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Intimacy in big places 

Springsteen's solo tour comes to Philips Arena

The last time Bruce Springsteen came to Atlanta as a solo act, it was Super Bowl Sunday, 1996. Tickets were $30. Springsteen was 46, but with his goatee and slicked-back graying hair that exposed an acre of forehead, he could have easily passed for 55.

His stark appearance was fitting, given the CD he was touring behind. The Ghost of Tom Joad was a pastiche of somber vignettes about immigrants, ex-cons and bank robbers. Fans took to calling it the "Shut the Fuck Up" tour, after Springsteen's warning to his audience not to clap along.

Unlike marathon concerts with the E Street Band that left him exhausted and hoarse, the solo acoustic shows inspired him to write more. He'd go back to his hotel room with his Takamine acoustic and bang out more songs - about aging boxers, hopeful fathers and distant mothers.

It's those songs that comprise the bulk of Devils & Dust, the CD that has sent Springsteen back on the road without his band. On July 23, Springsteen returns to Atlanta, where some of the album was recorded, and fans who caught the 1996 show are in for something better - and worse - Saturday night.

Worse? Well, consider the arena. For the Shut the Fuck Up tour, Springsteen played theaters exclusively. In Atlanta, that was, quite naturally, the Fox. For this tour, fans expected it would be the Fox again. So did Fox General Manager Ed Neiss, who was asked to keep July 23 open for a show. But then promoter Peter Conlon booked Philips instead. "Why, I have no idea," Neiss says. "A solo tour in a large hall like that I'm not sure makes artistic sense."

Maybe not, but it makes financial sense. Even though Springsteen is playing to only a "half-house" at Philips, that's still 9,000 seats - nearly twice the Fox's capacity. With most tickets costing $85 each, a gig in the Philips Arena echo chamber stands to be much more lucrative than a Fox show. What's lost in intimacy is sure to be made up in the bottom line.

The decision puzzles some Springsteen fans, such as Robert Byrd, who'll be seeing his 26th Springsteen show Saturday. "The only conceivable reason for doing this is revenues," Byrd says. "You couldn't possibly argue this show will work better in these buildings."

Such a move, Byrd points out, is ironic from a performer who used to agonize over whether he should play bigger venues, worrying that his fans would lose out.

Conlon, however, says it was with those very fans in mind that Philips was chosen. "It's based on demand," he says. Play a show at the Fox, Conlon argues, and a lot of fans will be shut out.

But as of last week, the Springsteen show was about as easy a ticket to score as a Wednesday afternoon Braves game in August. Ticketmaster showed seats still available in the first tier - a prime vantage point. And if you didn't want to pay face value, scalpers who miscalculated demand were practically giving them away on eBay. Why pay $85 for a ticket when you get one for $30?

Which brings up a complaint about Springsteen shows that has gathered steam among fans in recent years: the price of tickets. From $17 tickets 20 years ago, to $30 tickets in 1996, Springsteen is now charging $85 for a solo show. No, it's nowhere near the top ticket price for an Elton John or Rolling Stones tour, but neither did Elton John nor the Rolling Stones campaign last fall in support of John Kerry, a man who said he had the working class's back. Working stiffs can hardly afford a pair of $85 tickets to see themselves glorified on stage by a millionaire.

Still, as Springsteen fans are no doubt muttering by now, it's Bruce. Unlike the Shut the Fuck Up tour, he's playing piano as well as guitar. Musically, this tour is much richer. At Philadelphia's Tower Theatre in May - one of the few theaters he's played in the United States on this tour - he mixed in obscurities like "The Iceman" with new stuff like "Reno," the much-discussed ditty that references anal sex but truly is a touching love song. Even better, he's been closing his shows with a cover of "Dream Baby Dream," a song by the 1970s New York band Suicide. Played on a pump organ and suffused with reverb, the song is a rousing and hopeful send-off, a reminder to "keep the fire burnin'." It's Bruce at his best, and hell, even worth $85.

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