The Boss rocks on HBO tonight

Preview: Concert tape brings the great music and high energy of a Bruce Springsteen performance into your living room.

April 07, 2001|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

After nearly 30 years of performing, Bruce Springsteen makes his full-blown television debut tonight.

The show, which airs at 9 on HBO, is a dream for fans of the Jersey icon: two hours in the front row as one of rock and roll's great performers wraps up a worldwide tour at New York's Madison Square Garden. All that's missing is the drunk guy from Secaucus shouting "Bruuuuuuce" in your ear.

Taped in gloriously clear high-definition television, the performance makes plain why Springsteen was once proclaimed the "future of rock and roll," and why, a quarter century later, he remains so compelling.

This concert film has a fine sense of what's important. There are precious few shots of Springsteen's mostly aging fans. And Springsteen and director Chris Hilson have done a superb job of keeping the crowd noise to a minimum -- just enough to remind us this is indeed a concert in front of some 20,000 noisy people.

Rather, it's just Springsteen, the band and the music -- 14 songs recorded over two nights at the Garden last summer, the final concerts of an extended tour of Europe and America.

The tour reunited Springsteen with the E Street Band, their first concerts together in more than a decade. But by the times the cameras started rolling last June, the group was a tight ensemble reeling off one solid show after the next.

Always at the center is the 51-year-old Springsteen, he of the slightly receding hairline, the second marriage and three kids.

Twenty years ago, Springsteen could be a dervish in concert -- sliding across the stage, leaping off speakers and sprawling out over his fans' outstretched arms as he played a guitar solo. The footage airing tonight shows that while he has given up some of the more physically punishing antics, Springsteen is no less intense.

The Boss opens with "My Love Will Not Let You Down," a surging composition that became a staple of the reunion tour.

Within minutes, Springsteen is sweating, his eyes closed in ferocious concentration as he trades licks with guitarists Nils Lofgren and Steve Van Zandt.

There's no patter between songs, as Springsteen moves fluidly through two other meditations on commitment, "Prove it All Night," and "Two Hearts," a loving duet with Van Zandt, his old Jersey Shore buddy.

Highlights include:

A set of three songs that includes a jazzy version of "The River," Springsteen's evocative story of a shotgun wedding based on his own sister's life.

A 17-minute version of the classic "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," during which Springsteen does an Elvis-style pelvis thrust, climbs on the piano, and exuberantly preaches the virtues of love and rock and roll. "It's all right to have a good time," he sings.

"Land of Hope and Dreams," in which Springsteen is at his Guthrie-esque best. He literally hops with enthusiasm as he sings about "lost souls," accompanied by Van Zandt's achingly beautiful mandolin.

Several small moments, including a close-up of Springsteen's backup singer and wife, Patti Scialfa, fiddling with her wedding ring as she sings a duet with her man on a countrified version of "Mansion on the Hill," a poem of longing.

Be warned -- this isn't a greatest hits compilation, and fans who know only a few of Springsteen's songs might feel a little left out.

Sure, sing-alongs "Born to Run" and "Badlands" are included, but "Thunder Road" and "Rosalita" are not.

My main complaint is that Springsteen ends the show with his most politically explosive song -- "American Skin" -- a haunting riff on a notorious police shooting of an unarmed man in New York. Over and over, the band repeats the simple, central fact of the case: "41 shots," a chorus of outrage.

The song made its debut near the end of Springsteen's tour last year and quickly generated controversy among police groups. "American Skin" was certainly a highlight of the New York concerts, a reminder that Springsteen hasn't lost his social conscience. But the song, which was performed in the middle of the set list during the New York performances, feels out of place at the end of this show.

An obvious alternative would have been the sweet ensemble piece that concluded many of the tour's shows, "If I Should Fall Behind." Perhaps the choice of the unsettling "American Skin" was a deliberate signal that Springsteen still matters.

As if he had to remind us.

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