Springsteen brings rock energy to folk standards

Detroit Free Press, 2006-06-17, by: Brian McCollum
Seeger Sessions Band joins in the celebration
In a show as dexterous and full of life as any E Street Band performance, Bruce Springsteen lit a fire under his folk music Saturday night.

The New Jersey rocker arrived at DTE Energy Music Theatre in the latest of his creative guises, immersed in populist American songs immortalized by musician and leftist provocateur Pete Seeger. But Springsteen wasn't content with an evening that simply gazed backward with a sentimental eye, adhering to a rock 'n' roll spirit that helped turn the concert into a lively jubilee.

Backing him was his Seeger Sessions Band, a perky 17-member combo so unorthodox that Springsteen himself remarked during the show, "I wouldn't know how to describe it." In a musical melange that made equal room for a banjo, two fiddles and a four-piece horn section, it was organic enough to carry the folk storytelling and muscular enough to meet Springsteen's musical demands.

It was also, despite its girth, agile enough to handle a wide assortment of styles, often all at once. With Springsteen at center stage, leading on acoustic guitar, Saturday was the kind of night when an updated gospel number, "Eyes on the Prize," could morph from a wheeping-willow Southern gothic into a woozy nightclub blues.

Springsteen had set that versatile tone early, launching the 2-1/2 hour set with an upbeat performance of the old "John Henry," lined with solos on violin, squeezebox and banjo. He would later thank the DTE audience for "taking a chance on our little adventure here," but it's unlikely many of the 8,000-plus Springsteen diehards on hand felt as if the gamble didn't pay off.

The hits kept on coming: "O Mary Don't You Weep" came off with a back-alley swagger, the sing-along "Old Dan Tucker" was a bouyant reel, "Jesse James" offered high spirits from some lively Appalachian holler. While "We Shall Overcome" was among a handful of songs presented with a soft, stirring touch, the show was light on solemn moments: Even "Erie Canal" let horns and sweet fiddle parts poke through its mournful air.

Having spent 2005 living with the bare, forlorn sounds of his "Devils & Dust" material, Springsteen seemed eager to vamp it up again. He brought time-tested rock 'n' roll tricks to Saturday's performance: leaning hard into his guitar, eagerly playing to the front rows, steering a song into a breakdown before guiding it back out for an explosive finale.

The night wasn't just material from his new album with the Seeger Sessions Band, a diverse collection of players pulled in for this project. Springsteen took advantage of the group's presence to rework several of his own songs, most notably a hopping jump-blues version of "Open All Night" and a driving rendition of "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)," which was coupled with a rambunctious reading of the Band's "Rag Mama Rag."

Springsteen's motivation for this new album and tour seems multifold -- to make a modern political statement via older material, to find new resonance in songs that are by most any definition timeless. But as was clearly evident Saturday at DTE, the project also marks the latest musically intelligent reinvention by a 56-year-old artist determined to keep tweaking and making turns.

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2006-06-17 DTE Energy Center, Detroit, MI