Bruce Springsteen, Manchester Arena

Manchester Arena

The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, Tuesday May 9 2006

Bruce Springsteen's European tour began in Dublin on Friday and not in Manchester on Sunday as stated in the article below.

Three years ago, when the Dixie Chicks spoke out against the current American president, they were booed off stage and all but chased out of the country. Now, as George Bush's popularity crashes, Dubya-baiting has become American pop's latest sport. Along with other heavyweights like Neil Young and Madonna, Bruce Springsteen is making up for lost time.

The American workers' musical champion's new album, The Seeger Sessions, features songs popularised by the 1960's protest singer Pete Seeger and is the most political album of Springsteen's career.

Following similar sentiments expressed at last week's New Orlean's Jazz Festival, Springsteen kicked off his European tour in Manchester last night railing against Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina. The subsequent soul song How Can A Man Stand Such Times and Live? featured new words composed specially for Dubya: "He took a look around and gave a pep talk/Said 'I'll be right here' then he took a little walk..."

It was met with what sounded like boos, but was actually thousands of people cheering "Broooooce". It was always going to be a raucous evening once The Boss kicked over his chair and shrieked, as someone clambered up during Old Man Tucker, "the stage has been rushed during a 150-year-old folk song!"

In black waistcoat and holding his guitar like a heavy machine gun, there were elements of Joe Strummer and Johnny Cash to the man as he tore into negro spirituals, songs about premature burials, and workers crushed by the system. His choking voice sounded like he's spent a previous life in a coalmine, not rocking stadiums. For added authenticity a 17-piece band - including his wife, Patti Scialfa, and various pianos, fiddles, hollering, big horns and strange hats - gave the arena the unlikely, intimate atmosphere of a wild 19th century boozer.

Springsteen's past ventures into protest music have been problematic. Many Americans bizarrely took lines like "Go Kill The Yellow Man" in his 1984 Vietnam song Born In The USA as advocating overseas military jollies.

Last night he, perhaps sensibly, let ancient songs speak for themselves, although the Irish-tinged anti-war Mrs McGrath was spat out with such barely intelligible fury he sounded like he'd suddenly turned into The Pogues' Shane MacGowan.

The civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome became a hymn for modern struggles. But mostly, this was Springsteen in defiance but unusually playful mood.

He invited a disastrous sing-song during a medley of his own Cadillac Ranch and Elvis Presley's Mystery Train and howled: "That's miserable, we need some professionalism here!" It's ironic that a man once hailed as "rock 'n roll's future" is turning to aged songs for new direction, but he seems revitalised.

Making protest fun? Maybe some of our hapless politicians could learn a thing or two from that.

· At Hammersmith Carling Apollo, London, tonight. Box office 0870 606 3400


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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