A Redemption Song: Reverend Springsteen Plays the Garden

There was a moment at the beginning of Bruce Springsteen’s last encore at his June 12 Madison Square Garden show when he walked to the edge of the stage and looked out at the crowd as if he wanted to say something. Mr. Springsteen stared out into the sea of people, some of whom were screaming “Bruuuce,” and some of whom were booing him, as if he were searching for the perfect remark to end the evening, the first of 10 that will take place at the Garden. And then the lights went down and he found his voice, in the opening harmonica chords to “Thunder Road.”

Since he and the E Street Band began this reunion tour in March 1999, Mr. Springsteen has often referred to the show as both a “rock-and-roll baptism” and “exorcism,” and there was many a moment on June 12 when that description seemed apt. After enduring a weekend of name-calling by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and other law enforcement officials because a new song he had unveiled in Atlanta, “American Skin” is inspired by the shooting of Amadou Diallo, Mr. Springsteen responded not with words but with an often-furious performance by him and the band that reduced the rhetoric that had been leveled at him to so much ash.

With the slain Diallo’s parents in the audience, the tension seemed most palpable in the songs leading up to the performance of “American Skin,” and Mr. Springsteen even seemed to be sending a message in his choice of alternating dark and light songs, as if there were some sort of spiritual struggle taking place there in the Garden. At times, however, that struggle was muddied a bit by the sound mix. On some songs, the band and Mr. Springsteen’s voice seemed swamped by an abundance of bass. And when he broke out his steel guitar for his bluesy version of “Born in the U.S.A.,” the notes felt like glass shards.

The concert opener was a new song, “Code of Silence”, a dark, tense number that Mr. Springsteen co-wrote with Pittsburgh singer and songwriter Joe Grushecky. Although the song seems to be about a relationship, the title and some of the lyrics, which refer to a code of silence “that we don’t dare speak,” certainly could be likened to the cop code phrase for omertá , the blue wall of silence. Mr. Springsteen and the band then followed that with his gritty love anthem, “Prove It All Night.” Then came “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “Be True” and “Point Blank,” which, with its final lyric of “Bang, Bang Baby You’re Dead” served as a chilling lead-in to “American Skin,” a slow-building song that began with some of the E Street Band members taking turns singing the band’s tag line, “41 shots.” “That’s what happens,” said the woman sitting next to me as she held her cell phone in the air so that someone on the other end could experience the song that everyone has been talking about but so few have heard.

There were moments during this initial progression of songs when Mr. Springsteen looked legitimately nervous, as if he knew that something great was expected of him. But after he had finished performing “American Skin” and the cheers drowned out the catcalls, he seemed to expel the rest of his tension in a full-bore performance of “Promised Land.” That’s the song where Mr. Springsteen sings about a twister that’s going to uproot everything “that ain’t got the faith to stand its ground”.

Mr. Springsteen seemed looser after that, as if he’d gotten something big off of his chest. For some performers, that would have meant it was encore time, but for Mr. Springsteen the three-hour show was barely a third over at that point. Except to plug City Harvest, a local organization that feeds the homeless, Mr. Springsteen didn’t engage in much between-song patter (although when introducing the band he said “forget about that kid from Long Island,” proposing instead the senator from New York would be saxophonist Clarence Clemons). The music spoke for itself.

He would summon up that tension again, most notably for an electric version of “Backstreets” and another excellent acidic new song called “Further On Up The Road,” which has a “Secret Agent Man” guitar sound, but Mr. Springsteen would also have some fun with a Grand Ole Opry-style rendition of, “Dancing in the Dark,” and a joyous “Out in the Street” that had almost everyone in the Garden pumping their fists and singing along to the “Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh’s,” rock ‘n’ roll’s answer to speaking in tongues. Amen.

Don Henley: Hard-Ass, Soft Heart

“I hate to tell you this, but I’m very, very happy,” Don Henley growls at the beginning of “Everything Is Different Now,” one of the tracks on his new album, Inside Job (Warner Brothers). It’s a hopeful moment, a sign that the former Eagle is staking out artistic territory other than the smug Hollywood-style activism that often weighs down his solo work. Then again, as he sings later the song, “I’m not the kind to smile and bow out gracefully.”

For those who missed the 70′s, Mr. Henley was the chief architect of the Eagles, pretty much the most static, indulged rock band of the 70′s. But all the excess visited upon the group never led to real musical abandon, the way it did, for instance, for Led Zeppelin. For the Eagles, it was too much Apollo, too little Dionysus.

And when he went solo, Mr. Henley seemed to overcompensate for the hedonism of the Eagles by becoming Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll Moralist. From 1982′s I Can’t Stand Still through 1989′s The End of the Innocence and the protracted tour that spanned several years, Mr. Henley emerged as the H.L. Mencken of FM radio, holding forth on the press (“Dirty Laundry”), social ills, the hypocrisy of elected officials (“The End of the Innocence”) and record executives with a zeal unique to the self-satisfied.

But what has mostly redeemed Mr. Henley is his lovely, arid, tenor voice, the aural equivalent of the parched flatlands that he must have seen while gigging around his home state of Texas as a teenage musician. Mr. Henley grew up in the rather more verdant town of Linden, not far from Dallas, where he moved after earthquakes destroyed his Hollywood home in 1994. And it is there where Mr. Henley, the onetime playboy with a penchant for proselytizing, has become a married father of two.

So, in places, a new and generous perspective informs Inside Job , Mr. Henley’s first album of original material since The End of the Innocence 11 years ago. Three songs, “Taking You Home,” “For My Wedding” and “Everything Is Different Now,” form a suite that showcases the emotional evolution that Mr. Henley began with 1989′s sweeping single, “Heart of the Matter.”

They’re modest songs that are nonetheless enlivened by Mr. Henley’s talent for plain but evocative language and his penchant for clean, 80′s-style production. When was the last time you heard a piano solo on a modern pop song? Mr. Henley’s got one on “Taking You Home” and “Goodbye to a River,” and both are pleasant in an archaic way.

On “For My Wedding,” Mr. Henley indicates that his break with the past is permanent. “For my wedding I will dress in black / And never again will I look back,” he sings. “Ah, my dark angel we must part / For I have made a sanctuary of my heart.”

If only he had explored the subject of his late-life domesticity further, Inside Job could have been a much more resonant album. But old habits die hard with Mr. Henley, especially his tendency to sermonize.

“Workin’ It” is Mr. Henley’s “little valentine to corporate America,” as he described the song at his June 8 concert at Radio City Music Hall. It includes a rapped laundry list of modern society’s evils–cell phones, talk shows, book deals and lawyers, among others–but should also carry a label warning that freighting a song with “meaning” and weighty pronouncements is hazardous to that song’s health.

On the album’s title cut, Mr. Henley rails against the work-for-hire clause amended to copyright laws last year, which in essence surrenders authorship of recordings to the record companies releasing them. (Representative Howard Coble, a Republican from North Carolina, recently wished carpal tunnel syndrome on Mr. Henley when the artist didn’t show up for a congressional hearing on the work-for-hire clause.) It is laudable that Mr. Henley protests this, but “Inside Job” is a dreary dirge that hinges on variations of the ham-handed lyric, “While you were looking the other way / They’ll take your right to own your own ideas.” Thanks for telling us what to think, Professor Henley.

In fairness, Mr. Henley does acknowledge his reputation for pontification on “Damn It, Rose”: “We’re being treated to the wisdom / Of some puffed up little fart / Doing exactly what I used to do– / Pretentions to anarchy and art.”

It’s much easier to take Mr. Henley’s preaching when it’s joined to sweeping song structures such as those found on “They’re Not Here, They’re Not Coming,” an energetic meditation on how our “… cold, cold, / Post, postmodern world” has become too barren for heroes, spirituality or even extraterrestrial life. It recalls the magnificent “The Boys Of Summer,” as does the last track on the album, “My Thanksgiving,” where Mr. Henley seems humble for the first time in his recording career. “I trust you will forgive me if I lay it on the line / I always thought you were a friend of mine,” Mr. Henley sings. Then, later in the song, Mr. Henley tells his friend: “Have you noticed that an angry man / Can only get so far / Until he reconciles the way he thinks things ought to be / With the way things are?”

I can only hope that said pal returned the favor and told Mr. Henley to heed his own advice.

–Rob Kemp

Pole: Soul of the Machine

When King Tubby and his royal followers pioneered dub music in the 1970′s, they beveled the edges of reggae’s hard-line rhythms with tools crafted almost entirely by hand. Using jerry-rigged circuit boards and echo boxes built from whatever primitive gear was lying around, they smeared sound into a horizontal spread of low-end bass rumble and slowly dissolving echo. Pole, a German techno-dub project manned by Stefan Betke, takes a similar approach to electronic dance music. But where Tubby & Co. groped for new ways to melt wires together, Pole is more interested in tearing them apart.

Pole started as an outgrowth of Mr. Betke’s work at a record-mastering plant in Berlin, where he scrutinized scores of techno records looking for extraneous aural debris that might spoil the finished product. When the Waldorf 4 Pole sound filter that he used in his work went haywire, though, he heard an accidental symphony. And a way to slip beneath dance music’s bony frame to manipulate its soft underbelly.

Because it is much easier to articulate, the process behind Pole tends to get top billing over its musical results. In a different century, the fractured glitches and sonic dust emitted by the defective filter on 3 (Matador) might be described best in the language of warm, scratchy vinyl records. But in the techno tongue, its murmurings work like ambient reminders of beats whispered in Morse code.

Mr. Betke is more than just a clinical deconstructionist, though. Like the early Jamaican dubmasters before him, he mixes his science with ageless musical soul. On “Silberfisch,” 3 ‘s opener, he scatters clicking echoes and clipped synthesizer lines over a low-end background that could be either a muted call from the dance floor or a jolly sousaphone march. The soothing layer of static on “Taxi” sounds like sheets of rain. Or is it solar wind? Either way, Pole reels in shades from the grayest areas of sound and recasts them as beautiful colors that bleed far beyond the typical musical spectrum.

– Andy Battaglia

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