the recent songs, the bleak Empty Sky and especially My City of Ruins, needed no such special pleading. In last night's second encore, My City of Ruins was exactly as overwhelming as it is meant to be.

Still, the highest points were found in more predictable places, in 1970s scorchers such as Badlands and Because the Night, in the epic narratives of Born to Run and Jungleland, and in a version of non-album track Land of Hope and Dreams that morphed into variations on This Train is Bound for Glory and Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready.

In the second encore at the end of the show -- after checking with the crowd that he wasn't about to be stopped short by "Canadian curfew" -- came an ecstatic performance of Rosalita, the indestructible demonstration piece for all that makes Mr. Springsteen who he is. Clich? that it's become, the wide-eyed way he proclaims that "the record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance!" can still bring tears of joy.

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2003-09-10 Skydome, Toronto, Canada