Last month we talked about the mixed fan reaction to Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. Bruce and the band have just returned from a hugely successful European tour and opened the U.S. leg on May 27 at the Tweeter Center in Mansfield, Massachusetts. Having seen Springsteen perform both with the E Street Band and solo, I was looking forward to this configuration.
If there were any doubts left in the minds of the audience last night that this was the right time, the right band, and the right music, I suspect those doubts vanished shortly after the evening began.
Starting the show with the steel-driving “John Henry,” Springsteen and this huge, lively band, eighteen members strong, immediately got the packed house to its feet, and then proceeded to take us on a two-hour plus joy ride that consisted largely of the folk music that he has so invigoratingly reinvented on The Seeger Sessions, with a few surprises thrown in for good measure.
Fresh from the European leg of the tour, the band is polished, but not too polished. This is not the E Street Band working to find a way to make “Rosalita” sound fresh and new for the umpteenth time — this is a band that’s still on the edge of new, and is likely rediscovering itself with every performance. As befitting its rustic roots, the music is raw around the edges, and rowdy — this is working music, dancing music, and church music all rolled into one. All of the musicians and singers are given ample opportunity to strut their stuff, and there’s fine stuff to strut, the horn section and the violins in particular lifting much of the evening’s performance into the stratosphere, accompanied by wonderful background vocals that nicely complemented Springsteen’s gruff and gravelly delivery.
Throughout the show, Springsteen was an ever-moving presence on stage, larger than life, dancing, conducting, cajoling, and playing to the audience as only he can. The audience, in turn, was clearly up to the task of holding up its end, and the fans are already learning their parts in the Seeger Sessions sing-along, which rose to a peak during “Pay Me My Money Down,” the song which marked the lively end of the first set prior to the band re-taking the stage for a six-song encore, which included a guest appearance by Peter Wolf, who joined the band for a “Dirty Water/Buffalo Gals” medley. And if you didn’t think that “Buffalo Gals” could rock, well — guess again.
The high points of the evening are almost too numerous to mention, as every song in the set list had something to offer. For me, the highlights included “O Mary Don’t You Weep” and “Pay Me My Money Down,” which are two of my favorite tracks off the album, “Jacob’s Ladder,” which shook the house like an old-time gospel song should, and a quiet and almost prayerful “When The Saints Go Marching In,” much different than the Dixieland version that most of us are familiar with. Throughout the evening, the charismatic stage presence that Springsteen is known for was on full display — the band may have been different, and the music might not always have been familiar, but the energy and the commitment of the performers and the enthusiasm of the crowd came from a place we’d all been to before.
These songs, as Springsteen and this band have re-imagined them, are representative of the kind of music that rock and roll grew from, so it’s no surprise that the performance exemplified what Springsteen is best known for. His onstage persona, which is as much revivalist preacher as it is rock and roll icon, suits all of this perfectly. Celebratory, reflective, somber, hopeful, and joyful in turns, he respects the source material while infusing it with relevance. It’s probably safe to say that without jazz and the blues and the country music that grew from deep American roots, without the spirituals and the gospel music, we never would have had rock and roll. This music brings the connections into clear focus — this is American music, sprung deep from within our collective history and our collective unconscious, and reborn again in such a way that links our musical past to our musical present while respecting all the traditions that influenced it along the way. This concert was a fitting way to mark the beginning of an American holiday weekend in the very state where America was born.
Those fans who think that this is somehow a detour for the Boss owe it to themselves to see a show. With this music, Springsteen, an American original if ever there was one, returns us all to our musical beginnings, and in the process, everything old becomes new again.