- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 15, 2005

Bruce Springsteen threatened a chain-saw massacre if he heard cell phones ringing Saturday night inside the Patriot Center. “I don’t want to decapitate any lobbyists or senators,” he cautioned.

No heads were severed, thank heavens, but more than a few were scratched in bemusement, possibly dismay.

Those in the audience who quit buying Mr. Springsteen’s records in 1987 must’ve been lost at sea.

Like, perhaps, the poor casual fan sitting behind this reporter: “That’s the first one I’ve known,” he said, with palpable relief, as Mr. Springsteen sang “The River’s” recognizable lyrics.

That was nine songs into a 2-hour evening, during which Mr. Springsteen aired nearly all of his new album — a sober collection of folksy narratives called “Devils & Dust” — and walked off for good after playing the hauntingly weird “Dream Baby Dream.” (Tip of the hat to the Web site Backstreets.com: The song was done originally by ‘70s synth-pop duo Suicide.)

Mr. Springsteen, flying solo for the first time in nearly 10 years, steered clear of the big hits and turned familiar songs such as “I’m on Fire” and “The Promised Land” inside out, the former plucked on electric banjo and the latter shorn of its anthemic power.

“It’s been fun stripping these songs down,” Mr. Springsteen explained of his current tour. “Thanks for being a gracious audience and showing me a good time.”

Showing who a good time? Shouldn’t the ones who shelled out 90 bucks a pop be on the receiving end of that good time?

“It felt like there was all this pent-up energy,” complained one fan while filing out of the Patriot Center.

Indeed, how could all that arena-rock energy — the kind Mr. Springsteen typically stokes by shouting “Is anyone alive out there?” at the top of his lungs — find release through campfire lamentations like “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” “Dry Lightning,” “The Hitter” and “Matamoras Banks”?

Well, after 1999’s reunion tour with the E Street Band and the two-year worldwide trek that followed the release of 2002’s “The Rising,” Mr. Springsteen probably deserves a little payback, even if he’s gone slightly insane in exacting it.

In order not to disturb the quiet ambience that Mr. Springsteen desires, latecomers were forced to wait in the halls for the first few songs of the set. (They missed a startlingly harsh “Reason to Believe,” with Mr. Springsteen howling through a harmonica microphone.) Concession stands closed early.

Once you settled into the concept — call it Opera House Boss — Saturday turned into, on one level, a quietly cushy evening and, on a deeper one, a daring challenge.

The dishwatery melodies of the songs didn’t matter; the stories they told were too compelling. And by chucking aside the bells and whistles of a 10-piece rock band, Mr. Springsteen satisfied his craving for new thrills (he played a bevy of acoustic guitars in alternate tunings, a grand piano and, on newish songs such as “Paradise” and the rarity “Wreck on the Highway,” an electric piano) while, at the same time, exposing himself to an audience he treated like a group of close friends.

Like the conversational Bruce Springsteen of old, he shared intimate reflections about parenting, its primal shock and mundane confrontations and promise of second chances. He reminisced about his mother’s wooly enthusiasm for 1950s love songs as well as his father’s dyspeptic distrust of same.

And, memo to Washington Democrats searching for new ways to talk up religion and values: Mr. Springsteen got tears and chuckles during chit-chat about Catholicism, the childhood faith he grew to reject on rational grounds but whose imagery is tucked forever into his songwriting.

Inevitably, and unfortunately, there were a few too many partisan jabs at the Bush administration.

In a particularly nasty slap at the heartland he still claims to speak for, Mr. Springsteen said President Bush disingenuously panders to voters in places such as Kansas (“He says what he has to so he can do what he wants to,” Mr. Springsteen said) by publicly doubting evolution. (This was by way of introduction to a much-improved, rockabilly-style arrangement of “Part Man, Part Monkey,” a leftover from Mr. Springsteen’s self-imposed exile from the E Street Band in the early 1990s.)

It is perhaps symbolic of Mr. Springsteen’s growing sense of distance from the white working class, and the reality of American postindustrialism, that he has taken up the mantle of the Mexican underclass in the last decade or so. “We don’t need vigilantes on our border; what we need is a humane immigration policy,” Mr. Springsteen intoned.

Humane like… what? The veritable amnesty program that the president wants to enact, perhaps?

On a night where ring tones could lead to decapitations, imagine what might have ensued had someone piped up with that?

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