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DETROIT - Among the many sides of Bruce Springsteen is an acoustic-guitar-strumming folkie who wants to grab people by the shoulders and shake them out of their lethargy.
That's the Bruce who stood in the soft pastel glow of the stage lights in the magnificent Fox Theatre here Monday night, the official opening concert of his solo tour coinciding with yesterday's release of his disc, "Devils & Dust."
Wearing his standard jeans and an untucked dark cotton shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, Springsteen took the sold-out crowd of 5,000 on a 2 hour and 20 minute tour of the world according to Bruce.
He opened with the gritty blues of "Reason to Believe," his head down, stomping the floor for a primal beat, wailing mournfully on harmonica, and singing eerily through the harmonica's microphone.
Springsteen then strapped on an acoustic guitar, slipped a harmonica-rack around his neck, and launched into "Devils & Dust," written after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq but which looks at war through the eyes of any soldiers in any combat.
Eleven of the 24 songs he played were from his new album, offering tales of dreams that died on the U.S. border ("Matamoros Banks") and goals that shattered in the boxing ring (The Hitter"), soldiers on the front lines of battle ("Devils & Dust") and warriors in the ghetto ("Black Cowboys").
On four tunes, Springsteen played an acoustic baby grand piano, thrilling the crowd with a soulful version of 1978's "Racing in the Streets," and "Real World," from 1992's "Human Touch."
He also played piano on "For You," from his 1973 debut album, and "Jesus Was an Only Child," a new ballad that he described as a song about a mother's protective love for her children.
During "Matamoros," an overhead spotlight inexplicably swung from the stage onto the audience about 10 rows back, and Springsteen later explained with a grin, "I knew I shouldn't have given that bottle of Jack Daniels to the spotlight operator."
He introduced another new song, "Reno," by advising parents with children that it would be a good time to take them out to the lobby to shop for T-shirts. The song is about a man who hires a prostitute that reminds him of his ex-lover, with the earthy lyrics contrasting the differences between love and lust in human relationships.
The concert had a more upbeat feel than Springsteen's last solo tour, in 1995, when he focused on songs from "The Ghost of Tom Joad," a bleak study of the underdogs and the underbelly of America.
A highlight was "Leah," a straightforward love song on which Springsteen leaned down and away from the microphone while strumming his guitar, then rose up to the mic, eyes closed, to sing, gently, with passion and grace. No theatrics or drama, just a masterful expression from the heart.
A lingering image came during "The Rising," when a spotlight hit Springsteen from behind, casting him in silhouette and transforming his shock of dark hair into a glowing halo - St. Bruce?
Springsteen closed with "The Promised Land," the fourth song of his encore, slowly thumping the guitar's body with his thumb for a beat, then slapping the strings with his fingertips, creating a droning rhythm as he sung plaintively, "Mister, I ain't a boy, no, I'm a man, and I believe in a promised land."
Throughout the show, Springsteen, 55, seemed confident and relaxed, letting the music and stories carry him and the audience along on their journey. Unlike his high-energy spectaculars with the E Street Band, Springsteen the solo artist didn't strive for the wow factor or build to explosive crescendoes. It was more of an intimate, even-keeled evening for Bruce the troubadour and about 5,000 close friends.
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