Live review: Springsteen’s “Devils and Dust” tour — dream baby dream

Like the saying goes, you don’t have to be a Bruce Springsteen fanatic to appreciate his current tour — but it helps.

Springsteen’s current solo Devils and Dust trek is designed as a sprawling, contemplative look at the Springsteen catalog, particularly its quieter back pages. It’s billed as an acoustic tour, but last Friday’s show in Tampa found him hopping between six-string, piano, electric guitar, pump organ, electric piano and ukulele. Familiar songs are certainly played, but he’s not out to simply strip down his anthems. No, he’s out to revisit the dustier corners of his catalog, and he does it with subtle, startling power.

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This was the case once before when Springsteen hit the highway behind an acoustic record. Like 1982’s Nebraska and 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, Devils is a bleak, character-driven disc; also like Joad, it’s set in the dust-and-poverty choked Southwest. It co-stars prostitutes, amateur ultimate fighters, immigrants who died crossing into Texas.

But as was the case on the Joad tour, funny things happen when Springsteen brings Devils’ downcast songs to stage. The Tom Joad tour began as two hours of character sketches of permeating bleakness, and ended over a year later as a fundamentally different show, full of older tracks, personality and surprise (and culminating in sex puns and a song about a mall Santa in a strip club). The show becomes a sprawling and contemplative career overview., punctuated by humor and personality and the sense the Springsteen couldn’t be more pleased bringing these songs out.

First, he quickly moves away from his source material. In Tampa, Springsteen performed 26 songs but just five from Devils. And in many cases, the older songs are rebuilt from scratch. Reason to Believe got a Howlin’ Wolf treatment, with Springsteen roaring the vocals into a distorted bullet mike (think a dying CB radio ratcheted up to 11); it was all disorienting antagonism instead of somber reflection.

Springsteen has been flying without a net all through the tour, monkeying with arrangements and digging into crates — he’s done something like 130-plus songs. Still, the smorgasbord of rarities last week raised the eyebrows of even the online setlist hawks at places like the invaluable fan site Backstreets. The 1980 ballad Fade Away opened on electric piano, along with a veritable suite from The River Fade’s B-side Be True, I Wanna Marry You, Two Hearts and a heart-clutching Wreck on the Highway on electric piano. There were two from Tunnel Of Love — Ain’t Got You (which he wrote as a smirking answer all those who ask “what it’s like to the Boss”) and the plaintive One Step Up. And two from Nebraska, including the pitch-black State Trooper.

In addition, and this is the fun part, Springsteen starts to get chatty, like the wine’s starting to kick in or something. He sets up rim shots that could be swung home in the Catskills, riffing that his relatively lame Human Touch is considered a masterpiece in Norway, or that the uber-wordy Blinded By the Light explains why he never did drugs, although he’s “looking forward to doing them soon.” Springsteen led off Jesus Was An Only Son, a Galilee-set lament solely interested in the relationship of Jesus and Mary, with an extended monologue on his Irish/Italian roots, including a line about Catholicism being a religion of great beauty and faith, as well as “abject horror and terror.” Springsteen even stopped the song mid-stream to bring home some of its points, giving, or at least indicating, access to the machinations behind his songwriting.

But the latter doesn’t even come into play on the show’s biggest dice-roll: Dream Baby Dream, a track originally recorded in 1979 by NYC synth-drone duo Suicide, that closed the night and is one of the most bizarre things he’s ever brought to stage (a dancing Clarence Clemons notwithstanding). It’s little more than a mantra — a sea of phrases like “Come on, dream baby dream, I just wanna see you smile, dry your eyes” — that on paper sounds like a recipe for goodwill-slaughtering disaster. And indeed, it’s either a revelatory moment of thematic unification or a head-scratching snooze, depending on how you felt about the preceding two hours.

Indeed, this show probably split a certain chunk of the ticket-buying crowd; I heard at least one guy walking out lamenting that Springsteen didn’t play “more old stuff,” by which he almost certainly meant anything with some combination of the words “Glory” and “Days” in the title. No, this one’s for the longtime fans, the majority who sat in reverent politeness and not those who couldn’t keep their giggles and “whooooos!” contained within their comfortably appointed skyboxes. This is Springsteen rebuilding, refocusing, putting the spotlight back on his songwriting and reimagining what it’s like to be the Boss.

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About Jeff Vrabel

My writing has appeared in GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post, the official BruceSpringsteen.net, Indianapolis Monthly, Billboard, Modern Bride and more. View all posts by Jeff Vrabel

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