By MARK GUARINO
Daily Herald Music Critic
Now that the tragedy of Sept. 11 is being used to sell everything from weight-loss programs to sports cars to a war on Iraq, a new album and tour by an aging rock icon that supposes world healing appears just as suspect.
The mid-summer media blitz that accompanied Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, “The Rising” (Columbia) solely focused on how the music was a reflection on Sept. 11. The terrorist tie-in shamelessly became the marketing catchword for sound byte pundits and music industry types desperate to find a novel way to package new music to a graying public that, if statistics are true, doesn’t spend much money at the record store anymore.
Springsteen ably played into the hard sell, even though the solemnity of his new songs was more tasteful. At the United Center Wednesday, Springsteen and the E Street Band played a nearly three-hour set that centered around “The Rising.” Stepping into his coveted role as rock ‘n’ roll preacher, Springsteen faced a tricky task: How can songs about genuine mourning have any meaning when public grief has been commercialized to exorbitant heights?
Instead, Springsteen included new songs like the frat-ready “Mary’s Place,” lighter fare mimicking the Jersey bar band pleasers from his early career. Crowd-pleasers like “She’s the One,” “Badlands,” “The Ties that Band,” “Born to Run” and “Promised Land” were interspersed among “The Rising” material that evoked firefighters, loss and confusion, not girls, cars, and growing up.
But great songs don’t demand significance, it’s usually a consequence created with the listener long after they’re written. Early in the evening though, Springsteen asked for their silence as he paired “Empty Sky” and “You’re Missing,” the first performed alone with wife and harmony partner Patti Scialfa and the second with him conducting his band as a mini-orchestra, each moment intently precious.
The crowd showed patience, but not much. Springsteen regularly was forced to be “Bruuuuce,” and rest his long-time concert staples to get things back on course: standing atop Roy Brittan’s piano, clowning with bearish sax man Clarence Clemons, stalking the stage like a preacher (“if you’re going to have a party, the music has to be righteous!”) and — in a move borrowed from a Backstreet Boy or two— grinding low on his music stand. Well, that’s one they haven’t seen before.
Challenge came with the arrival of two songs written 30 years apart. Late into the night, the band left the stage and Springsteen sat at a piano to sing “For You” from his first album, transforming a young man’s urgency into a faded memory. Before then, he and the band unraveled “Worlds Apart,” a song that goes into the thoughts of a suicide bomber and features Middle Eastern singer, Asif Ali Khan on tape. It was the color of a mostly black and white night.