Monday, October 17, 2005

Concert Review: Springsteen in Madison

The Boss is back
Springsteen shows us what we've missed
By Rob Thomas
The Capital Times
October 17, 2005

It's bad enough that Bruce Springsteen hasn't played Madison for decades. What's worse is that, by giving such a fantastic show at the Alliant Energy Center Coliseum on Saturday night, he reminded us of what we've been missing out on all these years.

Springsteen said he was told that it had been 30 years since he played Madison (aside from an October 2004 campaign rally for John Kerry), but the Springsteen fan magazine "Backstreets" dates his last local appearance as Feb. 2, 1981.

Springsteen's show was a solo acoustic performance, so it lacked the dancing-in-the-aisles party atmosphere of his recent Milwaukee shows with the E Street Band. But instead of straitjacketing Springsteen's performance, performing solo gave him the flexibility to introduce all sorts of different colors and textures into the show, with songs ranging from the glorious to the grim, his voice going from a hush to a howl.

It was a show that could have the audience singing along to a joyful "Blinded by the Light" (one of several requests Springsteen took) and then, immediately afterward, pinned to their seats in silence by the powerful "The Promised Land."

To preserve an intimate, Overture Hall-like vibe, promoters had originally planned on selling only 4,000 tickets to the show, intending to draw a giant black curtain around the remainder of the arena. But when those nearly sold out within hours of going on sale, they added another 2,000, and it was only upper-level seats at the back of the arena that got partitioned off. In the end, some of the available upper-deck seats went unsold.

The promoters also enforced some etiquette rules that certainly weren't in effect when Nine Inch Nails or Alice in Chains graced the Coliseum stage earlier in the season. Concessions were mostly cut off after the show started, and if someone had to use the bathroom, they were supposed to wait until a song was over to leave their seat.

Some might chafe at such ground rules, but they helped conjure up the right environment for a show that was about spontaneity, unpredictability and intimacy, and needed an attentive crowd that wouldn't be disappointed not to hear "Glory Days" or "Born in the U.S.A." And the crowd seemed to dig the house-concert atmosphere, respectfully silent during the quieter numbers and enthusiastically applauding when they ended.

Clad in a plaid shirt and jeans, Springsteen set the tone from the start with the snarling "Idiot's Delight." As if such an obscure choice wasn't distancing enough, he sang the fire-and-brimstone lyrics through an old microphone that made his voice sound like it was coming out of an old radio. Not exactly a warm welcome to the crowd, but a fitting choice for a 150-minute concert that was full of surprises.

The first few songs of the show continued in that dark vein, from the grieving "Empty Sky" to the piercing title cut on Springsteen's new "Devils and Dust" album, for which Springsteen's vocal phrasings for lines like "fear's a powerful thing" seemed particularly Dylan-esque. There were a lot of instruments lying around the stage and Springsteen used them all, including an acoustic guitar, electric guitar, piano, organ, harmonica, ukulele and autoharp, which added to the musical richness of the show.

Springsteen played several songs off the new album; "All I'm Thinking About" was just achingly sweet, with Springsteen adopting a rare falsetto, while the sexually explicit "Reno" was haunting. And the set closer, "Matamoros Banks," was a truly powerful song about an illegal alien who dies in an attempt to swim across the border.

In introducing "Matamoros," Springsteen called for a humane U.S. immigration policy. It was a rare political statement for the night, although Springsteen did take a sly shot at the current administration by mentioning that he has been to the White House. "Not lately, of course," he said. "Back when it was fun, that's when I got my invitation."

But otherwise, Springsteen generally let the music deliver the message, and the lyrics express his commitment to compassion and community, and his hopes that those values could find their way back into politics again. He talked about the importance of faith in his life during "Jesus Was an Only Son," wryly wondering if, as he walked his last steps, Jesus Christ dreamed of living a long, ordinary life instead of being a martyr. And at the end of the five-song encore, Springsteen sang "Follow That Dream," a song that implores a lover not to give up hope. But as Springsteen repeated the same few lines over and over, his voice filling the arena as he walked to the front of the stage, arms outstretched, you couldn't help but think he was singing to an entire country that he felt had lost its way.

At the end of the show, Springsteen vowed that he'd be back soon, and with the full E Street Band in tow. "When?" yelled someone in the audience. "I don't know when," Springsteen quipped. "If I knew when, I wouldn't be me."

Published: 9:28 AM 10/17/05

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