The Boss evokes New Orleans

The Guardian, 2006-05-07, by: Adam Sweeting
SPRINGSTEEN'S last tour was a bare-bones solo affair in support of his Devils & Dust album, even if he did travel with 25 guitars and a trunk full of harmonicas.

This time, to perform material from his folk-song collection We Shall Overcome - The Seeger Sessions, he fronts a 17-strong ensemble which sprawls across the stage blowing, plucking and squeezing an arsenal of instruments including tuba, trombone, banjo, violin, pedal steel guitar and accordion. In place of the sulphurous sturm and drang of the E Street Band, Springsteen has forged a rollicking, homespun sound which evokes New Orleans marching bands and railroad gangs on the wild frontier, while he sings about sinners, stevedores and refugees.

Pete Seeger, bewhiskered doyen of the folkie left, gives the album its unifying motif, but Springsteen has focused on the timeless quality of the songs. What Springsteen seems to enjoy most are the band's free-ranging looseness and the liberating experience of delving into a catalogue even more extensive than his own.

The best pieces mix powerful, simple melodies with an irresistible rhythmic swagger ("there are no rock tempos, this band rolls,'' says Springsteen). They opened with O Mary Don't You Weep, originally a Negro spiritual but here doused in Sam Bardfeld's mournful Yiddish fiddling. Springsteen barking out the lyrics over his own crisply-strummed acoustic guitar, while Ol' Dan Tucker sounded like a bunch of gold prospectors swigging whiskey by the campfire. His own song Open All Night had been rearranged as Fifties jump-blues, featuring harmonies devised by his wife, Patti.

Springsteen claims that The Seeger Sessions material serves no specific political agenda, but the previous Sunday, he performed in New Orleans and lambasted President Bush's pitiful response to Hurricane Katrina. Several songs might have been written for the bedraggled Crescent City, not least How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live? and My City Of Ruins.

The latter was another Springsteen original, and its rousing prayer for communal transcendence eclipsed many of the old standards. In paying his dues to folk history, Springsteen is marking out his own turf in the great tradition.

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2006-05-05 The Point, Dublin, Ireland