BRUCE'S BETTER DAYS

As much as music used to be Bruce Springsteen's passion, it is now only his business.

I remember thinking when Born in the USA came out: "Will Bruce ever fall? And if it happens, what will it be like?" On Friday and Saturday nights at America West Arena, both of those questions were answered, and neither was a pretty sight.

By intermission I was bored to tears--and angry that he'd kept ramming the new material down our throats. Propping up his badly sagging sales figures seemed to be at the top of Springsteen's concert agenda.

Although there were signs of life earlier in Saturday's show--the first half was enlivened by a rare performance of "The River"--the old inferno didn't flare either night until after intermission. In both shows, it began with a heartfelt performance of "Brilliant Disguise," his bitter ode to first wife Julianne Phillips and one of his most gentle and affecting melodies. On Friday night, there was a loping, glockenspiel-less "Bobby Jean" that fell into a wonderfully familiar groove. On Saturday there was a suitably rockin' rendition of "Darlington County" to feast on. Finally, the lights dimmed and the band filed off--often a sign of something spontaneous about to happen at a Springsteen show. The Boss pulled a harmonica stand over his head, picked up a black acoustic guitar and, after noting that he'd "been doing this tune for a long time," eased into an exquisite acoustic rendition of "Thunder Road." Suddenly, the old spark was back. The eloquent, unquenchable desire that separates Bruce Springsteen from every other figure in the history of rock n' roll was alive again.

But after two nights of Bruce in the Valley, the questions persist.
Is Springsteen done? Has the longest, sweetest and most storied run in popular music come to an end?

After weathering more than nine hours of Bruce last weekend, my answer is equivocal: not yet. His new "artistic direction" leaves a lot to be desired. And you can bet the ranch that the next album will determine whether it's time to start writing his epitaph. Because memories, even of Springsteen, can't guarantee a full house forever.

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