Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band, Nissan Pavilion

Had the pleasure of making the 50 minute drive out to Nissan Pavilion just outside of nowhere on Sunday night. I noticed that the Boss would be in town a couple weeks ago, but was very surprised to find a large number of tickets still on sale.

Of course, this was mainly due to the fact that he was touring on his new album, We Shall Overcome, a set of songs Pete Seeger used to do (he didn't write them) re-arranged for a 17 piece band. Like most fans, I was a bit skeptical, but for a mere $25 bucks (sans mandatory $7 donation to the Clear Channel Fund for Excellence), I was willing to give it a shot. My girlfriend and I got there early to tailgate a bit with friends, but the parking lot was noticeably subdued for a Boss show on a holiday weekend. When he went on about 8 pm, the pavilion was full but the lawn area (where we were sitting) was patchy at best.

Regardless of my skepticism, Bruce and his band did a fine job. Much like most radio country songs, you need not be familiar with this material (necessarily) to enjoy hearing it. His voice is easily one of the two or three most familiar in the American rock canon, and it translated quite well to the new material. He infused the songs with his trademark blue-collar passion and exuberance, squinting his eyes and wrinkling his brow as he delivered age-old, quintessentially American tunes like "Shenandoah", "Erie Canal", and the showstopping "Pay Me My Money Down" which had the crowd belting out the cyclical chorus well after the band left the stage.

If you can concede that "Americana" is a broad and vast but ultimately relevant musical genre, then we witnessed one of the finest mixtures of all that genre would encompass. If these songs
are -- at their core -- part of our folk tradition, they rely on heaping portions of country and rock. But what's more, no song goes untouched by the wonderful accents of gospel, jazz, zydeco, blues, and bluegrass. His four (maybe five, we were far away) piece horn section was dynamite, his fiddlers tasteful in their leads and licks, and everyone else rock solid. The nicest surprise? Marc Anthony Thompson -- aka "Chocolate Genius", released a couple Pitchfork-acclaimed albums and contributed a great cover of "Julia" to the I Am Sam soundtrack -- who added some wonderfully soulful vocal parts to Springsteen's familiar Jersey-gravelpit bellow.

Watching him on stage, one thing is immediately apparent: you are watching the greatest bandleader on the planet. The players are immaculately selected, the songs perfectly worked out. He has a gravitational presence on stage, cueing chord changes and solos within the band while also leading the audience through previously unheard material.

Now most people probably left slightly disappointed that he didn't play a single hit or old song. In fact, he didn't even play a song that he himself wrote. And, yes, I had a sneaking suspicion he would put that horn section to good use and whip out "Rosalita" or another, maybe a little rare, classic. But to do so would've undermined the image of the Boss that most people love: he's our unassuming, blue collar hero. His posturing isn't ironic, it's empassioned. And while he always seems grateful for his fans' appreciation of his music, it was apparent that this night was more about honoring some of the touchstones of the American songbook. In typically unassuming fashion, the Boss still isn't quite ready to place his own songs on that same level.


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