Bruce Springsteen, Royal Albert Hall, London

Solo and soulful with added bite political too
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The Independent Culture

A decade ago, when the whole "Unplugged" thing was going strong, Neil Young demonstrated what could be achieved within the acoustic performance format by not simply strumming insipid folkie versions of his old songs, but completely re-imagining them with an instrumental palette that stretched to autoharp and harmonium.

A decade ago, when the whole "Unplugged" thing was going strong, Neil Young demonstrated what could be achieved within the acoustic performance format by not simply strumming insipid folkie versions of his old songs, but completely re-imagining them with an instrumental palette that stretched to autoharp and harmonium.

I'm reminded of this when Bruce Springsteen opens his solo concert at the Albert Hall sat at a pump organ, wheezing out "My Beautiful Reward" in a voice that sounds aged in casks of oak. Frankly, it's a relief, because the appeal of even the most charismatic of troubadours can pall over two hours of just acoustic guitar and vocals. Especially when his last couple of albums have been as thin on hummable hooks as The Rising and Devils & Dust.

But Springsteen remains one of the more compelling performers in rock, even without the assistance of a powerhouse band behind him. That much becomes clear with his second song, a blues of mysterious provenance which he performs to the accompaniment of just harmonica and foot-stomp, his voice raw and ragged, as if croaked through a bonfire, like Howlin' Wolf or Captain Beefheart. A few individual phrases come through - "stomp that dog", "wash that baby in the water" - but the effect is more visceral than literal, one of the most gripping things I've seen on a stage in some time.

For his latest show, Springsteen has imported a proscenium arch into the Albert Hall, with a backdrop bathed in shades of mauve and indigo, and a couple of chandeliers dangling above the stage. It's simple but elegant, and focuses attention on the lone figure in the spotlight. Naturally, much of the set is drawn from the last two albums, and in most cases the songs profit from the intimacy. "Maria's Bed", the most amenable of the Devils & Dust songs, becomes an audience clap-along; "Lonesome Day" is borne on furious strumming, the concluding coda of "It's all right, it's all right" repeated over and over as the spotlight dims overhead; and "The Rising" is transformed by the bare arrangement, acquiring an edge of uncertainty lacking in the windy, anthemic studio version.

Best of all are the songs transformed by his solo piano accompaniment, especially "Tougher Than The Rest" and "The River", one of several songs to which he adds a strange, "high lonesome" keening, an intriguing new alternative to the usual harmonica breaks. In return, the audience offers up its own equivalent, the "Broooce" chant that sounds like cattle lowing, and momentarily suggests some people are booing.

There's no chance of that, of course. Springsteen has the crowd in the palm of his hand from the start, joking and offering delightful little preambles to his material. Introducing "Long Time Comin'", a song about impending fatherhood, he confides that he's now reached the second stage of parenthood. "The first stage is where you're the benevolent hand of God," he explains. "The second, you're a tolerable idiot. The third, you're a fuckin' idiot." And "Part Man, Part Monkey" is prefaced by musings about the debate on evolution in the US. Strumming an electric guitar languidly, he observes, "The Flintstones couldn't be made today - it's too controversial, that whole prehistoric setting. Not to mention the homosexual undertones between Fred and Barney." On finishing the song, he proclaims, "We've come a long way - and we're going back!".

He is still fiercely committed to liberal-left causes, and even manages to bring a political bite to his introduction to "Leah", one of the new album's love songs. He stole the title, he admits, from Roy Orbison, then goes on to explain how he once met The Big O, who told him he'd just written a song about windsurfing. "That's not gonna fly," he thought, adding that it was probably windsurfing that lost John Kerry the last election. "Fake mobile chemical weapons laboratories, that's OK; but windsurfing, that's where the American people draw the line."

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