that daring young man on the flying trapeze

Bruce Springsteen & The Seeger Sessions Band
Convention Hall
Asbury Park, NJ 4-26-06

So, Bruce is now out on tour with the Seeger Sessions Band. I don’t know if you’re going or not, but you need to think about going, if it comes to your area. Even — especially — if you don’t like Springsteen with E Street.

The essential concept to understand is this: This show is not, at all, what you think it is going to be. Not only is it not what you think it is going to be, it is a million times more than you could have ever imagined it would be.

Don’t judge it on the record; in my opinion, the performances on the record are flat, and with a few exceptions, probably won’t resonate with you strongly unless you’ve seen the live show. Don’t worry about needing to listen to the record before you see the show — this is one show you don’t need to do your homework for. The songs, along with the exuberance onstage, are inviting enough.

is it a straight-ahead rock and roll show? no. it’s not Bruce solo, it’s not Bruce with the 92 band, it’s not Bruce with E Street. You can’t compare it to any of those things because it’s nowhere in the neighborhoods of the above. You can’t expect to react to this show the same way you do to a Bruce Springsteen show in the past simply because his name is on the ticket. It is not the same animal. The band does not possess the dynamics of longevity present in E Street, and the material doesn’t provide the emotional touchstones you are accustomed to. This can end up feeling disconcerting if you focus on their absence, instead of looking beyond that to what is going on onstage.

Bruce gets to be Bruce; as he astutely pointed out at the last rehearsal show, the whole reason Frank Bruno Jr. is on that stage is so that when he’s out front shaking his ass, someone is actually playing the guitar. And that comment tells you a lot about why Bruce embarked on this project: they’re not his songs, so there are no sacred cows to worry about slaughtering. There are 17 other people on that stage for you to look at — there is a LOT going on, besides the aforementioned ass-shaking. Compare that to Devils & Dust where you could, sometimes, hear a pin drop (by royal command). He doesn’t have to hand out little flyers as you walk in the door insisting that you engage in all nose-blowing before the show starts, lest your coughing disturb the maestro. And (also very much unlike D&D) it is the kind of show for which cold beer at a reasonable price is almost a downright necessity.

You will know these songs. I know them from Girl Scout camp and from my father (who learned them at Boy Scout camp); Bruce mentioned that other people have told him they’d learned them in Sunday School. If you have never heard them before, one of the beautiful tenets of folk and gospel is true: they’re written for everyone to sing. And everyone can sing along, without ruining any part of the experience, unlike the off-tune bozo who feels the need to belt “I got a 69 Chevy with a 396” (or name the equivalent, before you start arguing with me about how many times, exactly, Bruce has played “Racing In The Street” in the last five years) into your left ear, every single time.

When I was relating the show to the boyfriend, I slipped and said, “You’ve got to hear this cover of ‘Cadillac Ranch'”. Now, it can’t really be a cover when it’s his song, but the subconscious error was telling, because it feels like a different song. “Cadillac Ranch” works (even if he was singing it in the wrong key and was gently but firmly corrected by Patti walking over to him in the middle of the song and gratuitously displaying the chord her fingers were forming on the fretboard. Oops.). It is bigger, grander, bolder, and it makes me wish he’d bring out the map of Mesopotamia from the BITUSA Stadium leg because that would fit here like it was invented for this show.

“Johnny 99.” What is it about this song, in particular, that he turns to it for reinvention? We’re on the third incarnation now. I like this one so much better than what got presented on the Rising tour, but it was not the strongest of the revised originals presented. Same with “If I Should Fall Behind.” If he needs a love song, and the show does, then bring out “Valentine’s Day” or “Tougher Than The Rest” or pick some lovely Johnny Cash/June Carter duet.

“Open All Night.” I was listening to a Chuck Berry compilation on the way down to the show, and not that this is new news or a revelation or anything, but I was drawn to once again affectionately observe how much “Open All Night” is an almost “Tweeter And The Monkey Man” homage to “You Can’t Catch Me,” and therefore, by extension, for it to be part of this show’s setlist was nice synchronicity. However, I did not expect it to turn into a 40’s swing number, complete with Andrews Sisters intro from Patti, Soozie and Lisa Lowell. It’s fucking legendary. Were we in Convention Hall or at the Brooklyn Paramount?

The other — see, I wanted to type ‘covers’ again — rearranged originals — varied wildly. Of note, “Adam Raised A Cain” was not too far from a recent version, but still filled with fire and ice, and owed an awful lot, I thought, to Johnny Cash, and “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” — both songs that have been reinvented before, but the latter closes the set and it felt like I was watching the closing number from “Oklahoma”. A throwaway song becomes grand and encompassing and while it feels completely unfamiliar in one sense (because the new arrangement turns it inside out) it is still the song you know.

The songs are big, and the arrangements are broad, and sometimes there might be too much instrumentation (at one point toward the end, Bruce yells, “Did the glockenspiel make it?” and all I could think was – my god, enough already! But there it was, stage left.) They are flavored with everything, folk twang and gospel shouting and swing and jump blues and funk and cajun and rockabilly. It is like watching the Mad Professor experimenting with musical test tubes, and trying his hand at leading a BIG band, and from that perspective it is not just enjoyable, it is fascinating. I realize, however, that I am in the trainspotter minority on this.

So, now let’s talk about the band, this cast of thousands (seriously, we’re approaching Solomon Burke territory here) onstage with Bruce this time out. They are all strong and competent musicians, some stronger than others, but the clams weren’t coming from them.

The horn section: I had serious complaints about the new horn section not having a stage presence.
the boyfriend: “Is that they don’t have a stage presence, or is it that they’re just not La Bamba and Pender?”
me: “They have negative stage presence AND they’re slobs.”

I realize that I am holding them to an impossibly high standard but I expect my horns to be sharp dressers and have the choreography down. They certainly played well, but not exceptionally, but I have hopes that might improve.

Chocolate Genius is Bruce’s new male on-stage foil and HE NEEDS TO DO MORE THAN HE DOES RIGHT NOW. Because when the two of them click, it is compelling and just this side of breathtaking. Keep this guy around and let him re-arrange an original of his choosing.

After running down the stage presence of the remainder of the band (give the band a name. it will give them an identity and they are entitled to that. Think about the Ex-pensive Winos for an example.), it’s clear that the people who have presence and personality are the ones who have played onstage with Bruce before, and so feel comfortable. It’ll be interesting to see the evolution of the band as the tour goes on: will the band develop a personality, or will it just become this slick collection of very competent professional musicians? (Which is where LaBamba and Pender come in; yes, they are slick, but nothing can be too serious with them around.)

I know it was a rehearsal but I thought “We Shall Overcome” was flat and a serious anticlimax, “Eyes On The Prize” (where Chocolate Genius was mindblowing) was far more moving. “Johnny 99” (as previously mentioned) and, surprising, “Adam Raised A Cain” didn’t do that much for me. It’s not that it’s my favorite song and so he can’t touch it – by all means, take it apart and put it back together again as many times as you want – I just think he could have pushed the envelope in a different direction, or perhaps chosen another song.

A ticket fell in my lap and since it was Convention Hall, I didn’t much care where I sat. But I ended up not near anyone I have ever known or met, and, gratefully, was not surrounded by people introducing themselves by their screen name or by whatever message board they hung out on. (I long for the days where people at shows introduced themselves by name and where they were from.) In other words, normal, average fans, people who cared enough to spend $100 and get out of work early to make the 5:30pm show time. People who the stereotype might dictate would be there to yell for “Born To Run” and be going on beer runs all night.

Except they didn’t. People were entertained. People were amused. People were moved to standing ovations for numbers like “Jacob’s Ladder,” and to sing along wherever they could. People knew the songs, applauded when they recognized them. I witnessed little impatience and a great deal of attention paid to what was going on onstage, far more than I ever saw as a result of the artificial gulag of silence created during the Devils & Dust tour. I still think the ticket price is too fucking high, because the people who should see this tour won’t be able to afford it, but I think people will come, and people will enjoy it more than they would ever expect they would enjoy a non-acoustic, non-E-Street Bruce Springsteen tour.

This show is part summer stock, part revival tent, part Vaudeville; it owes as much to Sister Rosetta Tharpe as it does to Elvis and as much to Garrison Keillor and Prairie Home Companion as it does to the Grand Old Opry or the musical numbers of every Elvis Presley movie ever made (even, and especially, the really bad ones). It is Americana, pure and simple, it is based on a common denominator designed to appeal to a wide group of folks, just like its influences of origin were. All we need is a Chautauqua tent and you’d have everything you need. Knowing Bruce, that might just be next.

Seriously, this show isn’t a reinvention, nor is it a drastic departure, but it is uplifting and joyful and at times contains as much fire and intensity as you’ve seen him evidence in a more classic rock and roll format. Like anything the man does, if you’re willing to go along for the ride, he can take you to some amazing places. I look forward to seeing where this journey takes us and how it might inspire him next.