He Shall Overcome

LA City Beat, 2006-06-08, by: Bill Holdship
Springsteen?s Seeger session at the Greek blends outrage and joy
Although some critics have faulted the material on Bruce Springsteen?s We Shall Overcome: The Pete Seeger Sessions for its lyrical timidity (meaning, I guess, that he fails to come right out and call the Monkey Boy and his lying Washington gang of thieves and murderers exactly that), it?s one of the year?s best and most overtly political albums. Neil Young ? God bless him ? hits you over the head like a sledgehammer on his latest collection, Living With War, and it?s great; he wants to make sure everyone gets it. But sometimes subtlety is just as cool. It forces one to read between the lines.

Clue #1: Springsteen?s celebrating an artist who will forevermore be the archetypal protest singer. Clue #2: Said artist was persecuted and blacklisted for his political thoughts ? probably not all that far removed from what Monkey Boy had in mind when he suggested we were either with him or agin him. Clue #3: Springsteen places the songs, all associated with and popularized by Seeger, in a New Orleans-based musical context.

Culture is obviously lost on the Beatle-bashing/Bible-thumping oaf occupying the Oval Office. But as Springsteen said onstage last Monday (June 5) at the Greek Theatre, after pointing out that the devastation in Louisiana is even worse than one can imagine (or the media can depict): ?If you?re a musician, that?s sacred ground. Everything from overseas got mixed up there to become jazz, blues, rock ?n? roll, and so much of the music we?re playing here tonight.? He also acknowledged ?the President?s visit down there, when he managed, with political cronyism, to gut the agencies that were supposed to assist American citizens in times like these. It?s all in a day?s work ? these days,? he smirked. ?We?ll just let the music speak the rest.?

And that was it. But it doesn?t take a detective to determine, for instance, that the ?Pharaoh?s army? that gets ?drowneded? in Bruce?s rendition of the old spiritual ?O Mary Don?t You Weep? is a metaphorical reference to Monkey Boy and that lying gang.

Springsteen has always conjured up wonderful ghosts from rock?s rich past onstage, be it Bob Dylan or the Sonics. For this tour, however, almost all the ghosts come from the Big Easy, and the Seeger Sessions Band ? augmented to now number 18 members, including Springsteen ? played every form of music associated with that heritage, from Dixieland to zydeco, from Louis Armstrong to Fats Domino ? sometimes in the same song. It?s a spectacular statement, just as it?s a spectacular show, ranking right up there with some of the greatest Springsteen performances ever.

It?s been said Bruce would?ve made one helluva preacher, and it?s no exaggeration to say that this concert often reached religious fervor. People were reportedly openly weeping when the tour debuted at the New Orleans Jazzfest. But even in L.A., a woman sitting three seats away from me had tears streaming down her face the entire time. And when that amazing horn section would hit center stage, combining with accordion, banjo, fiddles, etc., in an orgasmic roar, it said more about Katrina?s ramifications than a dozen news commentaries. They opened the encore with Seeger?s own 1965 ?Bring Them Home (If You Love Your Uncle Sam),? which was indeed poignant and could have been written yesterday.

But beyond the social conscience, music does need to entertain, and the set list ? rounded out by like-minded reworkings of older Springsteen tunes, including three from Nebraska, his stark and haunting portrait of desperate lives in desperate times ? did just that. ?Johnny 99? became a ?folk-funk? anthem, owing much to the Meters; ?Open All Night? a boogie-woogie and swing showstopper; ?If I Should Fall Behind? a (literally) ?Tennessee Waltz?; ?Ramrod? a Tex-Mex rocker, not unlike the Sir Doug Quintet.

And when E Street pianist Roy Bittan joined the band for ?Pay Me My Money Down,? the album?s most blissful number, it served to remind that others may release music just as good, but nobody will release music any better this year. That song makes me happier than I have any right to feel in 2006 ? and in an era in which the powers-that-be would much rather see you fearful than joyous (believe it), that alone is a potent political statement.

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