Me & the Boss

Or, On Not Being a Bruce Springsteen Fan.

Such a subtitle will be greeted as sacrilege by a subset of my old grad school pals, or would be if they were still reading here, as their adolescences were entirely framed by his music. My adolescence moved between classic rock of a much more southern-fried variety and effortless mainstream pop, before finally veering off in a more new wavish direction. What Springsteen I knew was what got played on the radio which, in pre-Clear Channel Louisiana, wasn’t terribly much, and what there was always struck me as being overwrought and way too testosterone-dependent.

So I went into Sunday’s concert, the closing set of the first weekend of Jazz Fest, with pretty low expectations. I figured the highlight of the afternoon would be Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello, the dean of New Orleans music and, well, Elvis, performing music from their forthcoming collaboration. What could be better?

See, when I heard Springsteen was playing, I assumed it would be, at least to some extent, the old stuff, the E Street Band stuff, the sort of power-trio-plus stuff, and I figured we’d listen a while and then wander off when it got old.

It didn’t get old.

This was perhaps the most inspired hour and a half of music I’ve ever seen performed. Springsteen’s appearance wasn’t at all the rehash of old favorites I’d expected, but an entirely new venture, the first date in his new tour with the Seeger Sessions Band. I’d been sitting on the ground, waiting between concerts, packed into my tiny, muddy spot of real estate, when the announcer began his intro. And ended it. All he said, in contrast to earlier, effusively descriptive lead-ins, was “Ladies and gentlemen, Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band.” By the time I’d gotten to my feet, the music had begun — and I was stunned to see that there were something on the order of 20 musicians on the stage, all playing acoustic instruments. There were, of course, a couple of backup guitarists and a drummer, but there was also a pianist, a stand-up bass player, a steel pedal guitarist, a five-piece horn section, two violinists, a banjo player, and an accordionist.

Not your average Springsteen concert, I think.

For an hour and a half, the band played an all-out set of Americana, folk and country and gospel-inspired songs, deeply political songs about devastation and hardship and the will to survive, songs that originated in the twentieth century’s many traumas. Most of the songs came from the just-released album, but a couple didn’t, including of course How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?, but also including a few reimagined versions of the older stuff that I thought I was going to hear — so thoroughly reimagined that I didn’t recognize them at all. And while it’s far from an original thought to say that Springsteen is at his best in concert — bringing astonishing energy and joy to his performances, playing on long after the crowd expected that he’d quit — it would be a mistake for me not to note it anyhow. Of all of the concerts I saw over the weekend, each of them worth far more than the ticket price on their own, Springsteen’s was the most amazing, a gift to a city that still hurts, a city that needs its own to come home, but that also needs to know that the rest of the world noticed, and cares.

I would not have expected to find myself, so far from my long-over adolescence, finding Bruce Springsteen relevant, much less rushing out to buy his new album. But here I am.

3 thoughts on “Me & the Boss

  1. bruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuce!

    what does it say about the current state of pop music that the two most passionate responses to current events come from a couple of guys who are pushing sixty, neil young’s recent album about the war in iraq and springsteen’s seeger sessions album?

  2. One of your old grad school friends here. I’m still reading, I just don’t speak up much from the back of the class (as it were). I’m not from the tri-state area, so my adolescence wasn’t framed by Springsteen (or, for many of our grad school friends, by – egad! – the loathesome Billy Joel). I’m from Boston, so for me it was The Cars and early Aerosmith – you know, “Toys in the Attic” Aersomith. And the J. Geils Band, of course, with Peter Wolf and the great Magic Dick on harmonica.

    Anyhoo…Joan and I saw Springsteen in concert following the release of “The Rising,” back before the last election and his campaigning with Kerry. The crowd wanted all of the old favorites (As in “Hey, isn’t that the beginning of “Rosalita?”) but he wasn’t so willing, insisting on playing newer songs. He also offered a LOT of political and social commentary in between songs that Joan and I enjoyed from our lawn seats but led most of our neighbors to boo. It seems that our ideological position was not appreciated by them, as they glared at us a number of times for our cheers to Springsteen’s suggestions that we should question our leaders and that dissent is not inherently unpatriotic.

    Is there some sort of relationship between ideology and one’s feelings about the Springsteen canon? “Nebraska” lovers to the left, “Born in the U.S.A” fans to the right? I have a guess about those who like the “Seeger Sessions”…

  3. I saw the show in NYC and expecting to see Bruce doing what he does best which is acoustic, but instead I got a combination of River Dance and A PBS fundraising special. Which is real funny because tonight wouldn’t you know I flipped on PBS and there was Bruce dancing in step with his 30 piece band.

    I dig Pete Seeger and I dig Woody G. but this was not tribute, it was an indulgence for the big B. What is the world coming to when folk music is a 30 piece band with a brass and string sections.

    Perhaps some people want to see Bruce dance with his new friends but I was expecting to hear Bruce play his guitar and hear him sing. You could not hear his voice over this 6 so call back up singers who don’t understand the concept of backup singing.

    I have not heard played the CD but I’ve seen the concert and the PBS special and both were contrive and unspontanious.

    I’m going to see Dylan in about 4 weeks and I can only hope he leaves the horn section at home and that folk can be performed without the River Dance PBS fundraising production.

    Give me Nebraska. Give me my cash back. Give Seeger his songs back.

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