The Boss proves he's still rock'n'roll redemption personified

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Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band

CRYSTAL PALACE SPORTS CENTRE

TUESDAY, MAY 27, 2003

Something doesn’t feel right, as Bruce takes the stage in the early evening light. He’s giving his all, of course, delivering what is as near as he will get to a directly political statement all night. But as he wraps himself in the torn and bloodied flag during the anguished, acoustic slide guitar blues rewrite of “Born In The USA”, the concomitant atmosphere is hard to locate. The crowd seem uncertain how to react, taking their time to get acclimatised.

Borne of the ’60s garage band generation who worshipped at the feet of the soul man revues, Springsteen is a seasoned campaigner from a dying tradition. His genius has been to ensure his showmanship services songs that express a common humanity, often facing seemingly insurmountable odds.

It follows that the 9/11-inspired The Rising is a quintessential Springsteen album, a mid-life reunion with his most celebrated associates?soaked in blood, sweat, tears, forgiveness and rocking redemption. The title track, one of the most extraordinary songs of his career, introduces the band, with newest member, violinist Soozie Tyrell, striking the first non-Bruce chord of the evening.

But that doesn’t ignite the crowd either, and things get a little weirder before the euphoric rush arrives. Up in the stands the transatlantic divide becomes apparent when locals move away from the four Americans who, from the first song in, are on their feet punching the air in a Bruce formation singalong line dance.

The show begins to make more sense down on the pitch where the bulk of the 33,000 crowd are gathered. “Prove It All Night” is a declaration of intent completed by a Sam & Dave call-and-response routine, Bruce cheek by jowl with Miami Steve, and the Van Morrison-style “meet me tonight behind the dynamo” band breakdown. But “Atlantic City”, rearranged to foreground Tyrell, is a mistake, sounding more like J Geils’ “Centrefold” than anything else?a product of boredom rather than inspiration.

The fact is that although the E Street Band sound is tweaked and subtly altered during “Empty Sky” and “You’re Missing”, it remains largely the same. The same is true of the structure of Springsteen’s songs, with a showstopper like “Mary’s Place” easily taking the place once held by “Rosalita”, while the good-humoured nostalgia of “Glory Days” is now explored via the backyard barbecue groove of “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day”.

By the time the latter comes around, dark is descending and?playing the part of the rocking clown and tent show revivalist?Springsteen has broken through the crowd’s reserve. He hangs upside down on the mic stand, plays mock castanets like a wine bar Romeo during “Sherry Darling” and struts along the stage perimeter in a glittery red Stetson thrown from the crowd.

He can afford a little self-mockery because he’s still able to draw resonant depth and meaning from his greatest songs. In “Badlands” the gung-ho youth is tempered by mature wisdom?but the song flies, sizzles and reverberates around the stadium. “Racing In The Street” is a masterpiece of sadness and serenity, Roy Bittan gilding the testimony with his majestic piano outro.

Bruce takes the piano himself for the gorgeous “My City Of Ruins”, a contemplative look at urban decay that dwarfs earlier efforts like “My Hometown”. He jokes about it being time to go back to his hotel room “to peruse your fine English adult entertainment films and have a go on the big Ferris wheel”, but there’s rocking abandon yet with a firecracker “Born To Run”, a Mitch Ryder medley and “Dancing In The Dark”.

The energy still seems limitless, and his dignity is equalled by his humour. Long before the close the crowd have become his joyfully wayward congregation. He may be 53, but there’s still no one who can match Springsteen’s blend of hard graft and blind faith.