Boss' energy helps revive folk classics

Oakland Tribune, 2006-06-08, by: Paul Liberatore
Bruce Springsteen performs at the Sleep Train Pavilion in Concord Tuesday night. His appearance included a reunion with Joan Baez, who joined him on stage for a lively performance of Pay Me My Money Down.'
BRUCE Springsteen looked like a character from one of the songs on his new album, "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions," in his old-timey stage outfit - slacks and suspenders, vest, gauzy shirt, string tie. He could have been a rock star, circa the 1800s.

Sweaty and full of adrenaline after his exuberant Tuesday night concert at the Concord Pavilion (officially, and drowsily, called the Sleep Train Pavilion), he was still too pumped to sit down.

As soon as he left the stage, slim-hipped and sweaty, he raced to his downstairs dressing room for a quick visit with a fellow icon of American popular music: the Bay Area's Joan Baez.

Only minutes before, she had joined him on-stage for a rousing rendition of "Pay Me My Money Down," an irresistible, if obscure, tune on the new CD that was originally a protest song by black stevedores in the South that Springsteen has transformed into a Zydeco-flavored, accordion-fueled rave-up.

On "The Seeger Sessions," Springsteen has unearthed and breathed new life into a baker's dozen of the kind of traditional folk songs that Baez, as much as Seeger, popularized in the '60s.

To put this scene in a larger context, the 57-year-old Springsteen represents the socially conscious wing of rock 'n' roll. Baez, 8 years older, symbolizes the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements.

The reunion of these two superstars was their first since the "Human Rights Now!" tour in 1988, a benefit for Amnesty International. A Boss/Baez duet on Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" closed three of those shows 18 years ago.

And now, here they were, two of our most revered progressive voices, catching up with each other.

Because Joan and I have been friends for many years, and because she invited me to go to the Springsteen concert with her, it was my good fortune to be the only other person in the room.

She was there because she wanted to tell him how much she loves his Seeger-inspired CD, describing it as "a musical history lesson," a fresh, high-energy take on traditional folk music.

For his part, he modestly calls the project a happy "accident." In 1997, he told us, he recorded "We Shall Overcome" for a track on a Seeger tribute album. That experience sent him on a journey into the past, a quest into the trove of Americana music that, as he put it, reflects "the vitality that it took to build this country."

"What I bring to this music is a sense of urgency," he said, looking me in the eye. "It's like I'm saying to people, 'You've got to listen to this music right now, right in the moment.' That urgency is my service to these songs."

With some disappointment, he let us know that these all-American songs, culled from our history and heritage, have been more enthusiastically embraced when he performed them in Europe than in certain parts of the U.S., namely middle America.

As he has suggested, this attitude may stem from a disregard for the past that affects the way this country behaves in the world.

"In places like Paris and London, people were jumping out of their seats for American songs that are 100 years old," he said.

"But in the Midwest, we're having trouble selling tickets."

When I asked him why that is, he said it has to do with what he sees as American "rigidity," the reluctance to accept him doing anything other than the rock classics he's famous for with his E Street Band.

Nevertheless, that hasn't diminished his passion for music that is part of the blood and bone of this country.

"I'm going to do this again, maybe in the fall," he said. "There are hundreds of beautiful songs just sitting there waiting. I like singing them as much as my own."

For the "Seeger Sessions," a dual-disc with an audio CD on one side and a DVD of the recording sessions on the other, he assembled a group of New York City folk and acoustic musicians who had played at a party on his farm.

The band set up in the living room of his farm house ("no bigger than this," he said, indicating the modest confines of his dressing room).

With the horns in the hallway, they recorded the CD over three days without rehearsals. In the background, you can hear Springsteen calling out solos and key changes as the band plays.

That same wildly exuberant, 16-piece band - a zany four-man, Dixieland-style horn section, fiddles, accordion, acoustic guitars, piano, drums, washboard, banjo, stand-up bass, a bevy of backup singers - backed Springsteen Tuesday night as he lent his gritty voice and rock energy to many of the reels and hymns, campfire favorites and public domain gems on the new CD - among them "Erie Canal," "Old Dan Tucker," "John Henry," "Jacob's Ladder," "Eyes on the Prize," the ancient children's song "Froggie Went A Courtin,'" and the title track, "We Shall Overcome," given new resonance in Springsteen's churchy, uplifting rendition.

For an encore, he sang "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" as a kind of homage to New Orleans, and told the crowd about the devastation from Hurricane Katrina that he witnessed in New Orleans in April, when he performed at the Jazz and Heritage Festival there.

He added another Seeger song that isn't on the CD, "Send Them Home," originally an anti-Vietnam War lament, updated with new verses that Springsteen wrote about the bloodshed in Iraq. Sadly, history is repeating itself.

Springsteen filled the 12,500-capacity Concord Pavilion. When he does this again, as he said he would, maybe more Americans in other parts of the country will be as eager to celebrate their past as he is.