For the first time in Bruce Springsteen’s storied career, this voice of the underdog has created a show designed to convey a single message — one of faith and trust: The collected mass can be saved, not this time by fiery rock ‘n’ roll but by each other. Springsteen has channeled the images that came after the Sept. 11 attacks and passed them through his rural central New Jersey perspective with a balance of the vague and the explicit, making “The Rising” (Columbia) the easiest to grasp of his 12 studio albums. Concert includes the war-horses — “Badlands,” “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road,” “Promised Land” — and well-chosen selections, “Bobby Jean” for example, that enhance the new disc’s themes. As he fades “Land of Hope and Dreams” into Curtis Mayfield’s ode to salvation “People Get Ready,” Springsteen leaves his audience transfixed on his notion of America, sold on the belief he expresses in “Land”: “This train/Carries saints and sinners/This train/Carries losers and winners.” Rock ‘n’ roll has never nurtured a more convincing populist.
News that Springsteen was delivering the same 2½-hour set night after night certainly raised concerns among the faithful — Isn’t the kinship he develops with his concert audiences at least half dependent on the fact that he doesn’t repeat himself, giving each perf a unique touch? Well, yes, but Springsteen is a man changed not only by Sept. 11 and its aftermath but by a music industry with little patience for its veteran acts; TV and print media generated a frenzy over “The Rising” in the week of its release, and Springsteen is making sure his audiences realize the E Street Band is not around to dust off obscurities from the 1970s. In the hopes of trying to bring a new world order into focus, Springsteen has shouldered the weight for a largely 35-plus, white crowd and chosen to deliver the same message, whether he’s in Los Angeles, New Jersey, Kansas City or Albany, N.Y., where the 46-city tour ends its opening leg Dec. 13.
Whether this M.O. is the temporary Boss or permanent remains to be seen once he returns for multiple night stands next year.
Eleven of “The Rising’s” 15 tracks make it into every show, with nearly every song benefiting from the live presentation as well as their placement in the set, Band mixes it up so we’re less inclined to notice similarities in the lyrical structures of the new songs. (Wisely, Springsteen leaves out “Paradise” and the downtempo “Nothing Man.”)
He has, for the first time, added a quiet segment to the show — remember the “Unplugged” days when a rock concert, no matter which band it was, wasn’t complete with acoustic guitars? — and he selects two of the album’s most lyrically specific tunes for the treatment: “Empty Sky” and “You’re Missing,” along with the buoyant “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day.”
These tunes and others, such as the updated spin on “Rosalita,” “Mary’s Place,” are the raw versions unprocessed by “Rising” producer Brendan O’Brien. While O’Brien has certainly updated Springsteen’s sound, the Boss gives the tunes — without exception — a more personal shape that’s far more affecting than on disc. “Lonesome Day,” with Soozie Tyrell’s piercing violin and the audience going full bore on the “it’s all right” chorus, shatters the recording; “My City of Ruins,” begun with just Springsteen at the piano(!), swells into full soul-gospel fervor with the leader shifting his voice higher into the assuring domain of Curtis Mayfield.
In a band where Clarence Clemons’ wailing saxophone, Max Weinberg’s big beat and Nils Lofgren’s furious guitar lines are a given, the wondrous contributions from Tyrell can’t be understated. She gave “Atlantic City,” one of the best numbers in the Springsteen oeuvre and perfect for this setting, the lilt of an Irish drinking song, and her fiddle drives home the penetrating effectiveness of “You’re Missing.” (“Atlantic City,” by the way, is the only number played that wasn’t recorded with the E Street Band, and while he seems loath to incorporate non-E Street tunes into his shows, Springsteen certainly could draw on more of the superb material from “Nebraska” and the emotionally rich songs on “Tunnel of Love.”)
Beyond Tyrell, it’s Springsteen who delivers the real instrumental sparks, especially on the chestnuts. The band has chosen to give “Promised Land” and “Thunder Road” careful approaches in line with the original recordings — were they tired performances, the tempo would falter, but here they both held steady. In the case of “Promised Land,” the chant-along staple from “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” Springsteen makes it a sweaty and exhilarating guitar tour de force.
As was so very evident in the first reunited tour of the E Street Band a couple of years back, Springsteen thinks in blocks of three. He comes up with winners galore, first with the acoustic numbers, then with “Badlands,” “Bobby Jean” and “Mary’s Place” and best of all, the closing troika of “Thunder Road,” “America Skin (41 Shots)” and “Into the Fire.” Springsteen has given up the storytelling, choosing only to remark on the growing encroachment on civil rights, asking for support of a local food bank and the lack of luxury boxes at “the Fabulous Forum,” making all those underdogs once again glad he’s on their side.