Monday, May 29, 2006
‘A Night for Dancin’ and Singin’’: Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band, Live Near D.C., 5.28.06
Bruce Springsteen’s fifties have been very, very good to him.
Approaching his 57th birthday this fall, consider the wide range of work he’s produced just since the turn of the millennium. First came 2002’s “The Rising,” a stirring meditation on Sept. 11, backed by his beloved E Street Band for the first time since the Reagan era. Next up: 2005’s “Devils and Dust,” a solo album that proves a satisfying—and, in points, fantastic—deviation into Springsteen’s solo work.
And now, seemingly out of thin air, arrives “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” a thrilling tribute to folk troubadour Pete Seeger that Springsteen recorded in just a few weeks from the living room of his New Jersey farmhouse with a motley bunch of 16 other musicians. He may not have written any of these songs, but from the opening moments of “Old Dan Tucker,” that unmistakable growl and howl make them Springsteen’s own. A welcome ramshackle change of pace from one of the most obsessive artists in rock and roll, "Seeger Sessions" is exhilarating for both musician and listener, a tremendous accomplishment for a guy who, we thought, had seen and done it all. And if you think this wasn't a risk, you're dead wrong. You know all those "BRUUUUCE" heads at regular shows clamoring for "Rosalita"? Well, a lot of them aren't even showing up this time around (not that that's a bad thing).
So touring off his first album of pure covers, the man they call The Boss is in the midst of an artistic renaissance—and, somehow, out to prove himself all over again. Never was that more apparent than Sunday night in Bristow, Virginia, when Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band (now expanded to TWENTY!), stormed the stage at Nissan Pavilion for an all-out hootenanny. I’ve seen a show from each of these three albums, and this one is without question my favorite of the bunch—come to think of it, this was the most pure, unadulterated fun I’ve EVER had at a concert.
You can say the words “20-piece band” and just gloss right over exactly what that means, because nothing quite prepares you to actually see that many people up on stage with Bruce Springsteen. And he knows it, too. Throughout the night, the lights would go down after every song, spotlight on whichever player was taking the lead to start the next one, and then the lights came up—WHAM!—when the full band kicked in—it’s a breathtaking sight (and sound) just about every time. I know this is folk music, but it’s folk music through the filter of one of America’s greatest rock and rollers, so these songs, too, absolutely rock in their own way.
There’s so much going on up there it’s hard to take it all in. Springsteen, for one, is juking and jiving like a man half his age—dripping and flinging sweat, he literally never stops moving and spends seemingly as much time away from the mic as he does hollering into it, alternately directing his band on the fly and just dancing around having a good ol’ time.
Sunday night, he opened the show with the stellar one-two punch of “O Mary Don’t You Weep” and “John Henry,” which effectively established a party atmosphere for the entire show; when Springsteen and seven other string players walk up to the front of the stage as a group and just wail away, you can’t help but smile and boogie. This would prove an excellent tactic throughout the night, always a crowd-pleaser. My particular favorite came during “Jesse James,” when Springsteen called the horn section down front from their riser in the back, letting the trumpet, trombone, sax, and tuba get their due.
To fill out a 21-song set that is now stretching toward the three-hour mark, Springsteen has reworked some of his own material and sprinkled them throughout the show. The only one even remotely recognizable is “If I Should Fall Behind,” the quintessential love song that allows Springsteen to share a microphone with wife and fellow luminous E Streeter Patti Scialfa. The rest, though, are like entirely new songs, especially “Open All Night” from 1982’s “Nebraska,” which Springsteen has transformed into an uptempo scat-fest boogie-woogie, spitting the lines out so fast he lost track of himself Sunday and had to stop and catch up with the band a few bars later. In the encore, “Ramrod” and “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” turn the Seeger Sessions Band into a ragtime group straight out of New Orleans—and it’s blow-your-hair-back fantastic.
Speaking of NOLA, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina came up at several points during the show, from the rather tepid reading of “We Shall Overcome” (the only boring song of the night) to “My Oklahoma Home” and “When the Saints Come Marching In,” the latter a remarkable take on a classic spiritual, allowing Springsteen’s surprisingly still-full voice to shine through in a quiet musical moment.
Springsteen was also mercifully mute politically, a surprise given the relatively close vicinity to the White House. Thankfully, he allowed the songs to speak for him, which is all I ever ask of musicians in the first place. The Irish folk lament “Mrs. McGrath” was an elegiac highlight of the night, and probably my favorite track on the album, too, despite Springsteen’s altering a line to slam President Bush (at this point, I can’t stand Bush any more than the Democrats, so who cares?). He’s also started adding Seeger’s Vietnam protest song “Bring Them Home (If You Love Your Uncle Sam)” as the encore opener. Again, no speechifying—just a simple comment that this is a song in honor of Memorial Day.
Political moments are just a small part of the show, though, because the Seeger Sessions Band is all about a rollicking great time. “Pay Me My Money Down” perhaps best summarized the vibe of the entire night, as Springsteen and the band wander offstage leaving only drums, tuba, and a crowd that sang the chorus all the way through the break until Springsteen came back onstage to shut us up (I’ve never been a part of something like that before).
Originally, Springsteen was only going to tour a limited number of shows with his new mates, but over in Europe he promised to see them again in the fall. After taking in this show, it’s not hard to see why he wants to keep going—he looks like he’s having an absolute ball up there. Even his song intros are hilarious (for “Jesse James”: “Most of this is bullshit, but it’s accepted bullshit”; on marriage advice prior to “Fall Behind”: “If Mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy”; before “Erie Canal”: “The only love song written for a mule”). And, the best part is, with such a dynamic frontman shimmying and cavorting all over the stage, the fun is infectious. Although he had to urge a few “Virginia asses to get off those Virginia seats,” those of us down in the pit needed no encouragement. By the end of the night, my feet hurt from stompin’, my hands hurt from clappin’, my throat hurt from hollerin’, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
The record is great. The show is inspired. What can he possibly do to top this?
Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band
Nissan Pavilion, Bristow, Va.
O Mary Don’t You Weep
Old Dan Tucker
Eyes on the Prize
If I Should Fall Behind
My Oklahoma Home
How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?
We Shall Overcome
Open All Night
Pay Me My Money Down
Bring Them Home (If You Love Your Uncle Sam)
You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
When the Saints Come Marching In
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes