It’s serious fare, to be sure, and the austere set and Springsteen’s appearance — hair slicked back, work shirt and jeans making him look more like the custodian at Constitution Hall than the star attraction — would seem to preclude any sense of triumph. And yet it was there, albeit masked in the commonplace social contracts of everyday people Springsteen is committed to empowering through song.
He started the two-hour, 22-song show with “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” his guitar and harmonica and passion evoking the spirit of John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie. Those venerated artists’ ability to reflect both the despair and dignity of their subjects was clearly in place and recalled Steinbeck’s 50-year-old endorsement for Guthrie’s album of Dust Bowl ballads: “There is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call it the American spirit.”
In performing all 12 songs from the new album, Springsteen rescued them from dour resignation with more forceful vocals, though such songs of regret as “Straight Time” (in which a parolee working a dead-end job finds himself straddling the line between lawlessness and order) and “Dry Lightning” (about dead-end romance) were delivered with exhausted whispers, and the blue-collar fatalism of “Youngstown” was poignantly sincere.
Springsteen also invoked a half-dozen distinct and diverse voices through his guitar playing, which ranged from the supple pattern picking of “Highway 29” to the furious slide and fractious 12-string guitars that totally recast some older numbers, notably “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Darkness at the Edge of Town,” “Adam Raised a Cain,” “Murder Inc.” and “Spare Parts.” Anyone who missed the anger and frustration at the heart of “Born in the U.S.A.” will never again hear it as misdirected jingoism after this. Such retooling also made clear, and strong, the connections between Springsteen’s new and old material.
The generally subtle performance dynamics allowed the focus to fall on Springsteen’s writing and a four-song border sequence toward night’s end reflected Steinbeck-like social reporting — or, in the case of Guthrie and Springsteen, social recording -- that allows finely tuned and detailed narratives about individuals to serve as metaphors for larger issues. From the cultural disillusionment of “Sinaloa Cowboys,” “The Line” and “Balboa Park” to the unsullied yearning of “Across the Border,” Springsteen painted provocative miniatures of the human experience.
Several songs — notably “Galveston Bay” — used an offstage keyboard drone to underscore the somber mood, and a new film theme (for Tim Robbins’s “Dead Man Walking”) seemed appropriate to its death-row theme. Along with some engaging anecdotes, there were even a few defiantly up-tempo moments, such as “This Hard Land” and a wordy blast from the distant past, “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street.” But the prevailing mood was serious and almost challenging, and the audience responded with enthusiasm that seemed born this time more out of admiration and respect than rote adulation. For his final song, Springsteen turned to his new album’s wry meditation on cliches, “My Best Was Never Good Enough.” Last night, he proved his best was plenty good enough.