Can I Get a Witness?

"I USED TO think I knew exactly where I was going," Bruce Springsteen told the crowd at Chicago's Rosemont Theatre Sunday night. "Now that I've gotten older, I'm basically happy to accept myself as a complete stranger." He could have said as much of his audience, too. More than a decade removed from the hit that propelled him from arenas into stadiums and three years after his last tour of any kind, Springsteen had to wonder what he was going to find on the other side of the footlights when he undertook his current seven-city solo acoustic tour in support of The Ghost of Tom Joad.

If the Chicago show--his only scheduled midwestern stop, clocking in at two hours and 22 songs, including all 12 from Tom Joad--felt a little tentative at times, it wasn't for want of commitment on Springsteen's part or the audience's; it was a matter of feeling out the connections between the two, and between Springsteen's new songs and his older ones. "These songs were composed with a lot of silence," he said at the outset, "and silences are a part of the songs."

He asked the crowd to "collaborate" with some silence of its own, and it did; watching him test that rapport and give himself to it made me remember bootlegs I'd heard of his 1981 European tour following The River, when he ran into a series of audiences quieter and more intense than any he'd encountered stateside. The performances quieted down, too, and you could hear Springsteen's surprise and gratitude as he found himself going deeper into songs that he'd begun taking for granted on his first major arena tour. It didn't seem to be a coincidence when Nebraska followed a year later. Now, another 13 years down the line, you could almost believe he'd made a record as quiet as Tom Joad principally as a means of seeing whether anyone was still listening.

They were, but it still left the matter of where he wanted to take them. The songs from Joad were amazing in their passion and assurance; just a couple of weeks after the record's release, they sounded as if Springsteen had lived with them for years, adding flesh and emotional nuance to songs like "Youngstown" and "Straight Time." There was an edge of anger in the performances that Springsteen didn't permit himself on record, and it galvanized the material. But if the set was partly about placing the new songs in the context of an entire career, the results on that count were murkier. One of the more satisfying passages came when he juxtaposed "Murder Inc." and "Nebraska," the former introduced as a song "about good old-fashioned American paranoia.... There's a lot of people now whose dreams and lives are expendable, part of the cost of doing business. All it costs us is more security for our houses and cars, and a good piece of our freedom and our soul."

He made those two songs talk to each other; he made "Born in the USA" into a ravaged blues that could have served as a coda to the new record. There were other times, though, when the revved-up performances of older songs ("Darkness on the Edge of Town," "Spare Parts," "This Hard Land") seemed less like revelations than ways of discharging nervous energy before returning to the main event. It was Springsteen's commitment to the new songs that defined the whole enterprise, and he seemed touched and a little shaken when he finally left the stage after closing with "My Best Was Never Good Enough." Given the reception, it's likely he'll add another U.S. leg to the tour sometime after Christmas; it'll be interesting to see where the new songs and the surrounding set list have gone by then.

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