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
Empty Sky
If I Should Fall Behind
Long Time Comin'
Silver Palomino
The River (piano)
Book of Dreams
Part Man, Part Monkey
Maria's Bed
Paradise (piano)
The Rising
Further On Up The Road
Jesus Was An Only Son
The Hitter
Matamoros Banks

A Good Man is Hard to Find
Land of Hope and Dreams
My Best Was Never Good Enough
Promised Land

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?

It's not an idle question. I remember seeing a clip of an interviewer in 1978 talking to him backstage right after one of his marathon E Street Band revival meetings, asking him where he got the energy to do that night after night. Springsteen said, "I don't know. I don't know. I guess it must be... desperation." I always found that tossed-off remark one of the more revealing things he ever said about himself. Step back from the legend that sprang out of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town--from how you and I and a chorus of critics and other fans received them--and try to imagine yourself coming to grips with them from his perspective: The daunting thing, I would think, is their absolute urgency. Those records put everything he had on the line, and not by conscious design so much as necessity: He was writing and singing to save his own life.
Later on, that ceased to be the case. And ever since, I think he's had long bouts of creative boredom and uncertainty. The question is always one of finding things to do that feel as clear and pure and vital as those early records did. Tall order, especially since on one important level, they *can't* feel like those records: That kind of drama, that kind of faith that there is some answer out there that will make sense of your whole life, is the province of young men and fools. (Show me someone who thinks keeping it real means rehearsing the same crises at 50 that one was living at 25, and I'll show you an idiot, someone who's likely a danger to him/herself and others.)
The Devils & Dust record is one kind of effort to answer the what now? question, and not a very effective one; however well or poorly it ages, its writerly approach to reinventing his work is one more holding action. [My CP review is here.] (If you're keeping count, that's been true of three of the five albums he's released in the past 15 years.) I think this show is about sorting out what to do next. Hope it helps.
So which songs hit you hardest? For me it was the songs that bracketed the show--"My Beautiful Reward" at the start, "My Best Was Never Good Enough" and "Promised Land" at the end--and "Part Man Part Monkey."
Gaines: The Tom Waits-meets-Jim o'Rourke version of "Reason To Believe" absolutely floored me. It was a huge departure from anything he's ever done, very un-"Springsteen". After the flaccid opener, "My Beautiful Reward" I thought I might be in for a long, sappy night, but then, BAM! "Reason to Believe." It was simply amazing, especially since it was just him and a harmonica and his foot keeping time. It was a harbinger of the way he twisted so many of the songs in the set around. The piano-driven "The River" was delivered with such conviction, such real slow-burn passion that you'd have to have a cold heart not to absolutely feel it. However, the tone of the song changed from the version on the record. The protagonist seemed more weary, more confused, like he's tired of asking why and is resigned to the facts that make up his desperate, small life. But at the same time, he's still pissed and bitter, still capable of emotion - not dead yet.

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.

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