Springsteen plugs in for 'Unplugged'

It starts off like any other edition of "MTV Unplugged." First we see Bruce Springsteen stride to the stage and shoulder an acoustic guitar; then we hear him launch into a spirited rendition of the raucous, ribald "Redheaded Woman."

And then he changes the rules.


"That was the unplugged part of the show," says Springsteen, removing the acoustic and strapping on his trusty Fender Telecaster. "Let's bring out the band."

With that, Springsteen undoes the entire premise of "MTV Unplugged," transforming the program so completely that MTV wound up crossing out the "Un" part of "Unplugged" in the show's logo. Yet despite this refusal to play by the rules, the Springsteen edition of "MTV Unplugged" -- which airs on the cablechannel tonight at 9 -- turns out to be one of the most exciting concert specials MTV has ever aired.


You could almost call it "electrifying."

What makes it work? Some of it has to do with the sense of intimacy TV conveys, offering the sort of up-close view even fans in the front rows rarely get. At one point, Springsteen tells the tiny studio audience that "the last time I played a crowd this size was Clarence's club," and the best moments here do carry the low-key feel of a nightclub gig.

Take, for example, the way Springsteen and keyboardist Roy Bittan re-invent "Thunder Road," lending an almost Dylanesque quality to its saga of suburban ennui. Or note how much funnier he is when he tells the story behind "Local Hero" directly to the camera. Even when he's doing something his fans have seen a dozen times before in an are na setting, Springsteen manages to make his MTV appearance seem somehow just a little more revealing than usual.

Still, the real advantage of catching the Springsteen "Unplugged" is that it offers the best glimpse yet of how great his new band is. Make no mistake -- the sound they go for has precious little in common with the lumbering grandeur that was the E Street Band's stock-in-trade. What they bring in its stead, ,, though, is a combination of versatility and virtuosity that adds new resonance to the music, be it as ferocious as the guitar duel that closes "Atlantic City," as funky as "57 Channels (And Nothin' On)," oras flamboyant as the rich, theatrical arrangement to "Darkness on the Edge of Town."

But be forewarned: Don't watch this show with your curtains open. Because when Springsteen gets to his preacher routine in "Light of Day," and exhorts the audience at home to put down their popcorn, get off their couches, turn the TV up and take off all their clothes, you may give in to the moment and actually do what he says.

And that could be hard to explain to the neighbors.