Concert Review: Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band, PNC Bank Arts Center, June 25, 2006
The recent release of Springsteen’s “We Shall Overcome,” a CD of souped-up old folk songs, might seem counter-intuitive for a big rock star, especially a rock star who commands an audience that has a very specific view of his iconic status. The engagingly ragtag aspect of the recording is in stark contrast to the meticulous nature of Springsteen’s other productions and the grand rock conceits of his epic concerts. Seeing Springsteen on the tour to support the new CD undertake what was in effect a huge Evangelical-like Revivalist Tent Service replete with invocations to the Lord and to personal conscience was not something that one would have expected at one of his summer concerts.
“The Seeger Sessions” project is something that has permitted Springsteen to expand his sonic palette in ways that are completely amazing at this point in his career. Marching out to the stage of the Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey, a mere stone’s throw away from the fabled Asbury Park of Springsteen lore and legend, to the dulcet strains of Alison Krauss’s acapella version of “Down to the River to Pray” indicated that this night would be different from all other nights. And in my own personal experience, recalling first seeing Springsteen nearly 30 years ago when “Born to Run” was his latest album and last seeing him a few years later on the release of “The River,” tonight was a way for me to reconnect with an artist who was once a major presence in my life but who, in the intervening years, had become too much of a rock star for a lowly person like me. The Springsteen cult is quite fierce and tickets to his concerts, especially those with the E Street Band, the band of musicians that have provided the most significant complement to the Springsteen experience, are usually quite hard to come by. So it was natural that my love of Springsteen, which was originally due to the fact that, in 1975, he was a relatively unknown artistic genius, subsided due to the fact that I was just shut out by the hordes and by the subsequent homogenization and sterilization of his oeuvre.
But tonight I was able to sit in a decent seat in a relatively small amphitheater - small compared to the mammoth football stadiums that normally house Springsteen’s summer concerts - and be treated to a Springsteen that moved closer to where I am now in a cultural sense. Springsteen has fiercely embraced history and tradition in a way that never loses his passion and commitment to truth, forthrightness and integrity. This embrace brought to the stage a group of 20 musicians and singers with nary an electric instrument to be found among them. Opening with a new composition that is being debuted on the tour, “American Land,” the group sounded as unlike the E Street Band as you could imagine. In fact, the group came on more like the Irish punk legends The Pogues with echoes of barroom fights in Blarney and sea chanteys sung by men with lagers in hand.
Here we saw the beauty of what Springsteen has been able to accomplish since he first began this startling project: The sharp lyrics to “American Land” were filled with echoes of the current state of political affairs in this country that were filtered through the roots-folk idiom. Having participated in the “Rock for Change” concerts to support John Kerry back a couple of years ago, Springsteen, who once kept out of the political arena, has become a fierce critic of the president and many of his policies. Mention was made during the concert of the president’s “unfortunate” trip to New Orleans and the show was replete with images of death and destruction that brought to mind a pointed critique of the militarized corporatism of the current Bush administration and the rebellious attitudes that Springsteen has adopted in its wake.
So this juggernaut of a band, itself reflecting the great diversity of gender and ethnicity of America, lurched into a rough and tumble Irish punk jig that as the evening went on continued to expand its range to include Dixieland jazz, Norteno Tex-Mex South-of-the-Border Hispanicisms, Texas-styled Western Swing, plaintive Gospel colorations all filtered through a massive propulsion of Big Band sound that brought together Johnny Cash, Louis Armstrong, The Chieftains, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Glenn Miller and Bob Wills into some sort of electric hootenanny. When he stuck to the script, utilizing the old folk songs, Springsteen remained on mark. But a couple of miscues - a waltz of “If I Should Fall Behind,” a staid version of the prosaic “Devils and Dust” and a relatively anemic “Atlantic City” - showed that not all of Springsteen’s songs could stand the “Seeger” treatment.
But the number of additions to the “We Shall Overcome” catalog of classic folk traditional material did in fact work: “Long Time Comin’” from the recent bland effort “Devils and Dust” sparkled and rocked while a pair of cuts from “The River” - “Ramrod” and “You Can Look But You Better Not Touch” - jump-started the encore and added to the sheer fun and wild abandon of the concert. The first song of the encore, a chilling version of “The Rising”‘s “My City in Ruins” recontextualized that song to reflect the changes in American society since the days after 9/11 when the country was united; the song, like so many this evening, was a not-so-thinly-veiled attack on George W. Bush and his inept leadership of the country in the wake of that tragedy.
But ultimately the show was anchored by the richly nuanced songs that appear on the new CD: The emotional centerpiece of the concert was a spirited Irish sea chantey “Mrs. McGrath” whose lyrics spoke of the pain of a mother who sees her sun return from war having lost his two legs. The implicit anti-war message was clear for all to see. And here a word about the Springsteen audience is perhaps in order. Having been away from his shows since the early 1980s, it was shocking to me to see how old and staid the audience was. Many of those in attendance looked more like a Frank Sinatra crowd than a Bruce Springsteen crowd and the sense of wealth and entitlement made me feel that Springsteen’s now more overtly Leftist politics were at odds with the generally upwardly-mobile nature of the genially-establishment crowd who looked like they were attending the US Open in Flushing rather than a radical experiment in folk protest music from an artist whose spirit has never atrophied. I can only wonder what was going through the heads of audience members when Springsteen’s thinly-veiled litany of pain and anger, enrobed in a Church-like hymnal atmosphere, let loose with anti-war and humanistic messages like “We Shall Overcome” which was once the signal song of a movement of social protest that seems as if it happened centuries rather than decades ago.
He played The Band’s “Long Black Veil” as a companion to pieces like “Mrs. McGrath” with its death tones of graves and black veiled widows. The jabs at authority and the establishment that could be found in “Old Dan Tucker” were reinforced in “Jesse James” which promised to champion the downtrodden and those less well off. And with the constant echoes of New Orleans both in Springsteen’s between-songs banter as well as in the fried Dixieland sounds coming from the band the music this night was by no means tame and unengaged. While I am sure that there were those in the audience who would have preferred hearing “Backstreets” or “Thunder Road” for the gazillionth time, these songs explored the vast artistic promise that I first witnessed back in 1977 when I first saw Springsteen. In fact, the appearance of Richie “La Bamba” Rosenberg, now best known as a member of The Max Weinberg 7, the house band for Conan O’Brien, squared the circle for me: In 1977, Springsteen’s E Street Band was augmented with a horn section that lifted his R&B rockers to another place completely. And on this night, working off of a completely different musical template, Springsteen re-energized and lit the fire under his music in the same way.
Amazingly, many in the audience were totally familiar with these new/old songs and boisterously sang along. In a chilling moment that closed the show prior to the encore, the audience resoundingly sang the chorus of “Pay Me My Money Down” long after the band had left the stage, Springsteen quickly returning to “conduct” the singing. Recalling for me the way that Springsteen used to jump into his audiences and be lifted up by the members of the crowd, tonight he let the crowd lift not him, but the Song itself. The relationship between Springsteen and his audience is completely without comparison in our recent musical history and the bond that we saw tonight between the singer, his songs and the audience embracing the artist and his songs was nothing short of astonishing. The Church-like atmosphere redoubled the folk aspect of the music and turned the Arts Center, as I said earlier, into a Religiously-inspired Tent-Revival rather than a simple rock concert.
The performance of “We Shall Overcome” in a concert setting was counter-intuitive for Springsteen: The less he tried to be “BROOCE” the more he was successful in conveying the deep emotion and raw feeling inherent in the project. My feeling was that he had just let loose and unleashed a torrent of feeling that was pent-up deep inside him for a long time while he was trapped in the “BROOCE” persona.
This was music that took a trip through history and worked hard to hammer that history lesson home to the audience. This cultural history lesson was an attempt to revisit the experience of what it means to be human in ways that did not trod the beaten path. A revisiting of the historical is often a place where we can look at who we are in ways that can often startle us. Going back to speak of the trauma of the Oklahoma Dustbowl and the shocking newness of the Erie Canal could be a tumultuous experience that served up history within a spiritual and emotional context that was never less than real and bracing. Doing so while recounting the traditions of the Negro Spiritual in works like “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Mary Don’t You Weep” brought to the audience a brilliant lesson in what it meant to be an American. In belting out “How Can a Poor Man Stand These Times and Live?” he was giving voice to the voiceless and setting out a vision of community that was infinitely richer and more affecting than even his own great masterpiece “Born to Run” which looked to sing the song of the working man so many years ago. But this was a different Springsteen; a Springsteen whose maturity and compassionate spirit had reached new and inspirational heights.
Without the sickening faux-patriotism of the Flag-Waving and fake populist-mongering of the nihilistic Karl Rove, Bruce Springsteen and his band of brilliant American musicians plucked guitars, banjos, upright basses and fiddles and blew trombones, trumpets and tubas to tell the eternally-relevant and timely stories of people in trouble, struggle and pain looking for ways to bring healing and resolution to the age-old problems of humanity and point a resolute finger at those who have caused that suffering in order to selfishly enrich themselves; a matter that has not been ameliorated but exacerbated in our contemporary political culture - something that Springsteen was at pains to point out in his fiery pronouncements from his pulpit.
With “The Seeger Sessions” Bruce Springsteen has not only rekindled his own muse and its passionate articulation of American Humanism, but he has provided for us a way to see ourselves in a time of corroded culture through the prism of the past and the ways in which the past can teach us how to better understand who we are today and how to see through the transparently corrupt and venal modes of behavior, uncaring and selfish, that permeate contemporary society. When he closed off this epic show, nearly three hours in length, he amazed the audience that had remained - many of the Vegas-types were hitting the exits some time earlier - by audaciously and sincerely performing “The Man on the Flying Trapeze” which he marked as a model for what it is that he was trying to do: Springsteen as that Man on the Trapeze - up there on the High Wire singing “When the Saints Go Marching In” and transporting his audience to a different time and a different place in order to better understand their own time and their own place.