Stockholm, Sweden -- If it's true, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, that there are no second acts in American lives, then that undoubtedly goes double for the careers of American rock stars. It isn't just that these musicians have a hard time coming up with a credible second chorus once their original ideas have played out; making things worse is the fact that American rock fans seem by and large unwilling to accept change as the necessary price for artistic growth.
Bruce Springsteen hopes to change all that. Not only has he decided to write a second act onto his career by bringing in a new band, a fresher sound and an altogether different perspective on his work, but he has already started his new show on out-of-town tryouts. And if Monday's tour-opening performance at Stockholm's Globen Arena is any indication, this revamped Springsteen could prove even more potent than the original.
Given the less-than-spectacular sales of the singer's current albums, "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town," that may seem a little hard to swallow at first. After all, even dedicated Springsteen fans have confessed to having doubts about the relevance and viability of their hero's latest work.
But after seeing Springsteen whip his Swedish audience into such a frenzy that they stood cheering for a full six minutes after the house lights came up at the end of the show, it seems impossible to doubt him. Particularly since he earned that response the hard way, performing a show that offered mostly new material -- often in radically different arrangements -- and none of the standbys most fans would expect from a Springsteen concert.
There was no "Rosalita," no "Born to Run," no "Cadillac Ranch." In fact, only two of the 26 songs dated from before the album "Born in the U.S.A." Yet Springsteen's performance was so impassioned and his vision so complete that his Swedish fans followed unhesitatingly, even when his muse led him into such unexpected territory as the conga-driven funk groove that powered "57 Channels (And Nothin' On)."
Of course, it didn't hurt that Stockholm was in the grips of what one local record store described as "Springsteenfeber" (Springsteen fever). Sweden's infatuation with Springsteen goes back a ways. This was where he earned his first gold album, and where he has played to large, enthusiastic crowds since 1975. "People here have always been great to us," Springsteen told the fans during the show, and he even made an attempt at speaking Swedish before the first encore. ("At least I got 'Stockholm' right," he laughed.)
At 250 kr -- roughly $42 apiece -- tickets for the Globen dates didn't come cheap. Yet not only had both Stockholm shows been sold out for weeks, but the first night set an attendance record at the building with 15,800 fans. In addition, the Swedish media were all over the story, with each of the four Swedish dailies giving Springsteen and the concert front-page play. One, the afternoon tabloid Expressen, even went so far as to run a piece by its automotive columnist lamenting the lack of car references in the singer's new songs.
That was nothing, though, compared with the attention lavished on the European Championship soccer matches, which Sweden is holding. Both Expressen and its rival, Aftonbladet, accompanied their concert reviews with comments from Swedish soccer players in attendance. (Typical quote: "This is fantastic!") Even Springsteen got into the act, introducing "Lucky Town" with congratulations on Sweden's victory over Denmark the night before.
Still, as earnestly as Springsteen tried to accommodate his Swedish fans, it was obvious that the bulk of his efforts went in to reworking and rethinking his songs. Some of that came across Monday in strictly musical terms, as with the Hendrixian "Star-Spangled Banner" intro given "Born in the U.S.A," or the way the gospel harmonies woven into the end of "Leap of Faith" seemed to lift the tune to another plane entirely.
But the most telling moments were those in which Springsteen recast the emotional content of his material. "My Hometown" was offered as an elegy for the sense of community that seems to have passed out of most Americans' lives, while "Darkness on the Edge of Town" was rendered with a wistful tone suggestive less of anger than of acceptance. And in perhaps the most stunning transformation of all, Springsteen and wife Patti Scialfa (an unexpected walk-on) somehow turned "Brilliant Disguise" on its head, changing it from a depiction of duplicity into a testimonial to marital commitment.
Heavy stuff, to be sure, but it wasn't lost on the audience. Swedish rock critic Lasse Anrell, writing in Aftonbladet, went so far as to claim that "for the first time I really understand all the music and lyrics on the new albums." Though few other fans were as articulate, the sentiment in the final ovation was obvious: If this was the sound of the new Springsteen, they definitely wanted more.