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Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Session Band

The Boss kicks off his tour with a Mighty Wind-y night at the Tweeter Center
By MATT ASHARE  |  May 30, 2006

Last week I happened to catch a couple of sports radio hosts deriding the Bruce Springsteen show with his Seeger Sessions band at the Tweeter Center last night – the first of 18 dates he’s scheduled to perform in support of the nearly unanimously lauded We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (Columbia) – as "old folks’ music. Not old folk music, which is, indeed, what Springsteen revives on the new album, but old folks’ music, as in music for old folks.

Well, chalk one up to the sports guys: their dismissal of Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions may not have been accurate – if We Shall Overcome is old folks’ music then so is most of Dylan’s songbook. But, sadly it was on the mark. It wasn’t so much that the crowd who flocked to the Tweeter Center on Saturday night was elderly, although it did skew older than your average Springsteen crowd, even the one that packed the Orpheum for his Devils & Dust solo tour sans E Street Band aid. That show had been transcendent and not nearly as heavy and grave as some had worried. No, Bruce was loose, almost playful, as he rapped with the crowd about everything from the genesis of certain songs too the array of odd vintage keyboards that littered the stage, including one he’d recently purchased on eBay. To say he set the bar rather high that evening would be an understatement, and may account for what made the Seeger Sessions show such a let down. (In the interest of full disclosure, I was among the few critics who only reluctantly jumped the We Shall Overcome bandwagon, mainly as I grew to appreciate the fun Springsteen brings to material too often treated with stifling reverence, and because I do believe there’s a wily political subtext to recording an album of songs by the author of "We Shall Overcome" nearly half a century after it helped spark a wave of anti-Viet Nam protest music.)

Springsteen was clearly aiming for something loose and playful this time around too. He’d had the seats removed from a large area in front of the stage – what some may have recognized as the mosh pit – in the hopes of, I dunno, a spontaneous square dance breaking out. Meanwhile, the stage was outfitted with several hanging chandeliers that gave it the feel of a fancy ballroom and, very unfortunately, brought to mind the folk-music spoof A Mighty Wind. So when out of the blue he asked the folks up front if they were "ready for a picnic?" after racing through "John Henry" it wasn’t entirely clear what he meant. Hootenanny or hoedown seemed more in line with what Bruce, his longtime harmonizer Patty Scalfia, and a busy band of 16-or-so backing musicians (they switched instruments so often that they were never standing still long enough for me to get an accurate count) had in mind, with all the banjo soloing, lap steel sliding, accordion pumping, ragtime piano pounding, and acoustic guitar strumming. But I just couldn’t get A Mighty Wind out of my mind as I watched the ragtag crew of musical ringers (including a four-man horn section) smile their way through storytelling songs from Seeger’s songbook, each of which began with a quick story about the story by a gracious Springsteen. Too gracious, I thought. He was in trying-too-hard-to-be-Bruce – the Broooose of legend – mode, singing each clenched syllable as if it might be his last, strumming his guitar like he was working an old, rusted waterpump, and smiling so hard it looked like it hurt.

This was a crowd who knew the album, and knew it well. They sang along to "Old Dan Tucker" as I hoped against hope Bruce would sneak a line like "he was such a nasty fucker" into the mix, joyfully chimed in on the tragic "My Oklahoma Home," and weren’t noticeably more excited by the Boss’s own "Johnny 99" than they were clapping along to the old spiritual "Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep." But there was no sense of danger, no feeling that the train might just roll off its rails, that we might be treated to a genuine scriptless hootenanny. Everything was done with such earnest professionalism and consumed with such utter joy in the face of, oh, the dustbowl disaster that, much like Katrina, left thousands homeless and starving (inspiring two brothers to write "My Oklahoma Home") that the very thought of sticking around for a "We Shall Overcome" filled me with dread. Who knows, maybe Bruce rocked the all-too righted boat after my exit, and punctured the smug safety bubble that seemed to have descended over the Tweeter Center. But, someone really oughta give PBS a call because Springsteen’s got a readymade special for their next fundraising drive.

  Topics: Live Reviews , Bruce Springsteen , Entertainment , Music ,  More more >
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