Rock Icons in Concert

Bruce Springsteen pares down to acoustic guitar; Bob Dylan and Patti Smith plug in

Bruce Springsteen

Beacon Theatre, NYC

Bruce Springsteen has long cited Bob Dylan as one of his heroes, but it wasn't until his current album and tour that the influence became so apparent.

His recent show at New York's Beacon Theatre, which happened to take place one day after Dylan appeared there, featured the singer performing on a bare stage with just an acoustic guitar and a harmonica; it was like seeing Dylan during the early 1960s.

The new album, "The Ghost of Tom Joad" (Columbia), is stark to the point of bleakness, a set of social-commentary songs illuminating the plight of the disaffected and the disenfranchised throughout the country, from Ohio to Texas to the California-Mexico border. The concert concentrated largely on material from the new release, although there was also a smattering of Springsteen classics retooled and reinterpreted.

Unfortunately, when Springsteen goes into his serious, folky mode he tends to get like Woody Allen when he makes serious movies.

"Ghost of Tom Joad" contains songs that are powerful in their lyrical content but almost nonexistent melodically. It's the kind of album that will be listened to once and then will likely be put away. In concert, the songs, performed in an even more stark manner (the album at least has some other instrumentation), became more than a bit monotonous.

But the best of them, such as the powerful "The Line" (about working on the California border patrol) and "Galveston Bay" (about the conflict between Texas fisherman and Vietnamese emigres) fulfill Springsteen's ambitions of being a modern-day, Guthrie-like balladeer.

He also performed several older numbers, including "Darkness on the Edge of Town," done with an edgy, propulsive energy; the normally rocking "Murder, Inc." (which he described as "a song about good old American paranoia"), performed in a menacing, ballad style; the title song from his "Nebraska" album, which fit right in with the current material, and a powerful version of "Reason to Believe," sung with a gospel-like fervor. Other older songs included "Adam Raised a Cain" and "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City" (during which he even managed to throw in a Dylan impression). "Streets of Philadelphia" was done as an encore.

A chief highlight was his rendition of "Born in the U.S.A." Commenting that he wanted to get the last word after the song had been misinterpreted by "small children and Republicans ... and a healthy smattering of Democrats," he performed it in a downbeat, blues style, stripping the song of its choruses and nearly of its melody.

Bob Dylan/Patti Smith

Beacon Theatre, NYC

A couple of nights later, Bob Dylan and band came back and delivered a superb set, although unlike Bruce, he played with his guitar plugged in.

His current band is one of his best, and even his most oft-played classics seem to take on a new life. Performing in a variety of styles ranging from hard-driving rock to folk to practically bluegrass, Dylan seems more engaged than ever, even to the point of performing without his usual sunglasses and enunciating his lyrics with greater clarity than he has in years.

Songs like "All Along the Watchtower" and "Highway 61" received a torrid, elongated treatment, featuring scorching guitar work, while a short acoustic set brought forth beautiful versions of classics like "Tangled Up in Blue" (which, although its tempo was dramatically speeded up, was powerfully moving). In the past, he has sometimes treated his songs with something resembling indifference; here, his rendition of "Simple Twist of Fate" seemed utterly heartfelt.

Dylan brought Patti Smith onstage for a duet on "Dark Eyes" that raised goose bumps. And his set also seemed to serve as a tribute to the late Jerry Garcia, with rollicking versions of "Silvio" (Dylan's collaboration with The Dead) and a version of "Alabama Getaway," which demonstrated that, although the Dead may be over, their spirit still resonates.

Patti Smith is continuing to make her gradual return to the New York rock scene. During the summer she performed a brief, surprise set at Lollapalooza, and her free poetry reading in Central Park attracted an audience of thousands. Now she is in the midst of an eight-city tour, her first in over 15 years, as Dylan's opening act. The show represents a big bargain for rock fans, who get two rock icons for the price of one.

Performing a brief set, Smith demonstrated that the years and personal tragedies have not dimmed her power. She began by reading a short poem, clad in a sweatshirt with the hood pulled nearly over her face. But it was merely a few minutes before the sweatshirt was gone and she was literally "Dancing Barefoot" with her opening song, whirling about the stage with abandon.

She welcomed the crowd with a typically poetic greeting: "Hello, New York, I know you well. I know your rude and sweet streets." Her fans responded with rapturous adoration, bouquets streaming up to the stage.

Smith had some major ringers backing her up, including Tom Verlaine (of Television) and, from her old group, Lenny Kaye on guitar and Jay Dee Daughtery on drums.

She went through material both old (a pounding "Land of 1,000 Dances") and new, and saluted her showmate with a rendition of Dylan's "Wicked Messenger."

Both ballads and rockers were treated with the same kind of ominous, brooding intensity, aided immeasurably by Verlaine's ever-inventive guitar work. And Smith's banshee wail, which has influenced a generation of female rockers, is still a potent emotional force. She appropriately ended her set with an ominous version of "Not Fade Away" that seemed practically threatening. But the encore, a gentle ballad dedicated to her late husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, revealed the delicate and fragile side of her persona.

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