Or, On Not Being a Bruce Springsteen Fan.
Such a subtitle will be greeted as sacrilege by a subset of my old grad school pals, or would be if they were still reading here, as their adolescences were entirely framed by his music. My adolescence moved between classic rock of a much more southern-fried variety and effortless mainstream pop, before finally veering off in a more new wavish direction. What Springsteen I knew was what got played on the radio which, in pre-Clear Channel Louisiana, wasn’t terribly much, and what there was always struck me as being overwrought and way too testosterone-dependent.
So I went into Sunday’s concert, the closing set of the first weekend of Jazz Fest, with pretty low expectations. I figured the highlight of the afternoon would be Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello, the dean of New Orleans music and, well, Elvis, performing music from their forthcoming collaboration. What could be better?
See, when I heard Springsteen was playing, I assumed it would be, at least to some extent, the old stuff, the E Street Band stuff, the sort of power-trio-plus stuff, and I figured we’d listen a while and then wander off when it got old.
It didn’t get old.
This was perhaps the most inspired hour and a half of music I’ve ever seen performed. Springsteen’s appearance wasn’t at all the rehash of old favorites I’d expected, but an entirely new venture, the first date in his new tour with the Seeger Sessions Band. I’d been sitting on the ground, waiting between concerts, packed into my tiny, muddy spot of real estate, when the announcer began his intro. And ended it. All he said, in contrast to earlier, effusively descriptive lead-ins, was “Ladies and gentlemen, Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band.” By the time I’d gotten to my feet, the music had begun — and I was stunned to see that there were something on the order of 20 musicians on the stage, all playing acoustic instruments. There were, of course, a couple of backup guitarists and a drummer, but there was also a pianist, a stand-up bass player, a steel pedal guitarist, a five-piece horn section, two violinists, a banjo player, and an accordionist.
Not your average Springsteen concert, I think.
For an hour and a half, the band played an all-out set of Americana, folk and country and gospel-inspired songs, deeply political songs about devastation and hardship and the will to survive, songs that originated in the twentieth century’s many traumas. Most of the songs came from the just-released album, but a couple didn’t, including of course How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?, but also including a few reimagined versions of the older stuff that I thought I was going to hear — so thoroughly reimagined that I didn’t recognize them at all. And while it’s far from an original thought to say that Springsteen is at his best in concert — bringing astonishing energy and joy to his performances, playing on long after the crowd expected that he’d quit — it would be a mistake for me not to note it anyhow. Of all of the concerts I saw over the weekend, each of them worth far more than the ticket price on their own, Springsteen’s was the most amazing, a gift to a city that still hurts, a city that needs its own to come home, but that also needs to know that the rest of the world noticed, and cares.
I would not have expected to find myself, so far from my long-over adolescence, finding Bruce Springsteen relevant, much less rushing out to buy his new album. But here I am.