Bruce Springsteen's new album, ''Devils and Dust," has less of everything his fans relish most: anthems and energy. But it was exactly the absence of those familiar triggers that allowed the musician, whose sold-out show at the Orpheum last night was part of a solo acoustic tour, to offer something other than fist-pumping sing-alongs and screaming saxophone solos: a piece of himself.
Springsteen's intimate two-plus-hour set was filled with anecdotes and memories, reflections on the mysteries of parenting and songwriting, and more than a few political comments -- one in particular involving a certain windsurfing incident in honor of audience member John Kerry, whose entrance earned the evening's first standing ovation. But the music (a thoughtful, seasoned blend of new and vintage) and the man (about whom one could say the same thing) were, as ever, closely twined. At his best Springsteen puts a human face on distant, difficult tales, and in this stripped-down setting the connection between story and storyteller was brought into bold relief.
Having children, and experiencing the primal urge to protect them, inspired him to investigate the idea that Jesus was ''somebody's boy," Springsteen explained before playing ''Jesus Was an Only Son." Parenting was a recurring theme during the concert, and it is on the new album as well. ''Long Time Coming," an exuberant, hopeful tune, followed a discussion about trying to get things right that your parents got wrong, and ''Black Cowboys" explored the fallout of severed bonds between mother and son.
Without the E Street Band in tow, Springsteen's dynamic range was limited, and yet he mustered impressive spirit, both mournful and jubilant. The set began starkly with Springsteen at the harmonium singing ''My Beautiful Reward" while two video screens showed black and white images of his feet pumping the churchlike bellows. Next came a rough, unintelligible take on ''Reason to Believe," during which Springsteen stomped on a wooden board and played distorted harmonica, and ''Devils and Dust," where he fully and fearsomely inhabited the heart and mind of a soldier in Iraq.
At that point ''Lonesome Day" arrived like a breath of air, as did a lush piano version of ''The River," which he introduced as a ''hidden love song" from his catalog. A riveting one-man reworking of ''The Rising," as well as a scorching ''Further On (Up the Road)" and grit-filled ''Real World" revealed an artist who has no need for a large, loud band to help him find boldness and backbone.
Springsteen is one of the few artists who could successfully program a set to feature ''Part Man, Part Monkey" (complete with scathing explication of the current debate about evolution and creationism) back to back with ''All the Way Home," a hip-swiveling ode to second chances, and then segue into ''Reno," a sexually explicit ballad about a heartbroken john and his hooker. The so-called two Springsteens, one folkie and one rocker, are in fact two points on a continuum whose span was on gratifying display last night.
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org