Springsteen suits himself in solo acoustic show at the Paramount
Joel Selvin, Chronicle Senior Pop Music Critic
Saturday, May 7, 2005
Bruce Springsteen demanded a certain decorum of his audience Thursday at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland.
It wasn't just that, first thing, he reminded everybody to turn off their cell phones -- after a repeated recorded announcement to the same effect preceded him -- but he also admonished them not to clap along with the songs. Later, he told the audience not to applaud the beginning of songs when they recognized a tune. "It makes me feel like I'm in Vegas," he said.
Taking such a didactic tone with his audience strongly suggested that they were there to please him, not the other way around, and that the evening was about what he wanted to do.
But personal gratification and creative freedom is exactly what's behind solo acoustic Springsteen albums such as "Nebraska," "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and his latest, "Devils & Dust," whose songs formed the core of the 22-song, two-hour concert. He makes these dark, folky albums to please himself.
Right from the start, he seemed determined to signal his intentions, opening with "My Beautiful Reward," an obscure song from what is probably his least-loved album, "Lucky Town," played on a wheezing pump organ he never touched again the rest of the night. He followed that by recasting "Reason to Believe" from "Nebraska" as a Tom Waits deconstruction, his indecipherable vocals electronically muted and heavily processed, accompanying himself with reverb-drenched harmonica and amplified foot stomping. Only after that did he strap on an acoustic guitar to play "Devils & Dust."
Springsteen has long felt confined by his role as rock's great hero. Inside the charismatic, bombastic character who can sweep up stadiums full of fans in his fervor has always been a gawky beatnik poet who would be more comfortable at coffeehouses with candles on the tables.
At the Paramount, he strummed his guitars, joshed with the crowd ("Everybody has their complaints," he said. "I've made a career out of mine") and sang his songs. He did seven of the 12 new songs. He played some numbers at the piano, including the title song of his 1980 hit album, "The River" -- the closest thing he played all night to anything that ever was played on radio -- and another oldie, "Racing in the Streets," which he dedicated to director Monte Hellman, a cult filmmaker who made existential '60s Westerns. He closed with a slower, stripped-down "Promised Land" that barely resembled any previous incarnation of the song.
But the concert was about the new songs -- the wildly romanticized "Silver Palominos" about a mother's death, the bitter and explicit "Reno," the bloody, Steinbeckian "Matamoros Banks." These songs are clearly personal to Springsteen, intensely wrought creations crafted with no apparent concern for the breadth of their appeal. These are stories he wants to tell, even if they don't fit comfortably with the broader appeal of his work. He makes no easy accommodations on these songs.
He joked about not having written love songs early in his career -- until "Tunnel of Love," he said -- although he largely avoided any conventional love songs at the Paramount. He said his father warned him that love songs were a government conspiracy, by way of introducing "The River," a gritty, mournful portrait that's hardly anybody's idea of a romantic ballad. But he also called the unapologetically X-rated "Reno" a love song, too -- "a love song about not being able to handle the real thing," he said.
At the bottom of all of his writing, however, is a humanistic spark, and his fans instinctively understand the essential Bruce-ness of oblique soliloquies such as "Jesus Was an Only Son" or "Leah," even if they were cloaked in an earnest, almost precious solo acoustic performance.
The arty lighting scheme didn't help. If he wasn't singing from shadows cast deliberately across his face, his head was ringed in a golden halo from the backlighting. Springsteen can be depended on to get his songs across, and artifice only tends to get in the way. He could have stood on a bare stage under a single bulb and been every bit as effective.
He only briefly looked as if he was having fun -- strumming an electric guitar and singing "Part Man, Part Monkey," a reggae-flavored comedy he first performed on the 1987 "Tunnel of Love" tour, or rattling off some Muddy Waters bottleneck licks and doing the densely processed vocals to "Johnny 99."
But, loose or not, he had everybody's attention riveted every second he was onstage. And nobody minded being instructed in comportment. They don't call him the Boss for nothing.
E-mail Joel Selvin at firstname.lastname@example.org