By Mark Guarino
Here is how the weight Bruce Springsteen carries around with him is translated:
Well, that’s not an exact translation, but it is close to describing the rabid hero worship that’s dogged the 55-year-old since the first time someone called him “The Boss.”
But as much as they try to peg him as a blue denim populist, Springsteen is one step ahead of his fans. The shining example is his current solo tour, which stopped at the Rosemont Theatre Wednesday. Not only was it the best show of the year so far, it demonstrated that, apart from the booming anthems popularized with the E Street Band, his songs are lyrical, challenging and layered in nuances that would have been lost had he stuck to the dog and pony show that comes with being “Bruuuuuuuuce.”
The two-hour, 20-minute set had as many layers as anything with a full band. Switching between electric and acoustic guitars, organ and piano, he swiftly led his audience into situations that were solemn, celebratory, sexual and defiant.
They glowed thanks to Springsteen’s expert pacing, which relied on stories and comical observations. Before the song “Part Man, Part Monkey,” he humorously went through a list of pop culture staples that might be censored in the post-“Nipplegate” era.
“The Flintstones. Couldn’t make it today. Too controversial. That whole Barney-Fred relationship,” he said.
These were plateaus in a quiet night where — hold onto your seat — listening became a prerequisite. You could feel the crowd’s initial discomfort during the show’s first three songs — the prayer-like “Beautiful Reward,” sung from behind an organ, “Reason to Believe,” sung without accompaniment through a distorted harmonica, and “Devils & Dust,” needle picked on a dusty acoustic guitar. They practically hypnotized the crowd to settle back and forget about the singer and instead, step inside the songs.
Although this tour is being associated with his last solo outing ten years back, there’s little comparison. Springsteen’s new album “Devils & Dust” (Columbia), is more band-oriented than “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (Columbia) and he is recasting himself as simply another singer-songwriter in Bob Dylan’s wake, not the “Born in the U.S.A.” idol that opened the door for Toby Keith or other flag-waving hype men of today.
Messing with the name brand means risky choices, which include publicly endorsing a political candidate (John Kerry) when many of your fans are no doubt Republicans, embracing your Catholic upbringing more than ever (“Jesus is my homeboy,” he said) while at the same time writing songs with lyrics that get you censored from retail chains, like Starbucks.
(“Devils & Dust” is “soon to be for sale at Dunkin’ Donuts across the United States,” he joked).
Springsteen played as if rejuvenated. Two new songs, “Further On (Up the Road)” and “Maria’s Bed,” became rockabilly sprints while, at the piano, he merged his earliest chestnut, the lush “Incident On 57th Street” with “The River.”
Slowed down, the characters and novelistic details glowed as if written last week. Meet the new “Boss.”