When everybody starts believing those big illusions," said Bruce Springsteen from the stage of the Shrine Auditorium, in Los Angeles, "you end up with a government like the one we've had for the past decade." The occasion was the second of two benefit concerts given by Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne on November 16th and 17th for the Christic Institute, an organization that is pursuing a lawsuit against a group of United States-sponsored covert operatives for allegedly bombing a press conference in Nicaragua in 1984. The song Springsteen was introducing was "Reason to Believe," from Nebraska, and the specific illusion he referred to was the American government's belief in its inalienable right to police the world and shape the destiny of other sovereign nations.
Springsteen's endorsement of the Christic Institute and its conviction that an ongoing conspiracy of government officials and former military and intelligence officers has played a major role in American foreign policy over the past three decades represents a far more radical stance than he has ever before taken. In his characteristic fashion, however, Springsteen managed to put a human face on the array of complex, far-ranging political issues the Christic Institute lawsuit addresses. His two masterful solo acoustic sets – his first live appearances since the close of the Amnesty International Human Rights Now! world tour in October of 1988 – were breathtakingly moving explorations of how self-deceit, romantic illusions and fantasies of control corrupt the bedroom and the boardroom, personal as well as political affairs, and poison human experience. With remarkable emotional sophistication, Springsteen was able to dramatize both the damage such illusions inflict and the difficulty and pain involved in giving them up for a real world that is far from a utopia.
The first evening's show was more taut and gripping, if less relaxed, than the second. Walking out of the wings to center stage without an introduction, his hair grown long and swept back, Springsteen was clearly tense. Strumming an acoustic guitar, he mentioned not having "done this in a while" and told the audience, "If you're moved to clap along, don't – it'll mess me up." He then set the tone for the night with a stark, intense – and simply spectacular – reading of "Brilliant Disguise," a song about the virtual impossibility of understanding your own emotions, let alone another person's. His singing strong and supple, Springsteen incited howls of excitement with the subtlest gestures, such as sliding his voice into a fragile falsetto on certain line endings. "Is it me, baby, or just a brilliant disguise?" Springsteen nearly whispered to the crowd of 6200 people witnessing his return to the public eye. The question seemed far from innocent a little later when, after a fan screamed, "We love you, Bruce," Springsteen responded, without a shred of irony, "But you don't really know me."
A modified arrangement of "Darkness on the Edge of Town" was somewhat less successful – it would work far more effectively the next night – but a haunted "Mansion on the Hill," with Springsteen providing a plaintive harmonica solo, proved riveting. The singer bemoaned how "over the past decade the country's been sold an illusion of itself" and praised the Christic Institute for "trying to make us grow up" by way of leading into "Reason to Believe," which he souped up with a chilling slide-guitar part.
The set took an amusing turn when Springsteen – obviously in a 2 Live Bruce mood – hauled out a song he'd written the night before called "Redheaded Woman," which he dedicated to "my two favorite redheads": Bonnie Raitt and, of course, Patti Scialfa. "Well, now, listen up, stud, your life's been wasted," Springsteen wailed over a propulsive rockabilly beat, "till you been down on your knees and tasted a redheaded woman." In "57 Channels," another funny new song with a rockabilly feel, Springsteen described shooting out his television Elvis style because "there's fifty-seven channels, man, and nothing on."
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