Bruce Springsteen likes a challenge. Last time he was in london, he bought the E-Street Band with him, played the drab and lifeless Crystal Palace National Sports Centre and filled it with the communal exhilaration that is his speciality. On friday 27th of may he tried something quite different; a solo show designed to achieve intimacy amid the grandeur of the Albert hall. The venue was small by Springsteen's standards, yet dauntingly large for a solo performance. And once again he lit it up.
Springsteen stated that this would be no greatest hits package, but fans who were braced for an evening of dusty folk songs found themselves treated to a series of surprises.
Aided by a Harmonium, he played some big sonorous chords, added a wheezy harmonica solo and sang my beautiful reward ( Lucky Town 1992 ). It's an ordinary song, a routine, ruminative chugger but he sang it with quiet strength. Rugged and compelling.
Then he got up, ditched the harmonium, squeezed a more demented sound from the harmonica, beat out a menacing rhythm on a drum pad on the floor and sang reason to believe ( Nebraska 1982 ) as a wild blues, with his voice put through some kind of squeeze box.
For the title track of the new album - Devils and Dust he strummed away roughly on guitar and gasped out a breathless vocal, as if his soldier narrator were running for cover.
Bruce rang the changes all evening, switching from acoustic guitar to grand piano and back to a more tinkly guitar and eventually returning to the harmonium and vocal effects.
At 55 the boss is in the veterans catagory now, it is thirty years since he sang Born to Run and was hailed - - as the future of rock 'n' roll. No rock star has aged better. still slim, hungry and open minded, he is also older, wittier and wiser. As the evening went on he talked more and more between songs. He discussed the Pope, the President, the Queen, the Virgin Mary, Freud, Roy Orbison, the Origins of Man, the vicissitudes of parenthood, and the difficulty of writing about your mother in a rock song.
As he moves between musical styles, the themes remain the same - family, work, sacrifice, redemption. Catholicism lurks between the lines, as he now ruefully admits. ' All those women named Mary - what was that about?'. But mainly these songs deal with what it is to be human. All the issues rock tends to run away from, Springsteen is happy to confront.
Even the faithful have found the new album hard going. There are too many words and not enough tunes. A couple work better in concert, where he can tee them up with a crisp preface, but on the whole the latest material here is the least brilliant.
And yet there are still plenty of highlights. The River played on the piano with a subtly revised melody, is majestic. Nebraska is graceful in its grittiness. the Wish a little known song about his Mother, is musically orthodox, lyrically deft and emotionally iresistable, suffused with a fabulous fondness.
The first encore, Ramrod, is a romp, as Springsteen ventures into the stalls and finds himself being stroked by starstruck women (' Dirty work, someone's gotta do it' ).
And he has two final surprises up his sleeve. The promised land is startlingly reinvented as an eerie lament, with spr