Concerts in Review: The Boss Is On a Mission

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    icon Jul 13, 2006
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"We're on a mission"
Those were among the words of Bruce Springsteen during his June 17 show at DTE Energy Music Theater.
If that's the case, mission accomplished.
Springsteen is on the road supporting his latest recording, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. The effort is a tribute to songs recorded by the legendaryPete Seeger, and takes Springsteen and his audience on a musical journey from the Depression and the civil rights movement to folk songs that many of us sang in elementary school.
The result is an album filled with sublime revelations, a most successful departure from Springsteen's E-Street sound. Bruce shows that he is more than willing to once again step well beyond his "traditional" musical boundaries - if those even exist anymore after records like Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad,and Devils and Dust.
This mission involves taking chances. Springsteen refuses to sit idly by, hitting the road every so often to give his hardcore fans yet another dose of "Thunder Road" or "Born in the USA."
Instead, the Seeger album and tour is Bruce's way of enlightening and educating anyone who will listen. These songs are history, written in times and sang by people out of passion, desperation, spirit, enlightenment - the things that drove American history and its music for so long, and the same things that are lacking in much of our music and our society today.
Anyone who has seen Springsteen live even once - at least with a full band behind him - knows his shows are part revival, part circus, part political rally - and all entertaining. This most recent tour, which ended in late June and will probably head out again in the fall, upheld established traditions.
But instead of stepping from preacher/circus barker right into "Badlands," Springsteen gave us the real thing, with songs like "O, Mary Don't You Weep," a negro spiritual with origins prior to the Civil War, and "Eyes on the Prize," a song rooted in biblical verses that was updated in the mid-1950s to reflect the frustration of the civil rights movement. Its profound impact is evident in the fact that the tune has been recorded in various forms by Seeger, Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan, and now Springsteen.
This mission involved taking chances, creating a musical history book, and producing a concert that rocks just as hard as any previous Springsteen show. And Bruce has succeeded on all levels, as he did on a hot mid-June Saturday night in Clarkston.
You know the impending show is going to new and uncharted levels when you walk and hear "Blind Willie McTell," an obscure but spellbinding Dylan tune, coming over the pre-concert speakers.
And when Springsteen and his 16 bandmates kicked into "John Henry" to start the evening, they produced a wave of sound rarely seen and heard - or felt - at any venue. The band featured three acoustic guitars; banjo; steel guitar; two fiddlers, including longtime Springsteen accomplice Soozie Tyrell; and a four-piece horn section featuring trumpeter Mark Pender and trombonist Richie "La Bamba" Rosenberg, both on sabbatical from Max Weinberg's "Conan O'Brien" band.
His most recent recordings have allowed Springsteen to vocally settle into a comfortable yet bold middle-aged growl that conjures an image of Tom Waits on too many cups of coffee. Three backing vocalists augmented the sound, and when the players also joined in on the singing, as many as 13 people combined to create a choir that could shake the timbers of any Baptist church.
Even more apparent in concert was Springsteen's willingness to share the spotlight with his fellow musicians. For the "Eyes on the Prize" studio recording, he handled all the lead vocals, but at Pine Knob (sorry, DTE), he shared the task with Marc Anthony Thompson, who had all the vocal chops anyone could hope for. Thompson is an accomplished solo artist in his own right - Google "Chocolate Genius," then listen to his music and read his words. You will find an artist ready to break into the public consciousness on his own because of his musical talent and his soul - all the right reasons.
The four-piece horn section, which included saxophonist Eddie Manion and tuba player (yes, tuba!) Art Baron, took "Prize" and many other tunes to an almost incandescent level. They added the proper accent to each tune on which they played, whether it was blues, Dixieland, or Tex-Mex.
Keyboard and accordion player Charles Giordano looked like an accountant or a math teacher, but played like a seasoned impressionist, adding just the right brush strokes with perfect color and harmony. Sam Bardfield shared fiddle duties with Tyrell, and they combined to put the heart in virtually every song, especially tunes like "Jesse James" and "My Oklahoma Home" that had a hootenanny feel. And Marty Rifkin manned the peddle steel guitar and dobro like he was born in one of the pews at Ryman Auditorium.
Bruce also revamped several songs from his catalogue to fit the vibrations established by the Seeger Sessions music, and to show his long-time fans that he's not willing to let them - or himself - sit back and listen to note-for-note versions of his greatest hits. Dylan took a similar path long ago to the point of being derided by even his most ardent supporters, yet he perseveres, continually producing a vibrant live show.
That night in Clarkston, Springsteen took "Atlantic City" out of the kitchen in which he made the original recording and put it right in the gutter with a touch of the blues. "Cadillac Ranch" featured a lead vocal that was almost hip-hop in spirit and inflection.
"Open All Night," another Nebraska tune, was unrecognizable from its recorded version but worked well reincarnated into a Texas swing number. Springsteen took the band and those in attendance a little closer to the border be reinventing "Ramrod." The song went from an all-out rocker to a Tex-Mex number straight out of a Texas Tornadoes songbook, highlighted by Giordano's irrepressible accordion.
In our haste to make a quick buck, Americans have chewed up and spit out so many musical genres over the past 20 years that nothing seems to stick - boy bands, hair bands, hardcore rap, teen queens, British pop a la Duran Duran and Human League, grunge.
Our country's musical heritage is as important to us as any war or civil uprising, if only because once the wars and uprisings pass, the songs remain to remind of what our society is capable of, in both positive and negative terms. Bruce Springsteen has taken on the responsibility of seeing that the songs and their ideals remain alive. When his career is finished, the Seeger Sessions record and tour and its message may be Springsteen's most lasting and important legacy.

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