Bruce Springsteen is still the Boss.
I've always hated the cartoonish implication of that nickname and never figured I'd use it in a review.
But then, I never thought I'd again see a Springsteen performance as stirring as the one he put on Thursday at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
In this key moment of his career--when he could have retreated to the safety of his old material--Springsteen showed that he was, to quote the title of one of his songs, tougher than the rest, by putting his faith in his new songs.
It was a risky move because Springsteen has one of the most endearing bodies of work of anyone ever in rock--music that has served him well for almost two decades.
By contrast, Springsteen's new material--from the recent "Lucky Town" and "Human Touch" albums--has been received more coolly by the public and some critics. The albums sold well, but not in the chart-dominating manner expected by his record company, and some of his fans have grumbled that the tone of the works--a celebration of better days--is not as compelling as his old tales of struggle and longing.
In some of his concerts last summer in his home state of New Jersey, Springsteen tried to move forward and look back at the same time--concentrating in the first half of the set on the new material, then returning to the guaranteed crowd-pleasing nature of the old.
On Thursday, however, Springsteen's focus wasn't divided. He not only did 17 songs from the two new albums in the three-hour 28-song concert, but he also emphasized new songs in almost all the show's pivotal points.
That may not have pleased some of the longtime fans who may have been longing for a replay of past Springsteen shows, but it was heartwarming for anyone who wants to see Springsteen continue as a vital artist. The show also documented the power of the new material.
Dressed in black shirt and jeans, Springsteen and his new five-piece band opened shortly after 8 p.m. with "Better Days," a rousing song that defines the inner peace that Springsteen--now a family man with two children--outlined in the new albums.
But the concert wasn't simply celebration. Much of the first half was devoted to the social and economic disillusionment that has long been a major theme in Springsteen's work.
"Wrote this song in 1982 . . . hard times," he told the audience, introducing a dark, desperate version of "Atlantic City" from the stark "Nebraska" album. "It's 1992 and still hard times. What happened? . . . Republicans."
When the audience cheered the line, Springsteen replied with a smile, "Ah, my people." He later made even more pointed comments against President Bush.
Springsteen--who was also joined much of the night by one male and four female backup singers--followed with two more angry songs about disheartening social conditions before reaching back to "Badlands," an old song about vowing to overcome hardship and find something or someone to believe in.
In "Living Proof," the centerpiece of the long opening sequence, Springsteen finds something to believe in: his marriage and the birth of his first child. It's one of the most moving songs he has written. The second half of the show opened with an intense series of high-energy songs, with Springsteen especially aggressive on guitar. With the band appearing increasingly comfortable and effective as this tour unfolds, Springsteen proceeded through other tales of confrontation and doubt, including "Brilliant Disguise" (one of two songs where he was joined on guitar and vocals by his wife, Patti Scialfa) and a stark, menacing "Born in the U.S.A."
But again, Springsteen ended the sequence with another song about commitment and the blessings of a loving relationship: "Real World."
Despite the strong sense of narrative running through the concert, Springsteen left plenty of time for Bruce the showman--joking with the crowd and jumping into the audience on such rollicking tunes as "Light of Day," "Glory Days" and "Darlington County."
During the final encore, Springsteen reached back affectionately with an acoustic version of "Thunder Road" and a high-energy "Born to Run." But again, he stressed something new, ending with "My Beautiful Reward," a haunting, mystical tale about life's continuing journey.
When he left the stage just before midnight, Springsteen--who turned 43 on Wednesday--stood as tall as ever in terms of courage, imagination and heart. It was a night on which a star was reborn.
* Springsteen concludes his three-night Sports Arena engagement on Monday, and plays the San Diego Sports Arena on Tuesday.
Ice-T Stays: Ice-T and his hard-rock band Body Count will remain as the opening act on Wednesday's Guns N' Roses/Metallica concert at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego. City officials determined that they had no legal grounds to oppose the appearance after stadium manager Bill Wilson, a former Pasadena police commander, and members of the San Diego Police Officers Assn., protested the scheduled appearance.