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The first big ovation last Friday night came about 30 minutes before the start of Bruce Springsteen’s solo set, when the junior senator for Massachusetts, John Kerry, entered the Orpheum. The second included its fair share of low-toned "Brooooce" call-outs. But Springsteen was quick to announce what most of us already knew: the boisterous Boss and his bombastic E-Street Band would be on hiatus for the next two-plus hours. Instead, this would be a civilized (i.e., sit down, turn your cell phones off, and shut up), thoughtful (i.e., politically/emotionally charged) evening of intimate music. Not merely an unplugged gig, where an artist straps on an acoustic guitar to run through a bunch of familiar tunes, but something more akin to one of those VH1 Storytellers sessions, only without the usual parade of hits.

The tone was set early as Springsteen — who looked good at 55 in his blazer, jeans, and black boots — sat pedaling a harmonium, feet pumping, eyes closed, crooning the stark "My Beautiful Reward," a tune he included a dozen years ago in an MTV live session, while the video screens that flanked the stage showed close-ups of his feet and face. Next, before grabbing his acoustic for a reverent "Devils & Dust" (the title track from his new Columbia album), he stomped his way through Nebraska’s angry "Reason To Believe" buoyed by little more than a low drone and distorted blasts of harmonica and vocals.

As the set progressed, Springsteen moved among six- and 12-string guitars and various keyboards (including one "special" Fender-Rhodes-sounding electric piano he said he’d picked up on eBay), peppering big chunks of Devils & Dust with relevant tunes from his past and revealing little tales about growing up, raising kids, and other life experiences. An admission that he’d stolen the title for the new "Leah" from the late Roy Orbison turned into an amusing political quip about windsurfing and the election of a president who lied about Iraq over a guy who dared to windsurf. "The American people draw the line at windsurfing," he joked before dedicating the tune to Kerry. Leading into the rockabilly-tinged "Part Man, Part Monkey," he addressed the absurdity of the debate over evolution, concluding, "In New Jersey, we believe in evolution; we’re counting on it." But the jokes gave way to a graver Springsteen who inhabited each and every song, eventually eschewing harmonica refrains for an oddly feminine wordless falsetto that was as daring as it was mournful. You didn’t have to be a diehard fan of the Boss to appreciate this Bruce Springsteen — indeed, that might have been a liability.


Issue Date: May 27 - June 2, 2005
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