Springsteen and rollicking 'Seeger Sessions' band thrill Concord crowd

Contra Costa Times, 2006-06-07, by: Tony Hicks
Bruce Springsteen fans know the old move. Even if the surroundings weren't the same.
About three songs into his set Tuesday at the Sleep Train Pavilion at Concord, while his Seeger Sessions Band finished off a massive, re-worked Booker-T-ish groove on "Johnny 99," Springsteen looked spent. As usual, while the controlled chaos of a superb band reigned around him, a stone-faced Springsteen bent forward, sweaty and exhausted. He didn't move.

Somebody who didn't know better in the crowd of 12,000 might have thought the 56-year-old was already spent and ready to get back down Willow Pass Road to the first air-conditioned, luxury hotel he could find.

Suckers!

"So, where exactly the (expletive) are we? Springsteen yelled, coming back to life with his first, "I'm just getting started" move.

Where were we, indeed? It certainly wasn't a typical night with the Boss, if there really is such a thing.

Springsteen is touring with the 17-piece band with which he recorded April's Pete Seeger tribute album, "We Shall Overcome." Though ostensibly put together to fete the music of legendary folkster Pete Seeger, it's a band that, in some ways, is grander, (but not necessarily better) than his longtime E Street Band. Tuesday, Springsteen and company brought to life the hopelessness of the Dust Bowl era and the fire of '60s protest music as easily as he fashions a good old-time rollicking rock and roll song.

But despite its surprising fanning and mastery of styles, none of which was less than 40 years old, this concert was about protest. It could be nothing less once Joan Baez showed up just before Springsteen took the stage, waving on through a victory lap in the expensive seats while the crowd cheered.

But it was a protest/folk show wrapped in the absolute joy of watching Springsteen thrive in his favorite environment, the stage. People saw a disciple of so many styles eventually succumb to his roots, building his own huge rocking versions of songs like "Rag Mama Rag." Toward the 23/4-hour show's end, the Seeger Session band couldn't help but sound like The Band on steroids.

One could see the effect the band, the music, and the fresh start had on Springsteen, who, dressed in a black-and-white 1930s Sunday suit, was even more the preacher that usual. From opener "John Henry," on through "O' Mary Don't You Weep," "Old Dan Tucker," "Jesse James," and most everything except the quiet stuff on the new Seeger record, Springsteen continuously pounded the band through nothing short of a 20th-century roots revival. With 17 musicians on stage, a less seasoned bunch could've been way too loose with material that's often supposed to sound stripped-down. Instead they blew it up into an inspired, folk music wall of sound. Accordions, horns, fiddles, a banjo, pedal steel guitar -- everybody got a turn in the spotlight, with an obviously tickled Springsteen acting as bandleader. More than a dozen voices carried just about every chorus, adding a grandeur most of these songs never had. It wasn't necessary for a crowd of Springsteen fanatics to know the words. The band taught them by the end of every initial chorus.

When it was time to bring it down, Springsteen strummed and talked about bringing soldiers home, the shame of having widespread hunger in America, and how politics turned its back on the birthplace of so much of the night's music, New Orleans.

"Eye on the Prize" was a delicate exercise in using a huge band to actually sound subtle, just before a sudden power surge. Like a revivalist Southern preacher, Springsteen engaged the crowd all night, repeatedly urging them to serve better witness. He called "Erie Canal" "one of the few love songs addressed to a mule. I've since done some research and discovered there's a whole subgenre of mule songs."

He taught the crowd the melody before the band kicked in, chiding their initial half-effort by saying "You're not making Pete proud." When the crowd clapped off beat, Springsteen responded, "Now cut the terrible clapping and keep singing," before leading the song into a blooming, full stack of sound.

The closest he came to a straight version of his own material was a sedate, yet dynamic, version of "Devils & Dust." Everything else was geared specifically for the skills of this band. "Open All Night" became a monster boogie breakdown, with Springsteen again pushing the crowd to become part of the action.

"Ramrod," went Tex-Mex, or, as Springsteen put it, "Tex-Mex ... south of the border, through the Caribbean... ."

Springsteen brought out Baez and his own guitar-playing nephew for the rolling anthem "Pay Me My Money Down," bringing the band to the edge of the stage, where Baez couldn't stop mimicking a cowgirl about to rope a steer. "It's time for the Concordian (rear-ends) to rise," Springsteen yelled. Before getting serious again, he had some more fun with the suburbs.

"Now I can say -- Concord, I've been there. The mystic land in those big brown hills. Some day I'll go back." He then dedicated a surprisingly-sedate "When the Saints Go Marching In" to New Orleans and actually pulled off something few others could do, performing what's become an elementary school, piano-class favorite as a serious song of depth and meaning. It shouldn't have surprised anyone -- despite a few initial scattered snickers.

Springsteen again showed his greatness rooted in taking chances with things he cares about while not doing what people expect.
On Tuesday he pulled it off beautifully.

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