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The New Gets Old

Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, Verizon Center, Nov. 11

Rarah
ARENA ROCK RECORDING COMPANY: Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band try to recreate the Magic.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 11/21/2007

Bruce Springsteen's current tour is meant to be a celebration of his reunion with the E Street Band and their new album together, Magic. In Washington--their only Mid-Atlantic stop on this leg of the tour--they played nine of the dozen tracks from it and another two from its 2002 predecessor, The Rising. But on those 11 songs, Springsteen and his bandmates strained. It was as if they believed they could make those songs mean as much as their old numbers from the 1970s and '80s, if they only tried hard enough.

It didn't work. The songwriting on those two albums doesn't compete with Darkness on the Edge of Town or Born in the U.S.A., and no amount of strain can change that. When the band reached back to older material, such as "The Promised Land" and "Dancing in the Dark," everyone appeared to relax and some of the evening's most thrilling moments unfolded. Those earlier songs don't need to announce their grand themes as baldly as the songs on Magic and The Rising do; by telling stories about their blue-collar characters in such gripping detail, the themes take care of themselves.

This isn't to say that Springsteen's best work is all in the past. He has released two albums in this decade better than Magic or The Rising and far better than anything he did in the '90s: 2005's Devils and Dust and last year's We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (American Land Edition), both rootsy, acoustic-flavored projects. For the final number of the Washington show, as at every stop on the current tour, Springsteen pulled out "The American Land," the final number from the latter disc, and even reshaped the E Street Band to resemble the Seeger Sessions Band that he toured with last year.

Soozie Tyrell played a jaunty fiddle intro, Roy Bittan and Danny Federici donned piano accordions, Nils Lofgren picked up an acoustic guitar, and Steve Van Zandt pulled out a mandolin. Although Springsteen had written it himself, the song sounded like an old Irish immigrant tune, and he sounded more comfortable and joyful than he had all night. When he sang an immigrant's dream in the chorus, "There's diamonds in the sidewalk/ There's gutters lined in song/ Dear, I hear that beer flows through the faucets all night long," you could hear the intended irony but also the boyish, irrepressible fantasy.

He unwisely neglected the songs from Devils and Dust, but another highlight came from his solo-acoustic tour in support of it. In 2005, he had rearranged "Reason to Believe" as a John Lee Hooker blues boogie, complete with a foot-stomping harmonica solo and a distorted vocal shouted through the harmonica mic. He copied that radical, exciting arrangement almost exactly with the E Street Band. You could also hear similar echoes of his current fascination with pre-rock music in the acoustic-based arrangements of "Working on the Highway," "Tunnel of Love," and even the new "The Girls in Their Summer Clothes."

When he wanted to rock out with his longtime comrades, Springsteen had the best luck when he reached back the furthest, back to a medley of "Night" and "She's the One" from 1975, back to the jazz-rock jam of "Kitty's Back" from 1973, and all the way back to the Dylan-meets-Spector beginnings of "Growing Up" from his debut. There's never been better rock 'n' roll than the E Street Band in its prime, but Springsteen's heart appears to be elsewhere these days.

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