Music

The Boss Establishes Order -- And Then Challenges It

By Joe Heim
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 16, 2005

Turn off those damn cell phones. That was the first item of business for Bruce Springsteen before playing a single note at a sold-out Patriot Center Saturday night. "If I hear one of those idiotic jingles, I'll sweep the audience with my chain saw," he said with a chuckle. "I don't want to decapitate any lobbyists or senators." No clapping along either, he told the crowd of 7,000 or so: It would destroy his "already tenuous" sense of rhythm.

After establishing Bruce's Rules of Order for the solo acoustic evening, the 55-year-old rock giant began with "My Beautiful Reward," an anguished song about searching for meaning when life's ephemeral offerings disappear or fail to deliver on their promises. That theme dominated the stripped-down, 2 1/2 hour, 25-song performance. And it was a theme he explored in his between-song comments as well.

Drawing heavily from his new album, "Devils & Dust," Springsteen traversed minefields of doubt and belief, anger and forgiveness, suffering and hope. As he sang the new album's title track through gritted teeth, his words sounded dark and cautionary: "We've got God on our side / We're just trying to survive / What if what you do to survive / Kills the things you love." On another new song, "The Hitter," he related a harrowing tale of a son beseeching his mother for a temporary reprieve from a life gone far off course.

In addition to the new songs, Springsteen performed "The River" on piano and some radically reworked older material, including the grim and rarely played "Wreck on the Highway" and a version of the heroic anthem "Promised Land" that was slowed to a muttered crawl. "Reason to Believe" from 1982's "Nebraska" was recast as some sort of foot-stomping, Gothic, Delta blues exorcism. The rendition, sung through a tricked-up microphone and accompanied only by Springsteen's howling-cat harmonica, was so incomprehensible that even the signer for the hearing-impaired sat that one out.

A supporter of John Kerry in last year's presidential election, the Boss didn't back off on the political front. He took President Bush to task for his stance on evolution in a humorous intro to "Part Man, Part Monkey." Later, in his prelude to "Matamoros Banks," a song about the death of a Mexican migrant worker that could be a 21st-century version of Woody Guthrie's "Deportees," Springsteen said, "We don't really need vigilantes along the border. What we need is a humane immigration policy." Lou Dobbs might want to book him as a guest.

As antidote to the evening's more somber fare, Springsteen offered the joyful "Long Time Comin'," a celebration of coming to terms with fatherhood that he introduced by saying, "I'm just happy to be viewed as a tolerable idiot by my kids."

Before playing another life-affirming song, "Leah," Springsteen talked about choices people need to make in a world where temptation and lures are set in front of them like "giant mousetraps." "You've gotta have faith," he advised, "and come down on the right side of the equation." It was a point reinforced by the concert's beautiful conclusion, "Dream Baby Dream," a reworked song of the same name by the obscure synth band Suicide. "I wanna see you smile / I just wanna see you smile," Springsteen sang, repeating the line over and over until it felt like some sort of spiritual incantation. Faced with the choices, he comes down on the right side, offering himself, and his fans, reasons to believe.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company