No flash, no crowds, just Bruce

PHILADELPHIA - For 22 years, pure artistic expression has been the trademark of Bruce Springsteen, and it was pure artistic expression that he brought to the Tower Theater in Philadelphia on Friday, Dec. 8. An intimate evening of story-telling and American folk music, Springsteen — sans big band and the big hits show — again proved that he'd rather be true to himself as an artist than a media-darling or commercial sensation.

Touring in support of his new LP, "The Ghost of Tom Joad," Springsteen took the sold-out crowd of 3,000 on a remarkable visual journey across the United States, offering looks at shattered American dreams, people discarded by society, good people turned bad and the complexities of the human condition.

Opening the show with the new LP's title track, Springsteen stood alone at center stage, playing only a black acoustic guitar and harmonica. Soft blue lighting added to the intimacy of the performance, and a re-worked version of 1978's "Adam Raised The Cain" delighted the capacity throng of Springsteen die-hards.

Springsteen's adeptness at story-telling was one of the highlights of the show, with the singer frequently explaining the inspirations or meanings of the songs performed. For the introduction of "Highway 25" — a song about small town crime — Springsteen theorized that people's moral limits change with age and that, ultimately, "you're better off accepting yourself as a total stranger — and let everything else come as a big surprise."

"Darkness of The Edge of Town" was another of the few oldies Springsteen performed, followed by "Murder Incorporated," which Springsteen introduced as a song about "good old fashioned American paranoia."

By sharing the inspiration for his songwriting, Springsteen not only helped to explain the songs' meanings to his fans, but also shed light on how he maintains his artistic edge as a poet and songwriter. Before performing "Sinola Cowboys," Springsteen confided that the song was inspired by a recent motorcycle ride he took with some friends to the Mexican border. While sitting in front of a motel, drinking and playing cards, Springsteen encountered a Mexican fruit truck driver who told him that his brother was recently killed in an accident. The two talked for over an hour, and the love and concern for which the man spoke of his brother eventually caused Springsteen to examine and understand the protective nature of family — and inspire the writing of "Sinola Cowboys."

A re-worked version of "Born In The U.S.A." emphasized the anguish of the song, and the set concluded with another of "Joad's" gems, "Across The Border."

Springsteen, met with a standing ovation, was brought back for two encores, the first of which he led off with 1973's "Does This Bus Stop at 82nd St." He also performed last year's Grammy-winning "Streets of Philadelphia" — the first time he performed the song in the city that shared its name — and concluded the show with "My Best Was Never Good Enough."

Despite Springsteen's constant emphasis on the present, he's obviously aware his fans will always want to hear the old favorites. On this tour, he's playing very few of them, yet despite that, he is still treated as the grand hero; the often quiet theater seemed to hang on his every lyric. Springsteen appeared grateful for this, and, near the show's end, thanked the crowd for their interest in his new material.

"This music means a lot to me," he said, "and what you gave me tonight was a real gift — and I appreciate that. Thank you."

No Bruce, thank you.


(Springsteen will perform today and Wednesday at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. Both shows are sold out. A live Springsteen performance will be broadcast on Thursday, Dec. 14 from 9 to 10 p.m. on WZMT, 97.9 FM — The Mountain)