Stars don’t generally align as well as they did on the opening of Bruce Springsteen’s two-night stand in L.A. On a night that can be described as nothing short of magical, his solo show was a dream come true — the particulars of the material matched perfectly with the presentation, and the audience left emotionally sated. Relying heavily on the intimate music of his new “Devils & Dust” (Columbia), Springsteen explored themes of love, sacrifice, idealism and familial connections; nearly every moment in the 2½-hour show resonated with truth.
The freshness of the “Devils & Dust” songs — out officially for only a week — encouraged the audience to pay rapt attention to the Boss, as he strung together as many as four newbies in a row. Yet nearly every song had a fabulous payoff — an African-American boy leaving the inner city for Oklahoma in “Black Cowboys,” a crooked boxer telling his story to his mother in “The Hitter,” the humanity of “Jesus Was an Only Son.” Only “Silver Palomino” fell flat.
With the E Street Band out of the picture, Springsteen is keenly aware that he can have his lyrics heard as he intends — and he boldly asks before the show starts for the aud to refrain from clapping or singing along, and most of the people complied. (Springsteen did note that a dancing guy in the second row was giving him the heebie-jeebies.)
Families are key to the songs on “Devils & Dust,” and Springsteen knows he preaches to the converted — as he ages along with his hardcore audience, his best poetry is wise, and it resonates with the (mostly male) crowd that finds itself on similar paths. Themes of the stories are essentially that we’re all here to take care of each other, learning from the mistakes of earlier generations, and the characters who live on the fringe of society have just as great a chance of fulfillment as the kids born with silver spoons in their mouths. Those beliefs were present in the post-9/11 recovery of “The Rising” (four tunes from which made it into Monday’s set, including an impeccable reading of the title track), and they’re more deeply confirmed on “Devils & Dust.”
Narrative clarity, a Springsteen strongpoint in the 1970s and 1980s, gives much of “Devils & Dust” its appeal. In “Long Time Comin’,” Springsteen incorporates some Hank Williamsesque directness in a translation of his stunted relationship with his father: “I got some kids of my own/Well if I had one wish in this godforsaken world, kids/It’d be that your mistakes would be your own/Yeah your sins would be your own.”
To better serve the material onstage, he moves between six- and 12-string acoustic guitars — often playing them rather percussively — a hollow body electric guitar and, for five songs, the piano.
On the new material, as Springsteen crawls into different skins, he effectively uses different voices to evoke these struggling humans. There’s the high-pitched wail of a wistful lover on “All I’m Thinkin’ About” and the nasal desperation of a disappointed john in “Reno,” the most sexually graphic tune in the Springsteen songbook; the mumbles, slurs and twang that the singer employed on the album are softened in the live performance, making the lyrics easy to decipher yet no less effective in the delivery.
He applies vocal technique to older material at an extreme level, singing two “Nebraska” tunes — “Reason to Believe” and “Johnny 99” — into a mic designed for a harmonica, distorting the vocals and pushing the tunes into an unrecognizable ether. Bob Dylan’s been doing it for years on songs like “Drifter’s Escape”; in Springsteen’s case, it drives “Johnny 99” but feels forced on “Reason to Believe,” the show’s opener.
The night was full of surprises and stunning moments. He pulled out the rarely performed “Cautious Man,” from the underrated “Tunnel of Love”; he pulled off a breathtaking segue from “Incident on 57th Street” to “If I Should Fall Behind”; he turned “Real World,” from the forgettable “Human Touch,” into a timeless tune.
“The Promised Land,” Springsteen’s warhorse of warhorses, was shaped by his slapping on the body and the strings of a black acoustic, stripping the tune of its Herculean veneer and reaffirming a calm, rooted belief in righteousness. It was great to hear it naked, Springsteen’s intention clear and the audience tuning in to the real message.
Back when the “Unplugged” phenomenon had every major act peering into its material from a stripped-down perspective, Springsteen refused to play by the rules. He used a few hired hands to tackle hits and some dubious new material, clearly not quite ready to take his music to a bare-naked level. When he finally made that move to solo territory — in 1995 with “The Ghost of Tom Joad” — he was inordinately serious, singing about farm workers and immigrants, telling stories that belonged in the classroom rather than the concert hall and could have been enhanced by a slide show.
This time the stories were personal or humorous, ranging from kids’ attitude toward the intelligence of their parents to presidential politics and his lapsed Catholicism. He suggested Hollywood wouldn’t release “Inherit the Wind” these days unless they tested it with Christian extremists and changed the ending.
Springsteen’s 14-date U.S. solo tour stops May 19 at the Theater at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J. He is booked for 19 dates in May and June in Europe, to be followed by another U.S. leg.