Springsteen ragged but right

Albany Times Union, 2006-06-20, by: Greg Haymes
It's counterintuitive to the basic premise of most arena rock shows, but the charm of Bruce Springsteen and his Seeger Sessions Band was not how tightly they played in concert, but rather how loosey-goosey they sounded.

They were, as the saying goes, ragged but right.

Backed by a sprawling, 16-piece orchestra that sounded like an odd but exceptionally endearing gumbo of ramblin' jug band, glorious gospel group and dizzying Dixieland jazz combo, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Springsteen served up a heaping helping of folk-song war horses that many of us first learned back when we were in elementary school or summer camp.

Of course, there were at least a few rock fans among the 10,000 or so at Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Monday night who were disappointed that no members of the E Street Band showed up to jam. Or that Springsteen didn't pull a fast one by slipping an acoustic, funkified rendition of "Rosalita" into the set list. And likewise, a few diehard folk purists might have hoped that Pete Seeger might make a trip from his Beacon home for a guest appearance, or that Springsteen would pay more than lip service to Seeger by pulling out "Turn, Turn, Turn" or "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy."

But if Springsteen wants to spend his summer on the road playing such folk song chestnuts as "The Erie Canal," "John Henry" and "Old Dan Tucker," who's gonna tell him that he can't? After all, he is the Boss, isn't he?

The fact is that the 56-year-old Springsteen sounded every bit the rock superstar that he was back when he recorded such blistering rock classics as "Born to Run" and "Thunder Road" more than 30 years ago. And that's certainly not a bad thing, no matter which side of the fence you're sittin' on.

His singing was brimming over with intensity, passion and urgency, and the band put a multitude of stylistic spins on the basic folk songs. "Old Dan Tucker" and "Pay Me My Money Down" both went Cajun, while the Dust Bowl ballad "My Oklahoma Home" turned into a Western swing thing. "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live" was peppered with mariachi horns, while "Open All Night" -- one of only a handful of Springsteen originals scattered throughout the show -- was transformed into an unbridled jump 'n' jive boogie-woogie.

He returned "We Shall Overcome" -- the title track of the Seeger Sessions Band album -- to its gospel roots, delivering it more as a prayer of hope than an anthem of defiance.

It didn't always work. There were times when the performance felt too slickly choreographed, like nothing more than a summer camp sing-along produced by Phil Spector. But Springsteen's passion always pulled it back up.

The show had little -- or perhaps nothing -- to do with Pete Seeger, but if Springsteen wants to use his name as inspiration, let's hope he's got another tribute or two in him in the coming years.

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2006-06-20 Camden Tweeter Waterfront Amphitheater, Camden, PA