HEAD UP I-95 THROUGH CONNECTICUT, pass through the I-95/I-91 linkup and on out of New Haven toward Hartford, and the clustered cityscape and small suburban sprawl slip away after a few minutes. By the exit for Wallingford, about halfway between those two ethnically divided and economically blighted urban centers, the landscape is almost pastoral: open fields dotted with lakes and rimmed with hills, darkness deepening under a rising moon. On September 18,1996, I'm driving that way, for the second show on the second leg of Bruce Springsteen's acoustic tour—a tour that, by year's end, will land in 33 cities around the Northeast, Midwest, and South.
For this swing behind The Ghost of Tom Joad, his thirteenth album, Springsteen is packing a 6- and a 12-string guitar and a box full of harmonicas and neck racks. He's been at it on and off since the disc's release the preceding November, hitting 20 US cities, swinging over to Europe for 35 dates, taking a break for summer, then back on the road, where he's been hustling for 30 years now.
I turn off I-91, part of a small line of cars snaking through the hilly plain, past open fields and a sudden construction-equipment-clogged acre, looking for the Oakdale Theatre. After curves and climbing appears first a spreading parking lot, then a complex. Until recently, the Oakdale Theatre was a supper club, home to tired acts like Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. Now it's a 5,000-seat venue with clean sightlines and good sound, with a 150-degree seating plan on a gentle grade with tight mezzanines that make it feel half its size. It splits its bookings between rockers avoiding hockey rinks and ballparks, and subscription deals like “Family Broadway,” which includes Grease and Hello, Dolly. Like politicians and everybody else in show biz, its owners are trying to cobble together several audiences, chasing the vanishing masses in the age of fragmentation.
The venue is as welcoming and intimate as a mini-arena can get. Still, several folks, from the New Haven Register's Entertainment Editor to a local cop, run variations on a theme for me: “They've sunk an awful lot