The new Boss, game as the old

The Times, 2003-05-27, by: Manish Agarwal
IT IS no surprise that Bruce Springsteen is still a mass-market phenomenon while other rockers of similar vintage have become cantankerous, hit-and-miss cults. For example, Neil Young was in London the other week, touting some woolly concept album with a candlelit theatre set where the audience was forbidden to drink and asked to stay silent. In contrast, Springsteen ? ?Brooce? to his adoring public, the name called out with such force between songs that, ironically, it sounds like booing ? is playing two shows at a tree-lined sports arena on the edge of town. It?s a suitably Everyman setting for rock?n?roll?s friendliest icon. A star he may be, trim in all-black garb and neat goatee, but New Jersey?s most famous living son still seems like the kind of guy who?d give you a hand with the barbecue. When he leans into the opening widescreen swell of The Rising, the thousands of arms reaching forward in response do so out of love, not reverence.

This number is the title track of Springsteen?s current album, released last year, which saw him reunited with his trusty E Street Band and returned to the top of the charts. A populist attempt to find hope and understanding amid the aftermath of September 11, the new record provides nearly half of the evening?s 25-song set, and more than a few highlights. The acoustic embrace of Empty Sky is one, addressing bereavement with heartbreaking eloquence. It?s guided home by a tender mandolin solo from Steven Van Zandt, who looks as cool as only someone who plays with Springsteen and stars in The Sopranos can.

Waitin? on a Sunny Day, meanwhile, is as carefree as the balmy Bank Holiday weather, inducing a beery mass chorus in the crowd and some grinning showmanship from their idol, who flings his guitar to a roadie, then bounds down to sing to the front row.

That?s followed by 1978?s The Promised Land, its soulful frustration a reminder that Springsteen?s best songs occupy a space between your wildest dreams and the harshest truths. This is rock?n?roll with consequences: by always facing life?s realities ? growing old, settling down, screwing up ? he?ll never, unlike, say, the Rolling Stones, sound like a middle-aged parody.

What?s more, the man?s still writing showstoppers. Mary?s Place is from the latest album but feels like a lost classic. It?s extended accordingly, with talismanic saxophonist Clarence Clemons leading the party and a ceaselessly energetic Springsteen turning gospel preacherman to introduce the band.

The air-punching fervour that greets Born to Run is as glorious as it is inevitable, the song arcing up into crescendo after crescendo as floodlights strafe the stadium.

A jubilant Dancing in the Dark finally brings down the curtain on three hours of sustained brilliance which could happily have gone on for twice as long. To answer the obvious, Bruce Springsteen is still The Boss.



2003-05-26 Crystal Palace National Sports Arena, London, England