The Best of Bruce Springsteen in the 21st Century

There is nothing like classic Bruce Springsteen. Winterland, 1975. No Nukes. Classics like Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Rosalita, Born in the USA and solo efforts pre-2000 such as Human Touch, Luckytown, and The Ghost of Tom Joad are timeless testaments of Springsteen’s greatness. But when it comes to reworking old material and putting out new stuff in the 21st Century, Springsteen steps forth as both vibrant and relevant, not strung out and past his prime like other musicians limping along on borrowed time. Maybe it is the apparent lack of drug abuse, but into his fifties the Boss looks great physically. And more important, musically and lyrically, the material Springsteen has put out this decade will, in my opinion, someday sit proudly alongside his classics from the previous thirty years.

In 2002, Springsteen responded to the events of September 11th with The Rising, a record as full of hope and optimism as it was a critical inspection of the national condition. The tour that supported The Rising perfectly presented this balance with Springsteen, over the span of three hours, illustrating feelings of despair and rebirth alongside a disdain for the American government’s response to terrorism. An April 9, 2003 show in Sacramento nicely details this dichotomy. On the day that coalition forces took Baghdad and toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein, the Boss made a relatively quiet political statement on this night in liberal Northern Califronia.

The show opened with the always chilling acoustic version of Born in the USA. Herein lays an example of the Boss reworking old material and making it relevant to the present day. (Of course, Born in the USA, misinterpreted in the mid-80s by Ronald Reagan is hardly complementary of the American war effort in Vietnam). The Boss, with a fierce look of intensity on his face, then tore into a cover of CCR’s Who’ll Stop The Rain, another anti-Vietnam war theme, followed by No Surrender, a song off of Born in the USA that has bubbled with political overtones when performed this decade. Springsteen’s gravelly voice made that clear as he sang:

Now on the street tonight the lights grow dim
The walls of my room are closing in
There’s a war outside still raging
you say it ain’t ours anymore to win

I want to sleep beneath peaceful skies in my lover’s bed
with a wide open country in my eyes
and these romantic dreams in my head
(emphasis added, but evident in the performance)

From here, Springsteen managed to perfectly capsulate the feelings of the tragic events of 9/11, seperating the stark pain and human suffering of that day from the political response. In other words, Bruce made clear, as most public figures failed to do in 9/11’s aftermath, that one could be emotionally affected by the terrorist attacks without necessarily supporting the Bush administration’s anti-terrorist rhetoric and/or military campaign. The next six songs – The Rising, Lonesome Day, The Fuse, Empty Sky, You’re Missing, and Waitin’ on a Sunny Day – perfectly blended the feelings of loss and the subsequent process of moving on that are most always connected with 9/11-like events. Nights like this occurred consistently on The Rising tour and placed Springsteen into the spotlight, where he has stayed for good over the past few years.

In 2004, Springsteen helped put together the Vote for Change tour with acts such as Pearl Jam, John Fogerty, and the Dixie Chicks. Bruce openly campaigned for John Kerry and voiced disdain for Bushian politics throughout this tour and right into 2005’s tour that supported his solo release Devils & Dust. Devils & Dust, with the exception of the title track presumably written from the perspective of a soldier in Iraq, was not overtly political although the tour did feature social commentary, including Springsteen comically ridiculing President Bush for his stance on the evolution debate prior to performances of Part Man, Part Monkey. What Devils & Dust should be known as is an effort by Springsteen, going almost wholly solo, that will rival anything ever produced in the past with or without the E Street Band.

Devils & Dust covered lots of ground, from the controversial Reno, the story of a wayward man’s visit to a prostitute to Ghost of Tom Joad-like songs hitting topics from immigration to religion. Tracks such as Long Time Comin’, Leah, Maria’s Bed, and All I’m Thinkin’ About rival Bruce’s past pop smashes Dancing in the Dark and Cover Me, and arguably one-up such efforts, yet non-existent radio airplay kept them from pervading even the outskirts of mainstream popular culture. Springsteen could obviously care less.

So far in 2006, he has toured Europe supporting a collection of songs written by and/or somehow connected to American folk legend Pete Seeger. We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions is critically acclaimed, but again will hardly make a dent on radio airplay and record sales charts. Not even six years through this decade and Springsteen has released three records fullof brand new material, he claims that a new effort with the E Street Band is forthcoming, he has taken center stage politically more than once, and he has shared the stage with the likes of Eddie Vedder, Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, and Bono. I think Springsteen in 2006 is as big, if not bigger than the Springsteen who graced the covers of Time and Newsweek in the same week back in 1975.

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