Springsteen gives old folk songs -- and a few of his own -- a mighty roar with his Seeger Sessions Band

San Francisco Chronicle, 2006-06-08, by: Joel Selvin
Bruce Springsteen couldn't stop grinning. No fewer than 17 musicians were raising a fat, gleeful noise behind him, and he clearly relished every moment onstage Tuesday at the Sleep Train Pavilion in Concord with the mighty Seeger Sessions Band, the sprawling assemblage of folk and bluegrass musicians he used to record his latest album, "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions."

A year after the acoustic noir of "Devils & Dust," Springsteen is back with a tribute to America's great folksinger, Pete Seeger, who is still alive at age 87 to enjoy it. With the world in an uproar and the country going to hell, the time couldn't be better to resurrect some of Seeger's fiercely left-wing sentiments, his anti-war songs, his union songs. He is a man who fought to save the environment before they even called it that. And, unfortunately, his songs never have been more relevant.

Springsteen has rescued from elementary school songbooks the American folk ballads that lie at the core of Seeger's repertoire and, indeed, of all American folklore -- "John Henry," "Oh Mary Don't You Weep," "Erie Canal," "Jesse James." Like Seeger, Springsteen understands the power of the American myth and, in a day and age when right-wing evangelicals routinely appropriate the country's most time-honored, fundamental emblems as their own, he seeks to reclaim and refresh some of the values these songs represent.

With three or four guitars, an entire Dixieland-jazz horn section, banjo, accordion, steel guitar, keyboards, drums, bass, various other percussion and as many as seven or eight people singing, the Seeger Sessions Band didn't so much play the songs as overwhelm them. In a short black jacket and vest he borrowed from Johnny Cash, Springsteen gave the music his trademark full-throttle treatment, rasping and exhorting his way through all but one of the 13 songs from the new album, along with a few retooled songs from his back catalog.

He repeated final choruses endlessly. He shamelessly dangled false endings at the crowd. He had the four-piece marching band section -- complete with sousaphone -- braying and blasting over almost every chorus. He used every trick in the trade to make these 100-year-old songs sound bigger than life.

Springsteen gave his song "Atlantic City" an arrangement with banjo and fiddles. He turned "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)" into zydeco. He tried out the Band's "Rag Mama Rag" and he matched the lyrics from his song "Ramrod" to the irresistible bounce of Nick Lowe's "Half a Boy and Half a Man." He put a Mardi Gras parade beat and furious acoustic guitar strumming under the remade "Johnny 99" -- "funk-folk" he called it. He turned his "Open All Night" from "Nebraska" into rollicking big-band swing.

But the stamp of this cumbersome, wonderful band was so overpowering that even when he reached for the heartbreak in "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times," an old blues he rewrote into a piece about New Orleans after Katrina, the horns ended up giving the song a churchy Salvation Army Band sound.

"We Shall Overcome," the song that sparked the project in the first place, Springsteen justly called "the most important political protest song in history." He also said, before he sang the soaring arrangement, that familiarity has made this song sink into the background. "People don't hear it so well," he said. Elementary school children all over America have no idea what the song is about. But it is utterly crucial to this country. And, again, it is a song whose relevance just won't go away.

Joan Baez, who actually put the song on the charts in 1963, joined Springsteen for the flag-waver "Pay Me My Money Down." Her presence onstage was another important symbol. When she walks onstage, the anti-war movement and the history of non-violent protest comes with her.

But when Springsteen gets the entire audience to scream "blown away" in "My Oklahoma Home" or sings the timeless lament of war, "Mrs. McGrath," he is not-so-subtly introducing subversive material. He went downright flagrant when he returned for his encore and, without further comment, sang a modified version of Seeger's own Vietnam rally cry, "Bring Them Home."

Another song, alas, still relevant.



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