Springsteen's 'Tunnel' Tour de Force: The Boss Returns With A Marvelous Marathon

springsteenBruce and the Big Man at the Cap Centre in '88. (Frank Johnston/TWP File)

In advance of next Monday's Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert, we've been going deep into The Washington Post archives to pull reviews of previous performances by The Boss & Co. This one was published on April 5, 1988, and written by Richard Harrington.

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Archive Reviews

"Ready for a date?"

Those were Bruce Springsteen's first words at the Capital Centre last night, but he might as well have asked, "Ready for a ride?"

Admittedly, this is the "Tunnel of Love Express Tour," and "Tunnel of Love" was the first song delivered, so we're really talking about Springsteen's ability to deliver on a metaphor. Was there any doubt?

In fact, the 3 1/2-hour concert, part of Springsteen's first tour since 1985, was not a simple joy ride but a brilliantly thought-out journey through the landscape of modern relationships, with enough twists and turns to make you dizzy and just enough slow glides to let you catch your breath.

(Read the rest of the review after the jump.)

Springsteen is now 38 and in that uneasy middle ground between growin' up and settlin' down. Rock 'n' roll may be the lifeblood of eternal adolescence, and vice versa, but with the "Tunnel of Love" album, Springsteen seems intent on expanding his music's parameters to embrace more adult concerns, moving from romance to relationships, from gratification to commitment, and from adolescent fantasies to dreams dashed, deferred and, sometimes, realized.

All the classic, even legendary, power is still there, and nothing is lost in performance. In fact, much has been gained in depth and dimension. This is visceral, 3-D music.

This is most clear in Springsteen's radical reworking of "Born to Run," his 1975 declaration of independence, recast here from bold electric anthem to solo acoustic pavanne. It's not that the song's testament to individual freedom and identity has been abandoned, but Springsteen seems to offer a new context. When he wrote it at age 24, he said last night, "It was about a guy and a girl who want to run and keep on running and never come back." Now, however, Springsteen's come to understand the value of friends, community, "someplace called home ... and how it's a hard thing to find and hard to hold on to."

That theme of community, and the complexities of modern romance, resonated through the night, often in songs that segued from one point of view to another. The terse "Two Faces" sketched out those internal Jekyll-and-Hyde dualities that seem to sabotage relationships, while "All That Heaven Will Allow" mixed its seductive rhythm with unbounded optimism about love's lovely redemption. "Now some may wanna die young, man, young and gloriously," Springsteen sang intently, "get it straight now, mister, that ain't me."

Later, the urgency of "Cover Me," one of Springsteen's "Gimme Shelter" songs, segued into "Brilliant Disguise," a catalogue of self-doubt. That's reality, he suggests: need and doubt, inexorably intertwined. In the latter song, he says, "God have mercy on the man who doubts what he's sure of."

This may sound somewhat heavy, but Springsteen's gift is his ability to offer sober observations in a larger context and with just enough comic relief. Two new songs, the gritty R&B romp "I'm a Coward When It Comes to Love" and the reggae-tinged "Part Man, Part Monkey," showcased Springsteen's lighter side. The raucous rockabilly fervor of "You Can Look but You Better Not Touch" inspired the five-man horn section to form a conga line and Roy Bittan to conjure spirits that once belonged to Jerry Lee Lewis. "Ain't Got You" was Bo Diddley beat, and Springsteen repossessing "Light of Day" from Joan Jett was pure Eddie Cochran, all twangy guitar, frenetic energy and bottomless beat. Rock 'n' roll, roots renewed.

Springsteen and his cohorts in the E Street Band have scaled down from 1985's stadium sound without making compromises, though they've made some changes. There's that horn section, of course, and they give a brassy kick to a number of songs old and new (and a fullness to some of the "Tunnel" offerings).

What's more noticeable is a shift in foils: Saxophonist Clarence Clemons, long Springsteen's main foil, is less evident because of those sparse new arrangements of many of the newer songs, while singer Patti Scialfa has been given a higher profile, often harmonizing by Springsteen's side. Then again, this show is so much about relationships between men and women that this particular change seems not only right but exemplary. And when Clemons cuts loose, he's still sax's Big Man. As always, the E Street Band is crucial, from drummer Max Weinberg's pistonlike passion to guitarist Nils Lofgren's liquid fills and stinging statements.

As for the songs (divided into two sets), they are less representational than those of either the "Born in the U.S.A." tour or the "Live" compilation. Gone are such staples as "Thunder Road," "Badlands" and "Prove It All Night." The only real flashbacks are "Adam Raised a Cain," "She's the One," "Rosalita" and the audience-fed "Hungry Heart," but they all work in the context of the show and all remain vital in their own right.

There are nine songs from "Tunnel of Love," five from "U.S.A.," those new songs and the reclaimed ones, such B-sides as "Be True" and "Roulette," the inevitable Mitch Ryder medley and the recast "Born to Run." Even "Born in the U.S.A." finds its true message clarified as a segue from his cover of Edwin Starr's "War."

It's a well-planned program, full of the ups and downs promised in "Tunnel of Love," and those dynamics were both emotional and musical, with Springsteen vacillating between the supple and the strong. For instance, the wistful "All That Heaven Will Allow" was followed by "Seeds" and "Roulette," two of Springsteen's angriest and most outspoken political songs (about Texas' oil boom-go-bust despair and a nuclear accident victim's grave new world).

If those songs seemed to offer a realistic variation on truth and consequences, that seems to be the point. It's not "or consequences."

From courtship to marriage to family, romance is all about "and consequences," about responsibility and commitment. In the swirling "Spare Parts," an abandoned unwed mother deals pragmatically with her situation; in the lovely "Walk Like a Man," the narrator comes to terms on his own wedding day with the familial rebellion espoused in "Adam Raised a Cain."

Everyday situations are addressed by ordinary people with extraordinary compassion. There is reconciliation and there is frustration rumbling through this concert program; both are real, Springsteen suggests, in simple narratives that address complex issues and those often debilitating anxieties that affect our relationships. He offers no easy answers, only uneasy perspectives.

Obviously, Bruce Springsteen has made a decision to not be entombed by his hits and myths. This concert, which will be repeated tonight, seems to be a way of slamming the brakes on the accelerating hype of the past few years and returning the focus to the music without discouraging that unique connection he's established with his audiences. That his music remains as powerful and affecting as it does is one last reconciliation, between a visceral medium and some much-needed new messages.

-- RICHARD HARRINGTON

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Previously posted archival reviews, along with the rest of Post Rock's Springsteen-related content, can be found on our Bruce Springsteen index page.

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By J. Freedom du Lac |  May 13, 2009; 5:31 PM ET Concerts , From the Archives , Springsteen
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