So The Seeger Sessions is finally out. The album that has been front and center in the hearts and minds of Bruce Springsteen fans ever since it was first announced last February was finally released Tuesday. The debate among both fans and critics about this record has been an often intense one in the days between that announcement and yesterday’s release.
Back in February I tossed out my own two cents worth on the subject right here on Blogcritics. In my article, The Seeger Sessions: Say It Aint So Bruce, I offered up the opinion that releasing an album of cover songs — even by an icon like Pete Seeger — constituted something of a “folk you” to his fans, at least in terms of timing.
Noting the methodical rate at which Bruce is often known to work, especially when it comes to the creative process, I wrote that because of issues like Clarence Clemons’ health and the rumors of Max Weinberg being in line to take over bandleader duties at The Tonight Show, the window for another E Street Band album and tour could be closing fast.
I still believe that. I also still believe that The Seeger Sessions represents something of a vanity project for Bruce… like the sort of thing Elvis Costello did with the Brodsky Quartet.
Still, the promotion machine appears to be in full swing for this record. From the live performance on Good Morning America yesterday morning, to the recently announced handful of tour dates with The Seeger Sessions Band – which I fully expect to be extended through the end of the year. If this is a mere vanity project, Springsteen does not appear to be treating it as such.
So about the record itself? Well, as expected, it’s different. Radically so. There have been hints of the type of influences displayed front and center here throughout Springsteen’s catalog, from the accordions and violins heard on early records like The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle to the grittier images and wordplay found on Nebraska and last year’s Devils and Dust.
But never like this. We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions is an absolute smorgasbord of sound. It’s appropriate that The Seeger Sessions Band will be making their official concert debut in a few days at the New Orleans Jazz Festival. Because in addition to the obvious folk influences on this record, the rich musical heritage of that city is all over this disc; there’s slices of everything from Dixieland Jazz to Gospel here.
It doesn’t always work. The “too-ri-aas” and “fol-did-dle-di-aas”, accompanied by fiddles and washboards, that dot tracks like “Mrs. McGrath” and “Froggie Went A Courtin” sound unnatural, contrived, and basically unconvincing in terms of the authenticity Springsteen seems to be striving for. At least to my ears they do.
On the other hand, when it does work, as it surprisingly does on the more gospel-influenced tracks, the results are quite often stunning. When I first saw The Seeger Sessions Band do “O Mary Don’t You Weep” on Good Morning America yesterday, my jaw actually dropped. Not only did this odd band full of trombones and fiddles actually rock, but Bruce himself was in full-on showboat mode — doing a cross between old time preacher and rock and roll shaman he shined to perfection with the E Street Band. There is even one of those false stops towards the end — on “O Mary” — that he is so famous for in concert. Then he brings them right back.
It’s a different kind of noise than he makes with E Street Band to be sure; when they snarl, these guys swing. But it is an equally joyous one. On the record, he even gets Patti Scalfia and Soozie Tyrell to sing backing vocals that almost recall the churchy, gospel sounds of someone like The Staple Singers. Likewise, the hymn-like “Shenandoah” is as beautiful and haunting as “O’ Mary” is joyous and uplifting. The longing of the original comes through in the sweet, sparse arrangement heard here.
But the other thing that is evident here, especially when you watch the DVD portion of this Dual Disc, is that Bruce and everyone else are clearly having a great time playing this music. Bruce often refers to the music heard here as music that is not so much being “played” as being “made.”
The Seeger Sessions was recorded live, another rarity for the notorious perfectionist Springsteen, in three separate sessions, mostly in a barn. On the DVD , Springsteen offers up rounds of drinks for everyone during the sessions (more often than not having one in hand himself). They even take the session outside at one point – because as Bruce notes, “this is music that can be played anywhere, because nothing has to be plugged in.”
With the booze flowing, a loose relaxed atmosphere permeates much of The Seeger Sessions. And when the Dixieland and Gospel influences take center stage, The Seeger Sessions actually rocks with the evangelical fervor of a tent revival. Okay, maybe swings is a better word.
The biggest surprise about tracks like “Erie Canal,” “Jacob’s Ladder” and the aforementioned “O Mary Don’t You Weep” (for my money, the standout here) is the way Springsteen and these musicians summon up the ghosts of Bourbon Street Jazz and the deep South of the past. Who would have imagined Bruce Springsteen, of all people, recording an album so deeply, obviously steeped in the tradition of turn of the century Negro spirituals? Among all of the other influences found here of course.
That is the real surprise of We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.
I could probably do with a little less of the banjos and a little more of the violins and the trombones. A little less “dustbowl” and a lot more “cotton field” I guess.
But Bruce Springsteen has delivered the very last record I actually expected him to make when I first heard about this a few months back. And you know what? I think I could get used to this old time religion stuff.
I’m calling The Seeger Sessions Three Stars… make that Three And A Half Stars. A very strong Three And A Half Stars.
But Bruce, we need an E Street Band record and tour next year okay? Please?