Nothing in the couple hours that had come before could quite have hinted at the way Bruce Springsteen would end this solo show, with the possible exception that he both started and finished the night by casting the arena awash in a sonic spell of droning harmonium. But whereas he had begun with “Living Proof”, a sometimes-forgotten gem from 1992′s Lucky Town, he concluded with a startling selection: “Dream Baby Dream” by the 1970s art/punk duo Suicide.
And yet, somehow, it was a fitting bookend. The two songs, though emerging from entirely different eras and artists and contexts, communicated a similar message of hard-fought hope, of ultimate redemption, of delivery from darkness. Collectively, they were, in essence, quintessentially Springsteen.
You could generally say the same for the show as a whole, though that’s rather different from equating the aura of his solo performances with that of his E Street Band celebrations. Certainly Springsteen turns more introspective in this context; the mood tends to be less of a life-affirming party and more of a soul-searching journey. That’s befitting the nature of his latest disc, Devils & Dust, from which he played six songs on this night.
Though the new songs generally went over well, the audience still is clearly coming mainly for the back catalogue, from which Springsteen offered up a sort of hit-and-miss mixed bag. His best moments frequently came when he moved from guitar to piano; the opening chords of “Racing In The Streets” induced goosebumps, and “The River” delivered a deeper emotional impact than any other song in the set. Less effective among the old favorites was the encore selection “Growin’ Up”; though it’s one of Springsteen’s all-time best songs, on this night it felt too much like a paint-by-numbers rendering.
As strong as the piano numbers were, the set tended to lose heft when he switched to organ, which felt musically lightweight and cheesy by comparison. Springsteen also sacrificed some of the emotional impact of his vocals by resorting too often to an overly affected ghostly falsetto whine; it would have worked on a couple of songs, but interjecting it into the bridges or breaks of around half of the evening’s repertoire just came across as repetitive and empty after awhile.
His high point as a singer was “The Rising”, which he somehow managed to still pull off as a full-blown anthem even with just an acoustic guitar. The passage of time has created some distance between the song’s mantra and the events of September 11 which inspired it; the surprise is just how strong the song appears to be many years later, quite capable of standing on its own for the long haul.