Sing along with Bruce and the band; Springsteen revels in his new folk mission at the Greek, but to fans, the Boss will always rock

Los Angeles Times, 2006-06-07, by: Ann Powers
With a perfect half-moon shining down and 17 able hands behind him, Bruce Springsteen was trying Monday to get the Hollywood power elite to sing. Cracking wise about white stretch Hummers parked outside, Springsteen challenged the screen stars, media folk and lucky others at the Greek Theatre to let down their cool and join in some tunes they'd learned in summer camp.

The crowd certainly would have bellowed its lungs out at an E Street Band show, full of Springsteen hits. But this visit offered different fare, and the fans needed cajoling. "It won't hurt. We'll guide ya," Springsteen said, leading his Seeger Sessions Band into the classic fiddle tune "Old Dan Tucker." After a pallid chorus, he sighed. "That's pathetic," he said. "But it'll have to do."

Getting the crowd to sing is the folk musician's imperative, and this tour celebrates Springsteen's year of pure folk. Rock's favorite showman has often vacationed in protest singer territory, but only now has he made an album honoring the legacy he's mined. "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" features songs popularized by the great balladeer Pete Seeger, many so familiar that, as Springsteen said Monday, "you sort of stop being able to hear them." A seasoned, New York-based ensemble helped Springsteen turn these modest, rich tunes into typically grand razzle-dazzle.

Monday's 20-song set made room for everything from Preservation Hall-style jazz to Western swing, zydeco, Southern gospel, jump blues, country blues, \o7conjunto\f7, classic country and boogie-woogie, all adding up to Springsteen's own big-band rock 'n' roll. It was a history lesson you could dance to, and the audience delighted in the game.

Springsteen too seemed thrilled, immersing in such time-honored greats as "Erie Canal" and finding life in new arrangements of several of his own hits, including a Southern rock take on "Atlantic City" and an Appalachian version of "If I Should Fall Behind," which, as usual, featured an intimate duet with his wife, Patti Scialfa.

Scialfa (and, very briefly, guest keyboardist Roy Bittan) is the new group's only E Street Band holdover; the rest are mostly New York scene veterans or folk experimentalists. Standouts included the fleet-fingered banjo player Greg Liszt and the charismatic singer-songwriter Marc Anthony Thompson, here on backing vocals and guitar. But the whole group hardly missed a beat.

Like the chrome-polished E Street Band, these players got loose with total precision, executing the songs' twists and turns while putting on a show of funny dance moves and excited mugging. And the instrumentation -- including pedal steel, stand-up bass, washboard and a full horn section -- was a history lesson in itself.

The party numbers pleased Springsteen's devotees. Yet two of the night's most affecting moments were quiet ones. Springsteen's bare-bones rendition of the Seeger-penned antiwar song "Bring 'Em Home" spoke to the situation in Iraq without a whiff of grandstanding, while a shimmering, churchy version of "When the Saints Go Marching In," featuring beautiful vocals from Scialfa and Thompson, acted as a touching elegy to a Katrina-felled New Orleans.

The only thing lacking from this wide-ranging show was the feeling created by actual folk music, the kind Seeger plays. Classic folk's high points don't happen at concerts at all but among workers or protesters whose raised voices lend miraculous strength. The contrast Monday was most sharply felt when Springsteen sang "We Shall Overcome," which he calls "the most important political protest song of all time." As he intoned, not one voice from the crowd joined his. The song, so powerful as a tool of social change, felt strangely dishonored when not shared.

Folk relies on the feeling that the audience genuinely stands equal to the performer; that singing along matters more than the spectacle onstage. Springsteen can strum an acoustic guitar, but he'll always be the Boss -- a rock star. When people sing at his behest, they revel in a dream his music creates. Folk music, as Seeger practices it, poses a very different ideal, grounded in diligent community engagement. It's the difference between "we shall overcome" and "I'm goin' out tonight. I'm gonna rock that joint."

But that dream's great too -- and in a song such as Springsteen's own "Open All Night," which bears that line, it can bring a great sense of freedom. Ultimately that's how the Boss got his people to sing Monday. He made his history lesson fun. "I'm impressed," he said, grinning, by the evening's fourth or fifth singalong.

Even that power player Tom Hanks was spotted singing along in the front.

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2006-06-05 Greek Amphitheatre, Los Angeles, CA