Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Springsteen continues to amaze

Last night, June 5th. A beautiful and only slightly chilly Monday night at the legendary Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.

Performing with the 17-member Seeger Sessions Band before a sold-out crowd, Bruce Springsteen did what I've seen him do countless times since the early 1980s. He lit a sonic fire, and the crowd responded. Anyone (myself included) who has come to believe folk music is largely about a solo artist or few artists playing a couple of acoustic instruments such as guitars and mandolins was likely shocked at the power of the folk-estra witnessed last night. Stretching folk and Americana in ways hardly imagined, vocal harmonies, sing-alongs with the audience, tinges of gospel, Dixie jazz, bluegrass and Delta blues and more were mixed in ways authentic and natural.

Whether singing American standards, or his own classics, Springsteen was truly a man on a mission. There was an anti-war thread to his between-song speak, but the music bounced artfully back and forth between strong spiritual-styled material ("O Mary Don't You Weep," "We Shall Overcome") and the upbeat, celebrative songs that got most concertgoers to their feet ("My Oklahoma Home," the night-ending "When the Saints Go Marching In"). The players in his band were amazing, truly. The horn section was a thrill and there was an energy equal, while different from his beloved E Street Band.

This was a show that ranks with the other seminal tours where I caught the Boss, ranking from the River tour to Born in the U.S.A. and the powerful Rising dates, post 9/11.

Here (as posted today in the Orange County Register) was his set list:
John Henry
O Mary Don't You Weep
Johnny 99
Old Dan Tucker
Eyes on the Prize
Jesse James
Atlantic City
Erie Canal
My Oklahoma Home
If I Should Fall Behind
Mrs. McGrath
How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?
Jacob's Ladder
We Shall Overcome
Open All Night
Pay Me My Money Down
Bring Them Home
You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
When the Saints Go Marching In

1 comment:

Robert Kinsler said...

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Meet the old boss
Review: Springsteen's breathtaking Greek debut finds him achieving a new peak in Americana revivalism.

The Orange County Register

Hyperbole comes quick and easy when discussing Bruce Springsteen. It's a fool's trap, of course: Monday night's tremendous performance with his momentary Seeger Sessions Band was just another show on just another tour.

So catch me as I fall into a pit of shameless adulation, for I've never seen anything quite like what I witnessed when the Boss of Brotherly Love's Traveling Salvation Show filled the stage at the sold-out Greek Theatre, marking his debut at the legendary venue.

Heck, I'd go so far as to say that Springsteen has taken something very old – folk music in its purest but also broadest sense – and turned it into a sprawling, free-wheeling, resoundingly profound hootenanny unlike most anyone has seen since these things went out of fashion in the '60s.

You could say Springsteen's entire career has been leading to something like this. "Something like what?" however, is difficult to answer. He himself doesn't have a satisfactory description. Introducing "Ramrod" – one of a half-dozen remarkably restructured originals that peppered a set otherwise devoted to his album "We Shall Overcome" – Springsteen dubbed his new version a combination of "Tex-Mex, ska-polka and punk-funk."

Punk, maybe not. Funk, definitely, though there wasn't nearly as much funkiness as came through in the Prince-ly guitar riff and Stax/Volt groove (replete with ahhh-oop-oop backing bits) that he applied to radical rearrangements of "Johnny 99" and "Atlantic City," the most immediate songs off 1982's forbidding folk opus "Nebraska."

To that list of musical strains, you could add Cajun gumbo, Irish lilt both dark (the moving antiwar ballad "Mrs. McGrath") and waltzingly lovely (as in a reworking of "If I Should Fall Behind"), Texas swing, blues, bluegrass, loads of gospel and tons of ragtime and New Orleans Dixie jazz.

That's a far larger stew than Pete Seeger ever concocted, but Seeger's spectre hasn't been raised by this project to be cloned. His presence is felt in the spirit of these revisionist proceedings – the historical song selections, for instance, and the atmosphere of political protest that Seeger carried forth after Woody Guthrie.

Statements abounded, as you might have expected. Some were directed locally, as when Springsteen briefly drew attention to the plight of Los Angeles' South Central Farmers. Others were more philosophical: Leading into the uplift of "Jacob's Ladder," he warned the modern, contented crowd, "Ain't no carpool to heaven. Ain't no backstage pass to heaven. We're all climbing Jacob's ladder rung by rung" – placing an even greater emphasis on the final line of its chorus, "We are brothers, sisters all."

But Springsteen aimed his most pointed commentary at two targets: the war and the destruction and botched recovery of New Orleans, where this velvet-and-chandelier-draped Seeger Sessions attraction premiered a month ago at the annual Jazz & Heritage festival.

"If you're a musician, it's pretty sacred ground," he said of the Crescent City, while recalling the sight of its citizens "torn from their homes, sent off to make their way. You never think you're gonna see something like that. But we have.

"It'll take such a long time and so much national attention for (people there) to get back on their feet. Check your short attention spans on that one."

He dedicated the next song – the Depression-era "How Can a Poor Man Stand in Such Times and Live?," given an authoritative Band-like treatment – to President Bush, or "President Bystander," as he called him in New Orleans. Elsewhere he has used "My City of Ruins" to kick off encores, but here he tackled the war head-on in another dusted-off folk staple, "Bring Them Home." "If you love this land of the free," he sang, "bring 'em home, bring 'em home / Bring 'em back from overseas."

Those were the most overt moments in a charged performance that otherwise let music do the talking. Whereas Neil Young has been dutifully hitting people over the head with his latest treatise and Paul Simon has remained esoteric about his feelings, Springsteen has (once again) said it best – with conscientious patriotism, subtlety, beauty, humanity and the depth that comes from exploring roots of at least half of this country's two centuries of popular music.

Faced with these times, well, "What can a poor boy do but play in a ragtime band?" he joked at one point – and what a band it is. There are 17 players in all, and in a show of solidarity Springsteen strides on stage amid them, shrouded in darkness, careful not to steal the show.

Frankly, he rarely does. More so than when he's with the E Street Band (from which pianist Roy Bittan showed up for the finale, as Nils Lofgren had two nights before in Phoenix), Springsteen here seemed like one more old-timey player who had simply been voted leader because, well, he's got that voice.

On any given number, his quartet of horns (tuba, trumpet, tenor sax and, on trombone, Richie "La Bamba" Rosenberg of the Max Weinberg 7) would easily steal his thunder with infectious cacophony. Likewise, whenever guitarist Marc Anthony Thompson (who records as Chocolate Genius) filled Little Steven's shoes, the audience was duly rapt, taken with the soulful power of his voice on a verse of "Eyes on the Prize" and the counterpart he brought to an elegiac, show-closing rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In."

These are "songs you start out not being able to hear," Springsteen explained. "They've become so much a part of the landscape, you drive right past 'em." So much so that he mistakenly assumed, even on an anthem such as "We Shall Overcome," that a typically staid L.A. crowd would remember the melodies and words without prompting. More than once he chided the star-studded assemblage for its timidity (though Tom Hanks, in the third row, was fully animated and wailing).

Indeed, the audience's reaction was sad at first, for though fans seemed rightly astonished at the breathtaking sound, they didn't seem to feel the celebratory spirit that must have skaken people in New Orleans to their foundations. Eventually, by the time of "My Oklahoma Home," the crowd responded – and got on its feet for good, dancing exultantly as it should have from the get-go.

Clearly that's part of Springsteen's intention: fun. He's never had so much in years. And he's never connected the dots of both his own music and that of generations before him so superbly. All along he's been about revivalism; preacher-man shtick has been part of his persona since '75. But his take-'em-to-church approach intensified after 9/11 (obviously) and has been deepening ever since.

Now, he's hit upon something that unfurls like an American tapestry. I'd say it was the peak of his role as a synthesist of heritage music, as he's always been. But, more creatively restless and passionate and vision-filled at 56 than he was at 36, there's no telling what he'll conjure next.