Springsteen at Xcel
Exchange: Springsteen in St. Paul
Jimmy Gaines and Steve Perry on the Devils & Dust solo acoustic show
Where: Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
When: Tuesday, May 10
My Beautiful Reward
Reason to Believe
Devils and Dust
If I Should Fall Behind
Long Time Comin'
The River (piano)
Book of Dreams
Part Man, Part Monkey
Further On Up The Road
Jesus Was An Only Son
A Good Man is Hard to Find
Land of Hope and Dreams
My Best Was Never Good Enough
Jimmy Gaines: You know, I went into this show with very high expectations (and a lot of reservations), but I have to admit it was one of the most touching, personal performances I've ever witnessed. The thing about Springsteen is that he always makes me believe him (and in him). Despite the fact that the setlist was for shit--9 out of 25 songs were from "Devils & Dust", arguably his weakest record ever--and the flow of the set was quite awkward, Bruce himself made me feel as though I was in a much more intimate setting. (The absolute worst part of the experience was the cavernous Xcel Center--that and the Dockers-clad, barely pre-AARP crowd.) It was like he cut the distance down between performer and audience by half.
But I feel the song choices were really poor. For every "Reason To Believe" (an almost unrecognizably fucked up, distorted version powered only by voice, harmonica and a mic'd stomp-platform) or "The River" (on piano) or "The Hitter," there was a "Reno" (quite possibly the worst song he's ever put to wax) or a "Good Man." What the fuck? I can think of a dozen songs off the top of my head that are not only better songs, but would've worked better, given the acoustic nature of the show. That said, even on the worst songs, he made believe, he made me buy into it. I'm almost surprised I didn't walk out of the Xcel with a new used car. I walked into the show bitter and seemingly above any Rock and Roll illusions and I'll be damned if I didn't walk out a believer (or a sucker, depending on how you look at it). This was really a case of a powerful performance (and performer) overcoming any shortcomings the material may contain.
Steve Perry: Believing him is rarely an issue for me when it comes to live performances, especially the acoustic shows--if by "believing," you mean believing that he's present in the performance and has questions he's asking of the material just as you and I are. The show made me think of a line from "Badlands," one of the songs he didn't perform last night: "I want to go out tonight, I want to find out what I got." I was struck by how hard he worked to recast older songs in a new voice, and I don't just mean arrangements and phrasing; I think he was trying to work his way back inside them and find out what they said. And where they point: I think this tour is partly about answering a question that's lingered over his career for the better part of 20 years now, since Tunnel of Love in 1987: So what do I do now?
I think you're dead-on with the "What now?" question. The closing "Promised Land" was a prime example. Instead of the "fuck you" defiance of the original, it came across as confusion. "Mister I ain't a boy. No, I'm a man" and... so? It's kind of like "now that I've achieved this goal of manhood/independence where do I go from here?" I can't help but think that Bruce has been profoundly affected by the death of his Father in '98. "Who do I rail against now?", "My male role model is gone, I am set adrift with no guidance", "Now, I'm the man". That's right boy, more questions, less answers. Whatcha gonna do now?
I think it was very telling that he closed the show on that note. He left us with a shaky statement, a question to be mulled over (one that kept me awake well past 6 this morning). While I feel last night's version of this song wasn't as glorious as previous ones, it was strange to hear him with such doubt. I think the choice of the final three songs was telling: "Land of Hopes and Dreams," "My Best Was Never Good Enough" and "Promised Land." "Hopes and Dreams" (which I felt was way more effective solo rather than his gospel-inspired, full band version) was the ideal, "My Best" was the reality and "Promised Land" was the question that lingers.
Another highlight was the return of the in-between song stories, although often profound and explanatory, they unfortunately were third person in nature and less "him" (or "us"). But some bits were laugh-out-loud funny and it was good to feel that connection. How did you feel about the banter?
Perry: I thought the most interesting things he had to say were the churlish asides about not treating this like a rock show--like a Bruce Springsteen concert--by clapping along or applauding the openings of favorite songs or calling out requests. (Fun fact: Did you hear the guy calling out for "Cautious Man"? The punchline is that, according to a chatboard poster who sat up front, "Cautious Man" was on the setlist--Bruce apparently axed it in response to the shouted request.) What struck me was that no matter how graciously he was telling people to fuck off, he was genuinely angry. I've seen him stare daggers at people onstage from time to time through the years, but I've never seen him so openly irritated with an audience.
What this says to me is that he's trying to hear these songs anew himself, and to create a space in which others can do the same--or at least he can be free to imagine that they are. I think irritation of that sort on his part is a very positive sign, actually. It's the opposite of creative listlessness or indifference, which was the quality written all over Human Touch, Lucky Town, and much of Devils & Dust. I hope I get a chance to see what's become of this show if and when a second U.S. tour leg is added this summer.