Friday, June 23, 2006

Hoedown at the Garden

My lifetime total of Bruce Springsteen concerts has now reached that embarrassing level: I can't remember how many I've seen. Despite being born in 1976, a year after his seminal Born To Run album came out, I've seen him more than a dozen times, all within the past seven years.

Out of all of those shows, many were repeat performances on the same tour. I can break them down into five categories:
  • With the E Street Band in an arena
  • With the E Street Band in a stadium
  • Solo
  • Solo at a benefit concert
  • With the Seeger Sessions Band

I could do without the solo show we saw last October. It was nice to see, and we got some unique performances, but overall, it's not the same, at least not at an arena. Had he done those kinds of shows in small theaters, it would've been more intimate and enjoyable.

With the Seeger Sessions Band, however, I knew that would be a show I had to see. From the moment I first heard "Pay Me My Money Down" and felt the communal, sing-along feel of an old folk song, I tried to imagine what such a concert would be like.

What it did was turn Madison Square Garden into the biggest barn in the Northeast with his Thursday night spiritual hoedown folkfest. I can't help but sound like the rabid fan, but the way he treated the songs -- both his own and the rejuvenated standards he covered on the album and in shows since -- gave them a fresh feel and a new sound. He's providing a history lesson in the guise of a concert, digging up old folk songs about faith, trial and hardship and bringing them to a new audience, which, admittedly, is something he said he intended to do in releasing We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.

He played the shit out of each and every song, running through the album, adding a handful of his own compositions (though reworked for his 20-piece jam band), and sprinkled in a few numbers that fit the scene, though he hasn't recorded them ... yet. "O Mary Don't You Weep," "Old Dan Tucker," "Jacob's Ladder," "My Oklahoma Home" and "Pay Me My Money Down" were the big sing-alongs, those that got the crowd to its feet and made the Garden seem much smaller, draftier and smelling of wood and hay, even if it was all in my mind.

But the way he reinvented his own songs, like "Johnny 99," or "Atlantic City," which was seasoned with a country-folk lilt and accented with a chorus of "li li li" at the end, made the show fresh and provided some unexpected treats. At first, I thought "Atlantic City" was forced into the new arrangement, the lyrics about the gambling commission and a rumble on the Boardwalk not fitting in with the nostalgiac folk air of the music, but it picked up as the song went along and wound up with an uplifting finale -- not unlike Jon Pareles' review of the show in The New York Times. Let's face it, when you go to a concert meant to promote an album, you know you're going to hear 75 percent of the songs on that album. It's what the artist chooses to pull out from his or her catalogue that separates that show from others on the tour, or others you've seen before. His treatment of "Open All Night," which became what was best described as a "swinging big-band boogie," and "Ramrod," which was presented as more of a down-home country rocker, showed me just how creative Bruce can be and how much enthusiasm he has for his work.

The show was not without its political undertones, as might be expected. Pete Seeger's music was born of that protest era, and many of the songs served some sort of political purpose in their original incarnations. That Bruce chose to record this album now and that he decided to debut the live band at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival not only made a statement about American government and society today, but also gave a nod to the origins of this music. His words Thursday night about the current administration and its policies were brief, confined to the introductions to a handful of songs, but the lyrics that followed hammered the message home.

The most inspiring and heart-wrenching songs were those with the deepest messages: "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" "Bring Them Home" and "My City of Ruins." But the way those songs resonated with the audience, the way we sat and listened closely to the painful lyrics, the way we joined in as one on the refrain, "Bring 'em home, bring 'em home," brought those words home in a way I hadn't realized before. Just as the 9/11 attacks faded from memory for those who weren't so closely affected by them, New Orleans no longer creeps into our minds unless we're near there or experienced some part of the Katrina aftermath firsthand. But "How Can a Poor Man" and "My City of Ruins" brought it back to the forefront, and had me grinding my teeth and wondering anew how a person in a position of such power as the president can be so oblivious, incompetent or just plain selfish and arrogant -- whatever the case may be.

On the album, the title track was uninspiring to me. I found "We Shall Overcome" to be droning and flat -- nearly a lament -- compared to the rolicking tunes that precede it. In concert, though, it pulses with more verve and meaning. It's an uplifting tune of hope and perseverance, rather than a monotonous dirge. As we sang along with the chorus, I felt what Bruce must've felt to inspire him to record these songs and then take them on the road. The swelling in my chest was, I could only assume, the feeling of hope and optimism that we can get through these troubled times and emerge the better for it.

Perhaps that is just what Pete Seeger felt to inspire him on the path he took with his career. His music made a difference, and I think that's what Bruce Springsteen is trying to do at this point in his life. He's reached -- and, truly, he reached it long ago -- a place where he can do as he pleases, experiment with themes or styles and not jeopardize his standing among his fans. I suppose some of this comes from being a father and watching his children grow up. He sees the world they're going to have bigger roles in and he doesn't like what they will inherit. It's a grave concern, a legitimate one, and a worry we should all be contemplating.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Put me in, coach

I finished a bag of seven-state Doritos the other night.

What are seven-state Doritos, you ask? They're regular Doritos, bought in Boulder, Colorado, taken via convertible from Colorado through Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and Nebraska, then on a flight back to New Jersey and then across the river into New York, where they are finished.

I still have a little more than a bag's worth of seven-state sunflower seeds. I ate quite a few yesterday, when I went down to Jersey City to play baseball with some guys from work. It's really just batting practice -- one guy pitches, another hits, and the remaining guys spread out in the outfield and catch the hit balls. One will often stand on the edge of the infield, serving as a relay for the balls caught by the outfielders and tossing them back to the mound.

It's great to get out there again in the sunshine, throwing, running, catching, hitting. I've still got a decent swing and made some good contact. The pitches, depending on who's throwing, are slower than slow, often coming in with a decided arc to them, rather than straight, flat fastballs. But I still hit some well, some line drives to left, some high fly balls deep to the outfield. I even turned on some inside pitches in a way I do not remember ever doing successfully, keeping the ball fair.

But then Ray stopped by. A Honda pulled up and out stepped a big kid. Like six feet tall, maybe 200 pounds. And in shape. Good muscles, long orange hair hanging out from under a bandana like a bushel. He looked good in the field, picking up grounders like a player does during practice. I figured he played, and one of the guys who talked to him before I did confirmed that he'd just finished his high school season.

And then he hit. This dude hit hard. With a swing from the right side like that of Manny Ramirez, he made solid contact on balls that sailed over our heads in left field. We moved back, and then back some more, far beyond the yellow pole in the left-field corner that marked the fari/foul line. If a fence has extended from that pole in an arc around the field, we would've been 50 feet beyond it, catching nothing but home runs. Left field on our field backed up to right field on an adjacent one, and at one point, those of us playing deep left field could have turned around to play a deep second base on the diamond behind us.

The best part about this good-natured kid with the sweet swing and the power in his arms? His e-mail handle: unstoppablebeast13.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Uploading madness

Yesterday -- or maybe Monday -- in either case, in the past couple of days, I finally managed to complete the uploading of most of the vacation photos to Flickr. You wouldn't want them all; there are 532 as it is. But it's a hobby, and it's my online album, so there.

I've had a couple of skewy shifts at work the past couple of days, and by the end of yesterday's, I was exhausted. I slept until 11:30 this morning, a good 10 1/2 hours, and have yet to shower. My plan is to take the 7 p.m. bus into the city for work, and to use every possible moment before then to chill and relax.

And herein lies the beauty of not feeling beholden to a long, elaborate entry: I'm done.

Friday, June 02, 2006

A fresh start

In his second-most-famous road book, John Steinbeck wrote:

When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from Here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going. This to the practical bum is not difficult. He has a built-in garden of reasons to choose from. Next he must plan his trip in time and space, choose a direction and a destination. And last he must implement the journey. How to go, what to take, how long to stay. This part of the process is invariable and immortal. I set it down only so that newcomers to bumdom, like teen-agers in new-hatched sin, will not think they invented it.

Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has a personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it. I feel better now, having said this, although only those who have experienced it will understand it.

Somehow, as my former college roommate, Bryan, and I planned a weeklong road trip through the Rockies and the high plains and Big Sky Country of Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, we did so at just the right time. The wanderlust hit me about a week before the trip, and at least once each day on the journey, I thought to myself, "This is just what I needed."

Though my travels were with a peer, in both age and species, our trip contained a little bit of the flavor of two of my favorite road books, Steinbeck's Travels with Charley and William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways. We set out with a firm starting and ending point in Denver and had a rough outline of where we wanted to go and what we wanted to see, but we didn't hold ourselves to any particular timeframe or destination, other than a mid-trip, two-night stay in Jackson, Wyoming, to allow us to see Yellowstone National Park.

Steinbeck also wrote, "Again, it might have been the American tendency to travel. One goes, not so much to see, but to tell afterward." As much as I relished exploring new states and cruising down two-lane state highways through hills, mountains and rangelands, I thought of how I'd remember it and how I'd describe it to my wife and family when I got home. Bryan and I are perfect travel companions, having taken at least a half-dozen trips together during college and in the eight years since, but I often found myself thinking of towns or parks that Casey or Dave or my parents might like. For now, pictures and words will have to suffice, but if they ever want to see for themselves and would like me to join them, I won't hesitate to accept.

At the moment, the travelogue is still a work in progress. Sections were completed en route, but the final few days remain solely in my memory. Hundreds of photographs exist, too, with about half of them already installed in an online album. Once those two projects are completed, they'll be submitted here.

This seems as good a time as any to start fresh with a new blog, the way one might crack open a new leather-bound journal in those not-so-long-gone days before we called our diaries weblogs. I turn 30 three months from today, and I see my life in a different light than I did five-and-a-half years ago, when I first searched Yahoo! for a website that might let me write and post my thoughts for free. As you might when you feel you've outgrown your blue-paged, spiral-bound journal, I sensed a change was needed, a more streamlined, minimalist look was I wanted. So here I am.

Exit 109 is where I'm from. It's the Garden State Parkway interchange for Red Bank, which takes you to my hometown, a place I lived for 25 years, minus the eight semesters spent in South Bend, Indiana, for secondary educational purposes. In New Jersey parlance, I'd now have to call myself an 18E-er, a B.E.N.N.Y., a denizen of Bergen County (rather than Essex County, the city of Newark or New York) who enjoys summer day-trips to the Shore. It's not a term of endearment, but a derrogatory term used from a Shore-dweller's perspective, and I use it in tongue-in-cheek fashion. I'll never be a true B.E.N.N.Y. as long as I have family near the beach, and even after that is no longer the connection, my roots remain there, and I can't see the day I'll truly consider myself as being from North Jersey. I'll live here, but I'm not from here. That's not out of shame or embarrassment or a desire to disassociate myself with New Jersey's north; it's more a reflection of who I am and where my comfort level lies. It's no different from a New Yorker who moves to Miami and still calls himself a New Yorker or a Bostonian who relocates to Los Angeles yet still sees herself as a New Englander, first and foremost.

It's cooler today and more overcast than it was yesterday, when I experienced my first terribly hot and humid day of the year. It's a good day for a new beginning.