Show Brings New Meaning to Vintage Music

San Jose Mercury News, 2006-06-08, by: Brad Kava
Springsteen pays homage to Pete Seeger's songs
Many times over the past 33 years, Bruce Springsteen has taken his audience to what he calls ``the church of rock 'n' roll'' -- that place where, even in the most electric sets and the biggest arenas, music gets back to what it once was, a tool for reverence and magic, at gloriously thunderous volumes.

On Tuesday, a packed house at Sleep Train Pavilion at Concord got the full-blown revival hall treatment for three solid hours, with hardly an electric instrument in sight.

Backed by 17 musicians and a couple of guests, wielding banjos, trumpet, trombone, a tuba, tambourines, an accordion and other instruments usually left outside the doors of most rock halls, Springsteen took the Northern California crowd back in time to the days when folk troubadours and gospel singers toured the land playing in tents and parks, sharing messages of politics and religion.

It was a pleasing show, and certainly an artistic risk at a time when unvarnished folk music is the diametric opposite of the slick pop and rhythmic rap that dominates the popular charts. Mixed into a potpourri of songs including the ancient ``Froggie Went A-Courtin','' ``Jesse James,'' ``Eyes on the Prize,'' and soft new takes on his own ``Ramrod'' and ``Atlantic City,'' Springsteen managed to get in some serious political messages about the tragedy still in New Orleans and the failures of the Bush administration.

The show contained most of Springsteen's latest album, a tribute to 87-year-old folk singer Pete Seeger called ``We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,'' and one song from each night of the brief 18-city tour will be broadcast on AOL.

In a career that has been marked with some less-traveled paths (the stark, acoustic ``Nebraska'' and ``The Ghost of Tom Joad'' come to mind immediately), this may be the most unusual direction Springsteen has taken. Who could expect the rocker best known for his own tough and pure songwriting to devote so much time to a lesser known grass-roots folk singer?

Dressed in dark vest and pants, Springsteen ran around with some of the same energy he used in past rock shows, but he gave 16 top-flight musicians plenty of playing time, too. The three-hour show whizzed by, as do all of Springsteen's notably long performances.

The past and present converged on Seeger's 1965 ``Bring Them Home (If You Love Your Uncle Sam)'' lamenting deaths of Americans in foreign wars, which sounded like it was written last week. He introduced ``My Oklahoma Home,'' about the Dust Bowl, saying that it was ``about things you never thought you'd see in your lifetime, but we're seeing quite a few of them.''

He brought new meaning to songs he said were so ever-present they have become invisible, with an orchestral ``We Shall Overcome,'' that sounded like something from ``O, Brother Where Art Thou'' and a dirge-like ``When the Saints Go Marching In'' that captured the mood of New Orleans, the city where he launched this tour and of which, he said, the devastation is still far greater than anything seen in the media.

Springsteen was joined by his young nephew on guitar and the Bay Area's resident old folkie, Joan Baez, on vocals, for ``Pay Me My Money Down.'' Baez drew applause before the show as she walked to her seat, and did a prom-queen tip of her hand to the crowd. His chorus included Marc Anthony Thompson, who has recorded two hit albums under the name ``Chocolate Genius.''

Springsteen, 56, joked about his first appearance in Concord (which he pronounced Con-corde, like the plane), a place he had never heard of before, ``with all these brown hills.'' He fared worse pronouncing nearby Solano County as ``Soliano,'' but added that now that he knew where it was, he'd try and come back.

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2006-06-06 Concord Pavilion, San Francisco, CA