Often is the case with stalwarts of the music industry that, twenty albums down the line, when the grey hair has long since begun to set in, the artist will tell us that they’re “getting back to basics” by delivering a “storytelling” album written in the third person. So it is with Bruce Springsteen’s latest release, “Devils & Dust,” a familiar, unremarkable album intended to act as a collection of specific narratives about people who put themselves at risk in life on a daily basis – people who have something eating them up, but just aren’t quite sure what.
On the accompanying bonus DVD, Springsteen takes to a beaten-up room with a beaten-up acoustic to play the album’s scant highlights while offering a few words of explanation (a wonderful idea that would be welcomed with any new release), but even then, there are slight overdubs added to the songs. So it was with a slight sense of apprehension that I attended this “solo and acoustic” gig, wondering whether or not it would work in a venue as big as the Point, stripped of the album’s back-up singers, percussion, strings, and horns. However, watching him stand alone on the massive stage, there was one point when a flash went off right below Springsteen, and for a split second, it projected his guitar-straddled silhouette fifty metres high behind him. It fires out a quick reminder of the stature of his presence, and it’s then that you realise why you’re there: to see what this icon of stadium rock will do without the dynamic and chemistry of a big ensemble to work with.
From the outset, it’s clear that the Springsteen’s strategy is to keep things as varied as possible, cycling through pump organ, acoustic guitar, electric piano, harmonica, Rickenbacker, twelve-string, and banjitar. Opening proceedings as if attending a wake, an elegiac version of “My Beautiful Reward” floated out from the pump organ, followed by a rendition of “Reason to Believe” performed solely through a harmonica behind a filtered distortion a la Charlie Sayles, with just a pounding foot to keep rhythm.
The between-song banter is frequently entertaining (remarking that the Flintsones would be banned today: “The Neanderthal setting, and that whole homoerotic subtext to the Fred/Barney relationship…” before recounting his meeting with Roy Orbison), often informal and charismatic (“I’m divorced. That kind of does it – I’m screwed, right?”), but occasionally bordering on world-weary life lessons, punctuated with a nervous laugh.
Brilliant moments were aplenty, however; a piano re-working of “Real World,” an electrified “Part Man, Part Monkey,” and a captivating “Promised Land” that included a brilliantly tapped out percussion on the base of the guitar. Such was the silence that Springsteen commanded during the songs, that halfway through “The Hitter,” he found himself competing with the sound of the thundering rain soaking the top of the Point Depot, resounding like a strange, ghostly applause still lingering on. After he begun the encore by laughing his head off though “Ramrod,” a section of the crowd left their seats and began to file up through the aisles like converts drawn towards the preacher, but like more lemmings following one entranced nut who decided to advantage of the lax security.
However, these memorable instances were to act as pillars to bridge the two and a half hour set over the weaker moments, which unsurprisingly, came from the new material. In particular, the dreary “Jesus Was An Only Son,” although interrupted by Springsteen’s own musings on child rearing, still couldn’t help but bore, and the overly-long “Matamoros Banks” was met with no less than three false-applauses — a clear hint from the audience to wrap things up. Here, and in several other places, Springsteen was guilty of “hoo-hooing” the end of a number of songs in the exact same way: like a giddy, drunk owl deciding to soldier on in the face of isolation. One might also find it strange that the throwaway simplicity of “All I’m Thinking About Is You,” one of the better cuts from “Devils & Dust,” was not deemed worthy of inclusion in the run of the things.
Although a set of such length gives you more bang for you buck, so to speak (and it would want to, with such a staggeringly high price tag), it’s rare to come away from a gig thinking that a shorter length may have been more effective. While Springsteen’s solo show was a better performance than the teeth-pulling storytelling that marred Neil Young’s last Dublin performance (although Springsteen did request a similar despotic code of rules for the crowd to follow), it’s still not quite up there with the mesmeric mystique that the world of Tom Waits’ live shows inhabit (and one gets the impression that these two artists were in mind at the birth of “Devils & Dust”).
Despite the fact that the entire show was crystal clear (the notable exception being the decision to drown the finale, “Dream baby Dream” in a droning reverb), and that it was received with a pin-drop respect, the “magic” would certainly have been far more tangible in a smaller venue such as Vicar St. or the Olympia. As Christy Moore will tell you, intimacy is not always something easily found in front of 7,000 fans, but if Springsteen can’t find it in himself to turn down the revenue of the larger stadium-like buildings, then perhaps in future he could do a Bob Dylan and play both types of venue on consecutive nights. Regardless where he chooses to perform, Springsteen’s “maturer” sound is doubtless a long distance travelled for someone who once wrote brilliant songs about cars and girls.