Before the show, I was a little ashamed of New Yorkers. I don't care what album he's promoting, if Bruce Springsteen is performing at Madison Square Garden, the show should be a sell-out. Instead, people outside looking to buy were trying to bargain down fans with extra tickets. Inside, there were scattered empty seats throughout the arena. It was certainly very full, but seeing ANY empty seats at Springsteen's one and only show in NYC on this tour is a bit of a shock. I couldn't help thinking Bruce might be feeling a bit bummed. He's delivered a rollicking, fun album and it's barely made a ripple on the charts and casual fans are taking a pass on a stage show with 20+ musicians in tow. On the other hand, this meant the only people there were the faithful. And none of it mattered once the show began.
Most rock shows, including Springsteen's, are raucous, pounding affairs. I've seen Springsteen in concert and been so exhausted at the end I can barely stand. (Seriously.) The same is true for everyone from U2 to Billy Joel (who sold out the Garden for 12 straight nights recently.) But this 2 hour and 40 minute show to promote "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions," an album of classic folk tunes and protest songs associated with or written by Pete Seeger, was different. It was a joyous, uplifting affair -- at the end, I was ready to go on for another 2 and a half hours or at least go home and get politically active. Rousing, moving, and tremendous fun, it was the equal of any Springsteen show I've ever seen, which means it's the equal of ANY concert I've ever seen. The only way I could have enjoyed it more is if my seat was even closer. (I was on the floor, which contained three sections. The front section was standing room. The middle section and back section had seats. I was in the fifth row of the middle section pretty much dead center.)
I didn't recognize the fine opening number, which might have been an old folk tune or a Springsteen original called "American Land," but since the people at fanzine Backstreets didn't recognize it either, I don't feel so dumb. "John Henry" followed immediately. A folk tune and one of the first I think to become widely popular that treated a black man as a hero, it's about a fellow working the railroad who competes with a steam drill to see who can work faster and dies in the process. You probably know it from your school days (back in the day when school actually included some music lessons). Like the album the songs come from, this was a combustible performance. The stage was crowded with 20+ musicians and a scorching brass section that literally rocked the house. The crowd roared when a fiddle player stepped forward to take a solo and did the same for the banjo player (some crazy young guy with a Seventies 'fro), the accordian player and on and on. It was a beautiful noise, always a bit ramshackle, as if they were just getting together to have some fun -- they were good, but not too good, because that's not the way this music is meant to be played. It's spontaneous and fun.
He followed immediately with "O Mary, Don't You Weep," an old gospel tune that was just as energetic. It quickly became clear what a unique show this was. Springsteen was playing an album of all new material -- always freeing for an artist who has a massive back catalog and fans who want to hear all their favorite numbers. No one in the Garden was waiting for "Born To Run" or "Thunder Road" this night. On the other hand, these are classic songs, so instead of new tunes that everyone hadn't quite embraced yet, it was like a string of greatest hits Springsteen simply hadn't played in a long, long time. It was new and old, fresh and familiar.
The crowd of faithful knew every word. At the slightest prompting, they dived in on choruses -- even a short intro would have the crowd singing the words before Springsteen had even started. "Johnny 99" was the first Springsteen tune to be reimagined for this show and to me was the closest to an unsuccessful performance -- there was something dissonant and awkward about it that didn't quite take hold. But then came "Old Dan Tucker," with Bruce arranging a sing-off between New Yorkers and people from New Jersey. As the Jerseyans held their own, Bruce smiled and said, "I don't know, it's pretty close," teasing both them and the New Yorkers as they traded the chorus back and forth. But then he closed by saying now in the spirit of the evening, everyone sing it together. Exactly. The spirit of the show was heartfelt...and deeply political.
"Eyes On The Prize," my least favorite moment on the album, was a little more lively onstage. But after that and "Johnny 99," it was simply one highlight after another. "Jesse James" (oh how I hate that coward Robert Ford) was a barn burner, "Atlantic City" had a sinewy vigor, and "Erie Canal" (another childhood favorite of mine) was intro'd by Bruce as being part of the vanishing genre of mule appreciation song.
"My Oklahoma Home" is a comic highlight on the album. But here Bruce began it by talking about New Orleans, reminding us that things like having your entire life wiped away can actually happen. (He didn't need to add -- "and no one will care" -- but he did describe the shocking sight of seeing a major American city emptied out with street after street of abandoned homes and urged us to remain "vigilant" about the reconstruction.) Bruce started with just an acoustic guitar, and while the rest of the band joined in slowly and the humor was still there, Bruce kept the tragedy underneath the black humor up front and made it real. (The crowd's chant on the chorus "Blown Away!" was especially lively.)
Then came a lovely swing version of "If I Should Fall Behind," followed by "Mrs. McGrath," the tune of an Irish mother whose son comes home from the war without any legs. Springsteen said simply we have to keep writing and singing songs like that because it keeps happening. That was followed by a thunderous "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" My only disappointment about this song is that it's not on the album -- substitute it for "Eyes on the Prize" or "Shenandoah" or "Froggie Went A Courtin" and a terrific album would become that much better.
I can't emphasize enough the roars of delight that greeted most numbers. Though in many ways new to us, they were greeted like old friends. Certainly "Jacob's Ladder" -- a real crowd pleaser that built and built and built to a climax and then kept goin' -- was yet another highlight. He followed with a number that I was not looking forward to: "We Shall Overcome." Frankly, the album version is too slow and pokey for me -- in concert, it was vastly improved and strikingly moving.
Again, tune after tune was tremendously fun but my mind was truly split open wide by the "Nebraska" song "Open All Night." (It's no surprise over the years that songs from "Nebraska" keep being reimagined in concert with tremendous success -- it's simply his greatest album with his best batch of songs.) Bruce turned "Open All Night" into some sort of swinging, hep-cat number, complete with the background female singers making like the Andrews Sisters and Bruce delivering the lines in a talking jive manner that made the song completely fresh. An astounding, wonderful, ten minutes (?) of pure bliss. Followed by "Pay Me My Money Down," which exploded everyone into joy. The brass section was scorching the stage by this time. These men had probably never played to crowds this big and they were not wasting the opportunity. One trumpet player in particular got roars of applause when he stepped forward because the man was simply on fire. Then the band left the stage one by one, with Bruce tapping them on the shoulder and calling them away until just the tuba player was front and center, with the crowd belting out the chorus over and over as he played along. Usually, Bruce comes out and taps him on the shoulder. But we'd already heard the guy's mom was in the audience that night and suddenly a little old lady came out on stage and went up behind the tuba player and tapped him on the shoulder. He clearly had no idea it was happening and seeing the tuba player and his mom hug on the stage at the end -- well, it was that kind of show.
There was a thread of politics and social consciousness throughout the show -- again and again, side comments by Bruce or the simple fact that the songs championed the common man made that clear.
But no one could ignore the steely purpose of the encores. Bruce began with an acoustic version of the Pete Seeger song "Bring Them Home." Some people think all New Yorkers are hippie liberals, but it's a town of 8 million people (not to mention the folks from New Jersey). And Bruce's fans are definitely more blue collar than say, Streisand's. But with just a guitar and stinging lyrics about how we shouldn't let our brave young men die because of the gleam in someone's eye, Bruce had the entire audience singing "Bring 'em home," with a sense of purpose and moment that should strike fear into the heart of any Republican running for office in the mid-term elections.
That was followed by "My City of Ruins," the anthem Bruce played at the 9-11 concert with breathtaking majesty. This version was more gut-wrenching and gospel-powered than the almost pacific, spiritual original. And when it got to the chorus, the crowd roared out "Come on, RISE UP!" with an overwhelming ferocity and passion that completely drowned out anything that had come before in the entire evening. It was an emotional, stunning moment -- I was taken aback momentarily and frankly don't know how Springsteen managed to ride that wave of feeling without stumbling for a bit. I certainly would have lost my voice for a moment. But of course that's why he's onstage and I'm sitting in the audience. Then came the joyous release: more barn-burning, more exhilarating solos from the band, more joy with "Ramrod" and "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)."
Then the one song I hated to hear because I knew it was the last number: "When The Saints Go Marching In." Directorboy thought this quiet, stirring version was beautiful. I had expected a rousing finale and so was a little disappointed, mostly because I knew the show was over.
If you're even remotely a fan, don't miss this show if you can at all help it. I wouldn't have said that about his acoustic tour or the tour supporting "The Rising," as much fun as Bruce ALWAYS is in concert. You'll never go wrong seeing him at any time. But this tour is not to be missed.