Springsteen's modern take on folk flies in Glendale

The Arizona Republic, 2006-06-06, by: Larry Rodgers
Bruce Springstreen brought a mix of joy, faith, bawdiness and sadness to Glendale Arena on Saturday for his latest musical adventure, an acoustic sampling of American folk music.

Judging from the reaction of a crowd that was heavy on baby boomers but also included some younger fans reaching into the teens, Springsteen is succeeding in reminding listeners how important such classics as "John Henry" and "Erie Canal" are while showing that modern interpretations can be loads of fun. advertisement

Backed by a 17-piece band that was nothing short of fabulous, Springsteen played much of his new "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" CD, inspired by the music of 87-year old folk icon Pete Seeger.

While the idea might seem like a challenge -- and judging from the crowd of less than 6,000, plenty of Springsteen's fans were intimidated enough to stay away -- the superstar played with the same contagious exuberance that he always brings on the road and quickly won the arena over.

He warmed things up with a rootsy version of one of his own songs, "Atlantic City," but then jumped into "John Henry," a late 19th-century tune telling the true story of a fatal contest between a man and a steel-driving hammer.

Perched on one leg at times and laughing, egging on the crowd to sing along, Springsteen was clearly enjoying this latest project that takes him away from his famed E Street Band, the second such outing in a year.

He mixed gospel overtones with a four-piece Dixieland horn section a number of times during the 2-1/2 hour set, including a rave-up version of "O Mary Don't You Weep," a Black spiritual that was adapted for the civil-rights movement of the '50s and '60s.

While he had killer players on banjo, accordion, two fiddles and pedal steel, the horns came close to stealing the show at times. Seeger never enlisted sax, tuba, trumpet and trombone, but with Springsteen as the happy conductor, it works in 2006.

The horns went crazy, lined up with Springsteen at the front of the stage, when he played "Jesse James," which he introduced as "a historical ballad with a lot of poetic license."

Springsteen took the baby boomers back to third-grade music class with his mournful take on "Erie Canal," joking that his folk studies indicated it was just one of several "love songs written to a mule."

He chatted about most of the classic tunes before playing them, but didn't overdo it. For example, in introducing the Dust Bowl lament, "My Oklahoma Home," he mentioned that his friend Jackson Browne has remarked that "these good songs, they stay written." That song proved to be another highlight, with the crowd trading lines with Springsteen in the chorus.

There were some serious moments, such as when he introduced a pair of anti-war ballads by saying, "Here are a few songs that sadly need to be written."

When he sang Seeger's classic, "Bring Them Home," there was no doubt he was aiming it at American policy in Iraq.The Irish traditional ballad "Mrs. McGrath" got updated with a reference to "the king of America and his whole Navy."

"Eyes on the Prize," another traditional song updated for the civil-rights movement, had the crowd watching in silence, as did "We Shall Overcome."

Scottsdale's Nils Lofgren, a member of the on-hiatus E Street Band, joined Springsteen for another rave-up that brought the entire band to the front of the stage, "Pay Me My Money Down."

The only slight missteps came when Springsteen tried to shove a few of his songs into the roots mold. His Tex-Mex take on "Ramrod," from "The River" CD, was fun but forced, as was his version of "Johnny 99," which he called "a little folk funk.'

But that was just a small part of a successful bid to stay relevant past age 50. Lovers of folk music and adventurous art alike should continue to be thankful that Springsteen still has his eyes on the prize.

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2006-06-03 Glendale Arena, Phoenix, AZ