The burden of the performances on the current tour is different; it rests entirely on the music. It's rare to see a popular artist step back this way, to try and shed the trappings of identity without disavowing his past work or his audience. Prince did exactly that in 1988 with his Lovesexy tour, but quickly lost his nerve when it bombed in the States; to my ears, apart from a few wonderful singles, he's scarcely been heard from again. One could say Dylan has done it, too, though I'd argue he did it best with his last two albums of old standards, and not with his many live reworkings of his own songs through the years, a move that always seemed more cantankerous than curious on his part.
I'm not sure anyone has ever slipped the noose as masterfully as Springsteen is doing it, at least for this moment. What's saved him is his faith in the integrity of the music and his conviction that it can give up something more if one doesn't abandon that faith. And it does. On Thursday night "Born in the USA" became a fully realized blues, its narrator now an older man at once resigned and utterly unreconciled. "Reason to Believe" resounded with the fury of an Old Testament prophecy; "The Promised Land" soaked up another 20 years of experience without blinking. "Across the Border," which closed the main set, meant one thing on the Tom Joad record, where the music around it ensured that one could only hear its will to persevere with a sense of foreboding; live, it seemed to be one of the loveliest and certainly one of the most generous pieces of music I'd ever heard.
Tom Joad is the best music Springsteen has made in a long time, one of his two or three best records. He's once again found stories to tell that matter, to him and to an audience. And if it's hard to know exactly what that audience will make of them, it's hard to know exactly what Springsteen will make of them, either. But the signs are intriguing. The yarns he told between songs at the Minneapolis show went a long way toward collapsing the distance between his mostly white middle class audience and the people in the music; something about the performance seemed to collapse some of the distance between the public Springsteen and the private man, too. Would it be crazy to think that Bruce Springsteen at 47 is in a place as germinal and full of promise as when he made Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town? It looks that way to me.