the carnegie hall springsteen tribute

Damon Gough is my new hero. No, wait, I’ll explain.

Listen: Patti was, well, Patti, and there’s no way in hell Steve Earle could fuck up “Nebraska”. The Bacon Brothers were passable. Joseph Arthur played a “Born In The USA” with strength and guts. Pete Yorn made me like him despite my best intentions, mostly because he was more than happy to give us a pre-show interview and because the interview was lacking artifice on any level. M. Ward was unfortunate, as the band was playing the full band version while he was playing a solo acoustic version of “I’m Going Down” and it was a little bit of a train wreck. I thanked the deities for a piano-only version of “Serenade” and wanted to shoot the Low Stars, whoever they are, for butchering “One Step Up”. Jesse Malin and Ronnie Spector was well-intended, but poorly executed, and it just made me sad. The Jersey Guys made everyone around us say the same thing: Why is someone playing a Tom Waits song?

My top five performances:

1. Badly Drawn Boy aka Damon Gough: Thunder Road. The only Born To Run appearance. More below.
2. Odetta, “57 Channels”: may I some day be this cool.
3. The Hold Steady, “Atlantic City”: and I don’t even like them. At all. (That might change.) Noted that I DO NOT SEE ANY SPRINGSTEEN COMPARISON WHATSOEVER except that once upon a time Bruce used a lot of words in his songs.
4. Josh Ritter, “The River”: a musician not even on my radar grabbed my attention with the Springsteen-esque introduction and heartfelt (but not identical) performance.
5. Marah and “The Rising”. Major props for playing something recent. Kudos for accomplishing what Bruce could not, using bagpipes onstage. And Adam Garbinski clearly knows every single word to “Rosalita” and doesn’t care who knows it.

Special props to Elysian Fields for “Streets of Fire” (hell, Bruce doesn’t even do it any more) and the chops to be the house band all night in front of a very tough crowd.

But Badly Drawn Boy was something else altogether.

We wanted to talk to him before the show, because he’s on record as being THE Springsteen fan of all Springsteen fans, the musician that wears his Bruce heart on his sleeve shamelessly. He’s obsessed. He’s one of us. All of this was clear. And he was the only musician with the guts to not just take something from Born To Run but take THE song from Born To Run. “Thunder Road” is Bruce’s touchstone, it’s his doppelganger, it’s his nemesis, it’s his salvation. It’s the one song – to him.

And Damon knows this, I mean, there is no way he doesn’t know it because he’s a songwriter and because he’s a fan and he’s read everything there is to read and knows everything there is to know, and hell, he may have read my article in Backstreets from the Somerville shows in 2003, where Bruce laid it on the table for us in re: “Thunder Road”.

At Carnegie Hall. In New York City. Across the river from New Jersey, full of people who sincerely applauded every time the state was mentioned, not the usual knee-jerk “Bruce is from Jersey so we applaud New Jersey” response, but people with actual pride in being from the state. Fans who had “Stand On It” as their ringtone (it was funny the first time it went off behind us. Not so funny the second time.)

Forget the audience, look at the musicians onstage. You’re playing with a diverse group of accomplished folks, including Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees – okay, fuck that, you’re playing with Patti Smith and Ronnie Spector and Steve Earle to start with, and other people who are hardly small shakes.

Badly Drawn Boy walks out on the Carnegie Hall stage, harmonica in hand, a little uncertain: “I’m thrilled but I’m terrified,” he said. That was when we realized he was doing the full band version, none of this wussy singer-songwriter acoustic “Thunder Road” crap for Damon, no, this was his chance and he was going to go for it. All the accolades in the world, all the positive reviews, all of the stars in Q and Melody Maker don’t matter much now. This is the culmination of a lifetime (and I realize this is a dramatisation, because the guy has a rich and successful songwriting career, but there’s no way this wasn’t a monumental thing).

He began tentatively, almost like a guy in a bar singing karaoke with his friends, and then relaxed into it some more, he realized that he could do this and that we were with him, and as he sang, I got goosebumps. It had to be the rawest, most naked thing I’d seen on stage in years. Not raw as in unpracticed, but raw as in honest and true and real and unadorned. This was a fan singing Bruce for Bruce and for himself and for us. In that moment, more than anyone else who had been on that stage, or was going to be on that stage, he was one of us. I am rooting for him to kick ass and take names and I don’t even know him or know his music all that well, but it didn’t matter. This was the kind of feeling I had when Patti or the Ramones or the Clash got inducted into the Hall of Fame: one of us finally makes the big time.

He could have picked any other song, he could have picked “Mary, Queen of Arkansas” and played it safe, done it acoustically, kept it standard. But he didn’t.

I’m still kind of dazed about Bruce showing up. Of course, the problem was that, for me (and for probably 1/4 of the audience) the jig was up once we spotted Kevin Buell (Bruce’s roadie) onstage. (And to be fair, I did know ahead of time, because we were at the press reception – but it wouldn’t have been the first time Bruce was unofficially slated to appear and then changed his mind for whatever reason.)

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m glad and all (beyond all possible gladness) but it was so – unexpected – and so much had happened onstage and now, here he is, singing a version of “Rosalita” that will go down in history, and not just because of the attempt to summarize the song during what would have been the bridge.

The encore: Was a cast of thousands coming on the stage, Dave Peterson (who plays drums in Marah) bringing out his relatively new baby to be part of it all.
“Volunteers for verses?” Himself asks.
Badly Drawn Boy steps forward before the words are out of his mouth.
Craig Finn steps up next, raises a hand.
Jesse Malin comes up last.

And it’s “Rosalita,” again, but it’s like the last day of class in the auditorium, it’s that Phoenix 78 version come to life with a dozen Bruces being goofy and abandoned onstage. Everyone is going crazy and dropping veneers of cool, jockeying for the front, dancing around like crazy, unabashed geekiness, people goodnaturedly jockeying for position at the microphone with Bruce and knowing that they were doing this because they don’t ever know when they’ll do it again, and the crowd is of course almost louder than the stage at this point, three hours of sitting quietly and behaving (for the most part, thank you) are now over. “I ain’t here on business, baby, I’m only here for fun.” I get to sing “Rosie” with the boyfriend, and with Bruce, and with Marah, and everyone else on that stage.

The best part of it all is this: it was a GREAT night before he walked out on that stage.