By Erik Flannigan
There was a time when we pondered whether Springsteen would ever undertake a solo tour.
The release of Nebraska in 1982 spurred the initial idea, as fans understandably wondered if Bruce would perform the album live. Next came the Bridge School concert in 1986 (available in the Live Archive series), his first full acoustic set post 1973, some of it solo, the rest backed by only Nils Lofgren and Danny Federici. That special gig triggered another round of talk about solo shows, in part because things had gotten so big following the stadium concerts in 1985. Wouldn’t it be interesting to boil the whole thing back down to its essence?
The two Christic Institute performances in 1990 (also available in the Live Archive series) proved the power of Springsteen alone on stage, and eventually they also proved to be the precursors to his first solo tour later that decade. Springsteen’s one-man world tour in support of The Ghost of Tom Joad stretched from late 1995 to the spring of 1997. The Joad shows saw Bruce in troubadour mode, performing exclusively on acoustic guitar and harmonica with occasional off-stage keyboard support from longtime tech Kevin Buell. The stripped-down tour hit venues the size of which Springsteen hadn’t played since the 1970s. Some, like the Tower Theater outside Philadelphia, were the very same buildings.
Appealing as those antecedents were, the 2005 Devils & Dust tour is Springsteen’s most fully realized solo expression. He expanded his instrumentation, adding new colors via pump organ, electric and acoustic pianos, and, on occasion, autoharp, dobro, banjo, and ukulele. He expanded his setlists, too, working up thrilling new arrangements of deep cuts from the catalog, some played only a time or two. Intimate performances aren’t effective simply due to venue size. They require a performer to take risks and play in the moment, which Bruce did night after night in 2005.
This Tower Theater concert is from the opening weeks of the D&D tour. Bruce’s personal history with the venue — going all the way back to 1974 — portended something special, and the payoff came early. “My Beautiful Reward,” performed on pump organ, closed most shows in 1992 and ’93; here it is reborn as a reflective opener, and Springsteen’s vocals flow warmly right out of the gate, sliding across notes with confidence. A sweet harmonica coda formally commences the evening.
D&D tour setlists progress in a chapter-like form, often tied to the instrument Springsteen is playing. Bruce moves through tour staples “Reason to Believe” and “Devils & Dust,” then sharp readings of “Youngstown,” “Empty Sky,” and “Black Cowboys” (featuring Alan Fitzgerald on backstage keyboards at the end). Those three had limited runs in 2005, but nothing like the next selection, as Bruce moves to piano for a true WTF moment on a tour filled with surprises.
“In honor of the fabulous Tower Theater I’m gonna do something here,” Bruce says. “This is a song I cut for Darkness on the Edge of Town, but it didn’t make the record, and I’ve never played it. So I’m gonna give it a shot.”
The crowd reacts with enthusiasm, only to be reminded not to get ahead of themselves: “[It’s] probably one of the stinkers we left off. I wouldn’t get over-excited.” Funny. When the first chords play, it sounds like fewer than a dozen people recognize “Iceman,” recorded in 1977 and released on Tracks in 1998.
The intriguing tune is representative of a cluster of early material cut for Darkness including the still-unreleased and kindred “Preacher’s Daughter,” which was recorded around the same time and first surfaced publicly as a snippet in some 1978 performances of “She’s the One.” “Iceman” also shares a key line with “Badlands”: “I want to go out tonight, I want to find out what I got.” Given our familiarity with those words from “Badlands,” it is fascinating to hear Springsteen give them entirely different diction here.
“Iceman” may not approach the lost-masterpiece levels of “The Promise” or “Drop on Down and Cover Me,” but his committed vocal performance (faintly reminiscent of his 1972 demos) and excellent piano playing bring out the best in the somber song. Also intriguing is the shift Bruce makes at 2:41, appending “Iceman” with an unexpected piano coda.
That new piece also turned out to serve as a bridge, allowing Springsteen to go from “Iceman” without warning into “Incident on 57th Street.” It’s an impressive rendition, with strong, dialed-in vocals and fine piano. If you bet the “Iceman”/”Incident” exacta at Joad Downs, your ponies came in, friend.
Upper Darby’s next chapter is on guitar. First up, “Part Man, Part Monkey,” preceded by Springsteen’s timely intro about local governments rethinking “the whole evolution thing.” How quaint that mild questioning of scientific fact seems today. A trio from Devils & Dust follows: “Maria’s Bed,” “Silver Palomino,” and Bruce’s sodomy & sin soliloquy, “Reno.”
Springsteen shifts to electric piano for a moment of musical beauty with “Wreck on the Highway.” The underplayed River closer draws quiet power from the steady, sober telling of the tale. But where Roy Bittan’s piano on the album and full-band versions is widescreen, the electric piano comes across more intimately, as the instrument’s tones ring with sweetness and darkness. It’s a disquieting, captivating performance.
Another unlikely transition, as “Wreck” drops into “Real World,” played as it should be on solo piano. Again Springsteen’s full-bodied vocals and stirring work on the keys combine to create one of the best renditions of “Real World” post-Christic. It’s also, notably, the first to be released in the Live Archive series from the Devils & Dust tour.
He’s on a roll now, fueling excellent interpretations of a refreshed “The Rising,” a convincing “Further On (Up the Road),” and four from Devils & Dust to finish the set. The quartet includes “The Hitter,” which ends with Bruce’s lovely falsetto, and “Matamoros Banks,” which Bruce calls the sequel to Joad’s “Across the Border,” reminding us of the deep connective tissue between the two albums and supporting shows.
The encore opens with an enchanting, Mariachified take on “Ramrod” for the first time on the tour. Quirky but fun. Next, the eternally optimistic “Land of Home and Dreams,” and finally the mesmeric pairing of “The Promised Land” and “Dream Baby Dream,” one of the true highlights of the 2005 tour.
The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust both feature Springsteen inhabiting characters. His troubadour persona on the Joad tour afforded a bit of distance from the audience, a stance only punctured at times by tour-debuted originals like “Sell It and They Will Come”” and “I’m Turning Into Elvis,” which felt more personal in nature. The Devils & Dust songs are still character studies, but on the 2005 tour, Springsteen invited the audience on an intimate journey, revealing parts of himself in those new songs and even more through the thrilling exploration of his vast catalog.