By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
If a banjo solo falls in the middle of a Bruce Springsteen concert, will anybody cheer it?
As it turns out, yes -- though the approbation won't quite be unanimous.
The crowd at Nissan Pavilion was divided into two camps Sunday night, when Springsteen and his sprawling new band staged a remarkable jamboree centered on spirituals, political broadsides, civil rights songs, Dust Bowl anthems and protest ballads mostly popularized, if not written, by the old folk singer Pete Seeger.
The more enlightened Springsteen acolytes in the audience (and they were the majority) hollered their approval during the rollicking, 2 1/2 -hour hootenanny that included more than a few fingerpicking banjo solos by Greg Liszt, plus featured parts for an accordionist, two fiddlers and a pedal steel guitar player.
On the other hand, there were those pitiable concertgoers who didn't get the memo that Springsteen is touring in support of a boisterous, old-timey folk album, "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions," and that he's therefore left most of his own considerable catalogue -- not to mention the E Street Band -- at home. Baffled by the sight and sound of an upright bass and a tuba onstage, as well as a certain 56-year-old rock-and-roll star who wasn't obviously acting the part, many of those ticket holders spent a good chunk of the night crying out for "Thunder Road" and "Born in the U.S.A." while bemoaning the fact that the Jersey guy Springsteen suddenly sounded as though he were from (gasp!) Kentucky by way of New Orleans.
Silly them. If only they'd stopped whining long enough to actually absorb the joyous music, they might have realized that they were missing a sensational concert. Just how good was it? It was the best live show I've seen in at least five years. (And I've seen a few.)
"Good evening, sinners," Springsteen said to the not-quite-capacity crowd upon entering the stage. He was accompanied by 17 musicians, most of them dressed as if they'd just come from the set of HBO's "Deadwood." Any question that the show would mark a major departure from the Boss's rock roots was answered immediately by fiddler Sam Bardfeld, who kicked off the hoedown by playing the opening lines of "O Mary Don't You Weep."
As with most of the old ground covered by Springsteen and his many, many friends in the freewheeling Seeger Sessions Band, the Negro spiritual's traditional lyrics were framed by a rowdy new arrangement that borrowed from various, aged idioms; in this case, the jubilant "O Mary" suggested a boot-stomping Irish folk band backed by a gospel choir performing at a New Orleans jazz funeral.
Other songs from the "Seeger Sessions" album ("Erie Canal," "Old Dan Tucker," "My Oklahoma Home," "Eyes on the Prize") included elements of everything from zydeco and bluegrass to ragtime, Tex-Mex and Southern soul. Even the lesser-known Springsteen compositions performed Sunday were given extensive makeovers: For instance, "Open All Night," a song from 1982's stark "Nebraska," was recast as jumpy big-band swing, with the blowsy six-piece horn section taking a star turn. "If I Should Fall Behind," a 1992 song about Springsteen's wife, Patti Scialfa, became a gorgeous Tennessee waltz with a touch of Renaissance-era instrumentation. "Cadillac Ranch," from 1980's "The River," was transformed into a fiery New Orleans R&B number.
The well-conceived set was overflowing with kinetic energy, as well as an incredible, almost cathartic spirit that Springsteen largely attributes to the source material itself. In the album notes to "We Shall Overcome," he describes the process of performing the songs as "a carnival ride, the sound of surprise and the pure joy of playing." Sunday, he said: "I'm hearing, like, a thousand lost voices in these songs. I'm picking them up and carrying them on."
Even some of the best-known songs need amplification, apparently. In introducing "We Shall Overcome" -- which Springsteen called "probably one of the most important political protest songs of all time" -- the soulful singer noted that the hymn is "one of those songs that sometimes you hear so much that you can't really hear it anymore." Sunday's powerful version opened with Springsteen accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, his vocal phrasing almost Dylanesque, and it concluded with six singers belting into a single microphone.
"We Shall Overcome" was one of a handful of protest songs performed at Nissan Pavilion, but Springsteen opted to let the music speak for itself. In introducing Seeger's classic antiwar anthem "Bring Them Home," for instance, Springsteen simply noted that he was playing the song for Memorial Day. "Mrs. McGrath," an early-19th-century Irish antiwar ballad, was performed without any additional commentary. Springsteen did mumble a few words about Hurricane Katrina at one point before performing "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" But the song itself stood as the most powerful statement of all, as Springsteen added three new verses to Blind Alfred Reed's Depression-era lyrics, singing: "Them who's got, got out of town/And them who ain't got left to drown."
Even when Springsteen sang of struggle and pain, the show had a celebratory, uplifting feel to it -- especially during a churchy take on "Jacob's Ladder," which concluded with three chord changes to signify, you know . . . climbing . The song brought down the house, but it was soon eclipsed by the frenetic, jazzy "Pay Me My Money Down," a protest singalong in which the crowd chanted the titular refrain over and over as all but drummer Larry Eagle and tuba player Art Baron vacated the stage. They continued to sing even after Springsteen gave the two lingering musicians the hook. The crowd stopped only when a sweaty, beaming Springsteen returned for an encore, prompting him to commend the crowd.
"Well done," he said. To which a guy in section 101, row N shouted: "Now play the good stuff, Bruce!"