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.

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