Before the Bruce Springsteen show at the Paramount on October 16, I caught a few minutes of the second and (blessedly) final presidential "debate," broadcast live to the nation from San Diego. What I saw of the event wasn't exactly scintillating: Bill Clinton oozed fake sincerity (he made a point of memorizing his questioners' names, then referred to them personally throughout his stock answers), while Bob Dole galumphed around the set like Richard Nixon visiting the beach in a blue Republican suit. At one point, Dole did his best to pander to the Californians in attendance by referring to the millions of dollars of welfare funds allegedly paid to illegal aliens in the state. Clinton responded by noting that it has long been against the law for illegals to receive welfare payments. Each seemed determined to prove that he, rather than his opponent, would do the most complete job of locking down U.S. boundaries.

And Springsteen? In the midst of his solo appearance, he visited this issue as well, but not to score demagogic points on the backs of some of the poorest people in this hemisphere. "You hear so much about this these days," he acknowledged, "but I guess I just don't understand why people crossing the border to do work that no one here wants to do is such a big problem." A moment later Springsteen played "Sinaloa Cowboys," a brilliant song from his latest album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, in which he demonstrated that he had done something neither Clinton nor Dole had so much as considered: He'd gone to the trouble of learning a little something about these people--and found himself empathizing with them.

Of course, such compassion is something you'd expect from Springsteen, a man with so humanistic a reputation that even he couldn't resist joking about it. (In asking the crowd to be quiet during his songs, he said that at his last show, he'd climbed from the stage and slapped a noisy young child. "That really blew my man-of-the-people image," he claimed.) But during his last Denver appearance, a couple of McNichols Arena stopovers in support of his lackluster 1992 discs Lucky Town and Human Touch, such jests would have cut too close to the bone. Staged with a cadre of anonymous studio pros seemingly recruited for the tour from the casting office of Beverly Hills 90210, he came across less as himself than as a Springsteen imitator--and there hasn't been much of a market for those since the commercial failure of Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives! Coming at a time when Springsteen, in a couple of national interviews, confessed that he was not as driven by music as he once had been, his surprisingly tepid turn suggested that the Boss was no longer in charge. Moreover, shifts in musical tastes (read: the Nirvana revolution) left him seeming like something of an anachronism--a respectable but no longer relevant throwback to another era.

Rather than fighting this perception by donning flannel and releasing an album called Born to Grunge, however, Springsteen chose to embrace, not reject, the most unfashionable aspects of his work. Joad, released last year, didn't come close to matching the sales of most Springsteen platters, and many of those who bought it probably didn't spend a great deal of time with it; a spare, gloomy disc, it didn't brim with hit singles or hummable melodies. But those who braved its depths discovered what was perhaps Springsteen's most mature, deeply felt recording ever, a CD that allowed the songwriter to find a new outlet for his creativity.

As the Paramount show underlined, the album also loosened Springsteen up. He concentrated on material from Joad, providing superb renderings of "Across the Border" and "Youngstown" (his best new composition) and uncovering hitherto unknown dimensions of "The Line," "Balboa Park" and "Galveston Bay." But he also offered fascinating reworkings of archival favorites, giving "Darkness on the Edge of Town" a relentless, driving edge and stripping from "Born in the U.S.A." every element that had allowed it to be misinterpreted by mid-Eighties jingoists and know-nothings. He even cracked wise throughout several goofy throwaways, including a piece about infomercials in which he referenced Dionne Warwick and Evel Knievel (and advised exercise guru Tony Little to kill himself), and "Red Headed Woman," which he introduced as "a great song about a great subject--cunnilingus."

How Springsteen moved without a transition from this randy tribute to oral sex to "Brothers Under the Bridge," a song about displaced Vietnam veterans, remains a mystery. So, too, was Springsteen's success at selling the latter, a fairly weak number about subjects he's revisited too often. But on this night, at least, nothing seemed beyond him. Just as I was ready to quibble with his heartfelt tribute to author John Steinbeck (why couldn't he have chosen, say, James M. Cain as a literary hero?), Springsteen casually re-enacted the denouement of The Grapes of Wrath, director John Ford's version of Steinbeck's most famous novel--and in the process, he gave a performance every bit the equal of Henry Fonda's. By the time he'd finished, there were more red eyes and runny noses at the Paramount than at a convention of allergy sufferers. (The last time I shed tears at a concert was when I saw Depeche Mode--but those were a very different kind of tears.)

Admittedly, Springsteen's vision seems out of touch in today's cynical environment; you won't hear Dole or Clinton quoting his latest lyrics in the final days before the election. But after basking in two and a half hours of bracingly wise reports from society's margins, I wish they would. Man, I wish they would.

Let's get critical.
Thanks to keyboardist Al Laughlin's recent brushes with the law, the Samples have made more of a splash on the police blotter than they have on the entertainment pages. But, contrary to popular belief, the boys have been making music. Outpost, the act's first release for MCA, is a disc that, to its detriment, doesn't demand attention: I started listening to it at the beginning, and the next thing I knew, song three was fading out. Needless to say, I couldn't remember anything I had heard between those two moments--but when I actually forced myself to listen more closely, I discovered a handful of relatively catchy songs, including "Shine On," "Big Bird" and "Information," which, shockingly enough, features a distorted guitar (albeit one relegated to the background). Actually listening to the lyrics is, as usual, a big risk, and of course, the Sting factor remains very much in play. But since I'm told Samples' fans don't listen to reviewers, it hardly matters, does it? So go ahead and buy it over my objections--I dare you. You'd be better off, however, picking up a copy of With a Fist, a solo album (on What Are Records?) by Samples drummer Jeep MacNichol. The album as a whole has a rougher, more intriguing percussion sound than the Samples generally allow, as well as a sense of spontaneity that benefits the relatively raucous "Thursday Syndrome" and "Monkey Named John," the moody "Braindead" and Jeep's own version of "Big Bird." The words here are a bit problematic, too--steer clear of "Horsetripper Die"--but in the main, this is a pretty entertaining package. Science Fiction, by Hazard, an act featuring Samples bassist Andy Sheldon, is considerably less effective, but at least its CD (also on W.A.R.?) is notably weird. "Hunter Safety Course" features a vocal misshapen by tape-speed tricks, "Mr. Nite Train" recalls the kind of stuff that appeared on mid-Seventies Rush records, and the otherwise dull "When the Humans Are Gone" kicks off with a simulated nuclear blast that echoes for just over a minute. What a way to go (all three CDs available in area record stores).

Mah Tovu, whose first CD is called Only This, claims to make "Jewish Rock 'n Roll," but that's not quite accurate; "Hillel's Song," for instance, sounds more like Jewish James Taylor. There's novelty value in "Livracha," a pop-reggae track, and the rest of the recording is perfectly pleasant, but acts like the Klezmatics, a recent Westword profile subject, cut deeper with far fewer gimmicks. Oy vey (Mah Tovu, 1218 Columbine Street, Denver 80206). If a proposed deal with Capricorn Records comes to fruition, the self-titled CD by Acoustic Junction will serve as the core of its major-label debut. It's easy to understand why labels like Capricorn have responded to the disc: The songs here fall neatly into the VH1-friendly category occupied by acts such as Hootie and the Blowfish and the Dave Matthews Band, among many others. Those of you familiar with this genre won't find any surprises: The disc consists of eleven strum-alongs just perfect for stretching out on stage. The most tolerable tracks, from my perspective, are "Never Until Now," "East Side Story" and the appropriately florid "Madame Butterfly." Music directors at Triple-A radio stations will no doubt like far more (available in area record stores).

Timothy P. Irvin is a Denver fixture, thanks to his work with the good-timey bar band Timothy P. and Rural Route 3. His solo showcase, After the War, finds him melding his entertainer's instincts with sentimentality. The title cut, which Irvin performed at the 1993 Memorial Day ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., will hit home with vets (and I don't mean dog doctors). But just plain folks are more apt to enjoy "1-2-3-4," a she-dumped-me tune co-written by Chris Daniels, "Grade A, Gray Day, for the Blues," a jump-blues number featuring the Stock Show Orchestra, and the Dixieland ditty "I'll Be Your Yankee Doodle Dandy," in which Irvin is accompanied by Your Father's Mustache Band. Old-time showbiz lives (available in area record stores). The title of Michael Engberg's latest CD, Songs for Women I Don't See Anymore, can't help but raise expectations: It suggests an updating of "You're So Vain" (or at least, "You Oughta Know"). Instead, the disc features well-played but gentle acoustic guitar instrumentals in which originals share space with a cover of George Gershwin's "Summertime" and pieces of Hayden and Lennon/McCartney. It's nice background music that won't offend those absent objects of Engberg's desire (Many Hats Productions, P.O. Box 150084, Lakewood 80215).

Ron Miles fanatics know that the material that makes up My Cruel Heart, his first release on the Gramavision label, was recorded a couple of years before it saw the light of day. But that doesn't mean these songs feel in the slightest way dated. "Finger Palace" kicks off the album in a challenging manner as a result of its syncopated, segmented structure and Miles's subtle, laconic playing; it's followed by the suitably mournful "Howard Beach," the intricate "Erase Yourself," the complex, multifaceted title track and six other works that mark Miles as a full-grown talent. (Also worthy of note are the contributions of a who's who of Denver jazz, including Artie Moore, Rudy Royston, Fred Hess and Eric Moon.) Miles's upcoming recording project with guitarist Bill Frisell holds tremendous promise, but it's clear from My Cruel Heart that the trumpeter doesn't need to be propped up by superstar pals. He can more than hold his own (available in area record stores.) Dave Dickson is a less polished performer than Miles, but he's on to something diverting with his latest demo tape, titled Martian Lounge Music. The most obvious influences coloring numbers such as "Martian Face," "Stardust" and "Sleepless" are sci-fi sounds from the Sixties, but he presents these elements in a manner that merges kitsch and ambient music into a modest but charming whole. Tongue-in-cheek and genuine at precisely the same time (765-5598).

On Kickin' Back, singer-songwriter Rick Smith covers a lot of ground: It's ostensibly a country record, but some songs feel more folk than C&W, and the presence of instruments like a bouzouki (on "Galway Train"), a didgeridoo (on "Goyahkla") and a muted trumpet (on "Isn't It Like the Moonlight") stand in the way of pigeonholing. Smith is most effective on light numbers such as "Find the Fiddler" and "She Doesn't Look as Good This Morning (As She Did Last Night)." Unfortunately, he has a maudlin streak--"Mitten in the Snow" made me think of Harry Chapin, something I don't ever want to do again--but "Loraine" proves that his ambitious stuff can sometimes work, too. A mixed bag, but a fairly interesting one (Kick Some Pigs Recording, 825-0195). Mary Flower is a more consistent performer, and on Rosewood & Steel, she proves it anew. Her version of the blues isn't going to earn the "gutbucket" descriptor; she's a Caucasian gal, and she sounds like it. But she can write a good song (witness "Your Baby Gave You Nuthin' but the Blues") and she's got great taste in covers; I especially liked her take on Skip James's "Cypress Grove Blues." The supporting cast ain't too bad, either: Among those making appearances are Spencer Bohren, Amos Garrett, Paul Geremia, Steve James and John Magnie. Impressive (Bluesette Records, P.O. Box 102222, Denver 80250-2222).

Those of you who figured you'd never have a chance to hear a song by the Hate Fuck Trio on national television are wrong. On Sunday, October 27, at 11:35 p.m., on KMGH-TV/ Channel 7, the Trio's "Bottle Up" can be heard on Dangerous Minds, an ABC-TV spinoff from the Michelle Pfeiffer film that stars Annie Potts. According to the band's Jon DeStefano, "It's playing in the background of a scene where some kid loses it. I don't know why he loses it, but he does." The group won't receive a credit for its contribution to high culture, but that's probably just as well, since network censors would certainly have objected to any spelling of its name that didn't include asterisks. But at least the Trio's moniker will be front and center on its debut full-length, financed by Seattle's Shaky Records; it's called You Know, for Kids (a reference to the Coen Brothers movie The Hudsucker Proxy), and it's due to be issued just before Christmas. (A release party at the Bluebird Theater has been tentatively scheduled for December 21.) In the meantime, DeStefano plans to enjoy the $1,200 the act was paid for the use of its song. "That's the best part of it," he says. "We really needed the money."

For years with Babihed and his current band, New Country Boy, Jim Foltmer would announce from the stage, "The more you drink, the better the show." It's a gag line he now regrets. "I'd been having some intestinal problems," he reveals, "and after some pretty unpleasant tests, the doctor said to me, 'If you don't stop drinking, you'll be dead in ten years.' So I'd like to tell everybody that drinking in moderation is okay, but do it too much and you might end up like me." Foltmer's first sober gig is Sunday, October 27, at the Ogden Theatre; buy him a seltzer and wish him luck.

Changes in the Heart, the new CD from Denver singer-songwriter Richard Dean, includes a lot of familiar names on its liner notes: Tim O'Brien, Mollie O'Brien, Celeste Krenz, Bob Tyler, Randy Handley and special guest slide-guitarist Sonny Landreth. Krenz will be present for the disc's album-release party, Friday, October 25, at the Swallow Hill Music Hall. The Celtic band Solas is also appearing in concert on Friday, but not at the Bluebird, as advertised; the show has been moved to Cameron Church, 1600 South Pearl Street, at 8 p.m. Please don't get your Irish up, all right?

No blarney. On Friday, October 25, Sugar Bear gets sweet at Brendan's, and Michael Hedges plays for the first of two nights at the Boulder Theater. On Sunday, October 27, Joe Christ makes his triumphant return to the Lion's Lair. On Monday, October 28, the Roots, supporting a first-rate new album, illadelph halflife, sink into Club Mecca. And on Tuesday, October 29, Steve Wynn, of Dream Syndicate fame, drops by the Mercury Cafe, and the Bluebird is the place to find Michelle Shocked. Do your best to calm her down.

--Michael Roberts

Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@ westword.comMichael_Roberts@

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