DENVER — In a year when rockers from the past, such as Kiss and The Who, are reuniting to play old songs the way they used to, Bruce Springsteen has taken to the road alone, acoustic guitar in hand. His concerts leave some fans yearning for the four-hour epic shows Springsteen and the E Street Band were famous for, but most leave the theater liking what they heard.
"It was just a great musical performance," said Paula Nelson after Springsteen's sold-out show at Denver's intimate Paramount Theatre. "It was fantastic; you could hear a pin drop between songs." Her feelings are being echoed by most of the fans who find themselves fortunate enough to get tickets to his shows, which are being held in smaller 1,000- to 2,000-seat venues.
Springsteen has said recently that he feels outside of the mainstream in today's music scene, but it's a position he seems to almost relish. "I feel a great sense of purpose now," he told a reporter with the cable TV station VH1 recently. "I have a greater idea of what my job is now, who I am, and what I want to do ... and it's pretty much outside the general thrust of the music business."
But that's nothing new to the man most fans still call The Boss. He surprised many in the music industry in 1982 when he released "Nebraska," a stark and somber look at a cold, heartless America in which the lower class lived a life of little hope. That album was a pure solo effort, much of it recorded in the living room of his house. It provided a hint of what was to come and earned him universal critical acclaim.
"Nebraska" was followed in 1984 by "Born in the USA," Springsteen's best-selling album, which brought him global notice and more media attention. That record took Springsteen to megastar status, from playing in large clubs to football stadiums.
"Born in the USA" was followed by "Tunnel of Love" in 1987, essentially the last album that included all members of the E Street Band. The "Tunnel" tour was also his last with the familiar faces from E Street. He released two albums, simultaneously, with new backup musicians in 1991.
The subsequent US tour supporting those albums was the first that did not sell out since 1974's "Born to Run" tour. Longtime Springsteen fans also noticed the shows were no longer the four-hour, non-stop festivals of fun, but instead were a bit mellower and somewhat more serious. And the clowning around with E Streeters was replaced by nameless musicians.
Today Springsteen is as far from the E Street Band as ever, in musical terms. His current album, "The Ghost of Tom Joad," is much like "Nebraska," only the characters have moved. They used to come from New Jersey and New York, but now they come from California.
Convicts have been replaced by migrant workers, but one thing remains the same: The subjects come from America's forgotten poor, the struggling underclass, and only Springsteen seems able to make them come alive.
The biggest difference between "Nebraska" and his most recent work is where his characters go. In "Nebraska" they ended up in jail or in the electric chair, while on the "Tom Joad" album, their story is left to the imagination.
At the recent Denver shows, as the lights went down, familiar cries of "Brooooooce" began. But the performer quickly let it be known what the evening demanded - silence during songs. "I don't need to be cheered on too much," he said with a smile. "I've built up quite a bit of confidence over the years."
The show is serious, with simple lighting and no real stage set. Much of the material is drawn from "The Ghost of Tom Joad," with the occasional recognizable works including "Atlantic City," "Darkness on the Edge of Town," "Promised Land," and "Born in the USA." The last, a powerful but misunderstood rock anthem from the '80s, is stripped of its macho faade in the acoustic setting, thereby making its honest, antiwar message front and center.
With the 2-1/2 hour concert, Springsteen is proving again that he is one of pop culture's top storytellers, drawing the audience into inspiring or terrifying tales filled with rich and colorful characters. These shows are stripped of the bravado that has filled his past tours; the anthems have become heart-wrenching folk songs and come across more emotionally than they did with a full band in the background.
And, as he has done so often in the past, almost every concert will see a chunk of the proceeds benefiting a local food bank or veteran's group.
The evolution of Bruce Springsteen's music is a reflection of his life, which he has chosen to live in the present, not the past. His fans seem to appreciate that.
* For remaining tour dates, check the following Internet address: http://www.music.sony.com/Music/ TourInfo/