Article 1995-12-12 New York City, NY

Hard Times and No Silver Lining

Bruce Springsteen showed his sense of humor when he asked his fans for "a lot of quiet" during his solo show at the Beacon Theater on Tuesday night. "If you feel like laughing or singing along, you'll be led away in handcuffs," he said. "It happened to some supermodels in L.A. and it wasn't a pretty sight." It was a rare light moment in what easily qualifies as the most earnest concert of the year.

For just over two hours, Mr. Springsteen stood alone with his guitar, singing about people crushed by hard times and bad decisions. He prefaced many songs with explanations, saying, for instance, that "Murder Incorporated" was about the idea that there is "an acceptable body count for a certain portion of our citizenry." His good intentions were plain.

Most of the set drew on Mr. Springsteen's new album, "The Ghost of Tom Joad" (Columbia); he started with the title song, in which he searches for the character from "The Grapes of Wrath" who said he'll be there "wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free." He also revived cheerless older songs like "Adam Raised a Cain" and "Reason to Believe," tapping the pessimistic streak that has been growing in his repertory for 20 years. Where he once saw open highways, he now sees roads to nowhere.

At the Beacon, the music was somber and austere, with flashes of bitter vehemence. Mr. Springsteen sang with a gruff, burdened voice, moving deliberately through his cramped melodies as if he was giving mournful testimony. His songs echoed Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, with simple harmonies and undemonstrative melodies. To bring variety to a solo show, his guitar parts were carefully detailed: slowly chiming notes in "Nebraska," glimmering but static finger-picking in "Reason to Believe," harsh 12-string strumming in "Darkness at the Edge of Town."

Playing slide guitar, he turned "Born in the U.S.A." into a holler of impotent desperation, reducing its harmony to a few chords and ending not with the triumphal chorus but the words, "Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go."

The music could have come out of a coffeehouse, but it was presented with a rock star's resources. An offstage keyboard hummed under the chords of "Streets of Philadelphia" and "Highway 29," and lighting followed cues in the songs; in "Youngstown," as Mr. Springsteen sang about a worker laid off from steel furnaces, a red glow illuminated his face.

Given his material, Mr. Springsteen turned in a painstaking and convincing performance. But with that material, he has turned himself into nearly a one-note performer. His songs have grown single-mindedly grim; he even played "It's the Little Things That Count," a song about a seduction, as if it were a tragedy.

Mr. Springsteen has lost faith in music's multiplicity, its potential to make people ache and tap their toes at the same time, or to hear both misery and resilience. He may have reasons; he saw "Born in the U.S.A.," despite its unmistakably bleak verses, turned into a jingoistic anthem. Yet when Woody Guthrie wrote about the downtrodden, he also provided catchy choruses and sarcastic wit, and Tom Joad's ghost, as the song says, is a fighter. Mr. Springsteen, envisioning a modern Depression, has taken his music to an extreme, a depressive's view of tedious, unending woe.

By Jon Pareles via The New York Times.
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