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Back on Thunder Road

Springsteen and the E Street Band begin a reunion tour, defying concerns as they embark on a new, creative chapter.

April 13, 1999|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

BARCELONA, Spain — "I'm so glad to be here in your beautiful city," a playful Bruce Springsteen told 22,000 cheering fans with a mock evangelist's fervor as he kicked off his reunion tour with the E Street Band over the weekend.

"But I want you to know that we're not here for a casual visit. . . . We're here to rededicate you to the power, the passion, the mystery and the ministry of ROCK 'N' ROLL! I can't promise you life everlastin', but I can promise you life right now. . . ."

It was classic Springsteen, entertaining yet purposeful, and the key moments of his concerts Friday and Sunday at the sold-out Palau Sant Jordi arena carried the same hallmarks.

In his first formal shows in a decade with the band, Springsteen was still trying to do what he's always done: make each show feel like the ultimate rock experience.

In the three-hour nonstop shows, he did many of his signature hits, including "Born to Run" and "Thunder Road," but sidestepped the more pop-oriented hits, including "Dancing in the Dark" and "Hungry Heart," while showcasing lesser-known tunes that add character and depth to his body of work.

Yes, Springsteen fans everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief.

In a rock world filled with distasteful reunion tours, here's one that doesn't feel like a final payday, but the start of a shining new chapter. There were some rough spots, especially on opening night, but the high points were as rich and inspiring as the legendary Springsteen shows of the past.

"This tour is about rededication, rebirth," a jubilant Springsteen said in an interview late Sunday. "The only way we wanted to do this was to make everything feel current . . . to pull all the music into the present to make the emotion true to right now."

"It's not about when a song was written or when it was released . . . Roy Orbison, until the day he died, sang every one of those songs like he wrote it yesterday. That's how it felt to me tonight."

Even for true believers, there had been many reasons to worry. Springsteen faced considerable embarrassment if this tour, which comes seven years after an outing with another band that left much of his audience cold, looked like a desperate attempt to recapture the group's glory days.

Springsteen sent out his anti-nostalgia message with his choice of opening numbers both nights here. Confounding everyone who was trying to predict which of his classics would open Friday's show, Springsteen went with "My Love Will Not Let You Down," an upbeat selection from "Tracks," the rarities boxed set released last fall to lukewarm commercial response.

The song not only gave the start of the show the energy it needed, but it also underlined the theme that would emerge in the concert--the values and comfort of community and commitment.

In that same adventurous spirit, Springsteen and the band generally reworked old songs and surrounded them with like-minded tunes to give them added dimension. In one powerful segment, Springsteen wove together three songs from separate albums to present looks at socioeconomic divisions in the United States from a blue-collar perspective.

"Mansion on the Hill," whose country undercurrents were accented by Nils Lofgren's steel guitar touches, tells of a poor youngster who hides in a cornfield and stares enviously at the goings-on behind the iron gates of a rich man's house.

"The River," whose mood was darkened to eliminate much of the sing-along invitation of the album version, then told of a young couple struggling after the husband's layoff by a construction company.

The suite was finished by "Youngstown," whose folk arrangement on the "Ghost of Tom Joad" album gave way to a light rock backing, conveying the despair of an entire town being discarded as obsolete by shifting labor demands.

The most chilling number came toward the end of the show when Springsteen redesigned "If I Should Fall Behind" so that four band members--Lofgren, guitarist Steven Van Zandt, saxophonist Clarence Clemons and backup singer Patti Scialfa--all took the microphone for a few lines of the song, which is about devotion.

Springsteen closed both nights with "Land of Hopes and Dreams," a powerful, spiritually tinged new song.

With the Friday concert defining the tour concept, Sunday's show was more relaxed and free-flowing, with Springsteen deviating from the set list at various points. The evening opened with "Rendezvous," a more upbeat song from the "Tracks" set.

The biggest surprise was a dramatically reworked, stripped-down version of "Born in the U.S.A.," the song about the lingering wounds of the Vietnam War that was widely misinterpreted because of the booming, anthem-like arrangement on the 1984 hit. He coupled it with "Brothers Under the Bridge," a heartbreaking companion piece also from "Tracks."

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