Back and forth with Bruce

Los Angeles Times, 2003-08-19, by: Robert Hilburn
Even back when he was playing bars on the Jersey shore, Bruce Springsteen understood the importance of keeping rock 'n' roll in the present tense. Seeing Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and other heroes of his youth slide into apathy, the young musician recognized that nostalgia is the enemy of the creative spirit.

But before an estimated 45,000 fans Sunday at Dodger Stadium, Springsteen seemed torn between expressing his own creative desires in 2003 and making sure the audience relived the good times of his '70s and '80s shows.

By Rolling Stones standards of doing the old tunes with commitment and force, everything was fine. But Springsteen shows have always been about more than reliving the past.

For three decades, he has shown us virtually everything that is great about rock 'n' roll, bringing such energy, passion and inspiration to the stage that it felt at times that there must be two people at work.

Indeed, there always were two Springsteens.

There was Springsteen the uncompromising artist who not only chronicled the dreams of a generation in such albums as "Born to Run" but also took risks by asking the country to take a hard look at its shortcomings in "Nebraska" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad."

And there was the Boss, the larger-than-life showman who brought the rock experience alive for millions with concerts so packed with celebration and joy that they stood as almost mythical salutes to the optimism of the human spirit.

It was a magical partnership of seriousness and fun that not only produced some of the most memorable concerts ever in rock but also made possible such live triumphs as the 1999 reunion tour.

That's where Springsteen and the E Street Band reestablished their relevance with concerts stressing the importance of community and commitment, thanks in part to a redesigning of his songs that give them new, increased resonance.

That sense of mission carried over nicely in last year's "The Rising" tour, which responded to the terrors of Sept. 11, 2001, by toasting the nation's resilience in ways that felt both heartfelt and bold.

In both cases, the shows represented a new chapter in the live Springsteen experience.

The problem with Sunday's three-hour set was that it didn't turn a page.

After the "Rising" shows, maybe Springsteen just wanted this summer tour to be a sort of emotional recess ? a break from the seriousness of the last two tours and the troubles of the world outside.

Springsteen and the band came on stage to a recording of the Beach Boys' "California Girls," and he soon dusted off the old signature moves, racing around the stage, sliding across it on his knees, shaking his rump endlessly and hanging upside down on the microphone stand. He also focused on lots of rousing oldies, from the landmark "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "Prove It All Night" to "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)."

Through it all, Springsteen sang with a raspy force that is undiminished. The band, which is playing with more precision and grace than ever, followed him through some two dozen tunes with all the teamwork and passion outlined in the key line of one of the evening's most rousing numbers: "No Surrender."

Beside such sonic trademarks as Clarence Clemons' sultry saxophone and Max Weinberg's explosive drumming, the nine-piece band's sound was highlighted by some stylish touches from violinist Soozie Tyrell.

But this isn't the best time to leave your cares at home.

Springsteen made a fleeting reference to the California recall election but said nothing about the national debate that has expanded since his last tour from issues of national security to national integrity.

Maybe he felt he had already addressed that issue in a statement from the tour opener in New Jersey, which is posted on his Web site. In it, he says that "demanding accountability from our leaders is our job as citizens. It's the American way."

In that Jersey show, he followed the remarks by playing "Land of Hope and Dreams," a spiritually edged song that asks the country to reach for its best impulses. Even without the introduction, the song served as one of Sunday's defining moments.

There were other inspired moments, especially in the tender, intimate reflections of "Empty Sky" and "You're Missing," two songs from "The Rising" about personal loss that are among the most evocative ballads Springsteen has written. His reprise of "Across the Border," from the "The Ghost of Tom Joad," album also seemed to touch on the anxious uncertainty of the times.

For every moment of intimacy, however, Springsteen turned the stage over to the Boss for what often felt like arbitrary looks back. Instead of ending the concert on the dramatic note of "Land of Hope and Dreams," the final encore concluded with "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)" and "Dancing in the Dark."

At least they didn't finish with "Tumbling Dice."

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2003-08-17 Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles, CA