Monday, April 24, 2006
Bruce Springsteen: The Next Chapter
Bruce Springsteen hits the road once morewith a new CD and a whole new sound
By DAVID HINCKLEY
The New York Daily News
April 23, 2006
A few dozen yards from the deserted Asbury Park boardwalk, where a cold April wind is fighting a warm April sun, Bruce Springsteen steps to the microphone inside an empty Convention Hall and blasts into "This Hard Land," a classic Springsteen tale of desolation meeting defiance.
"Hey there mister Can you tell me what happened To the seeds I've sown. ..."
"This Hard Land" isn't a new song. It was bumped off his 1984 "Born in the USA" album and spent a decade on bootlegs before he released it in 1995.
Whatever its history, the song has never sounded like this.
The opening has a country lilt, reinforced when the banjo, fiddles and pedal steel kick in. But it's not exactly a country song. It's more like something out of a Saturday night dance party.
"Once the solos start," he tells the band near the end, "we gotta give it up to the rhythm."
His band can do that, even though it's very different from his E Street Band. This is a 17-piece outfit full of strings and horns. It does include familiar faces like Soozie Tyrell and Springsteen's wife, Patti Scialfa, who also play a big role in working out the vocal harmonies.
Its musical mission is country, folk, gospel, bluegrass, activist anthems, New Orleans jazz, old-style ballads, a touch of blues and whatever else peeks in. After rehearsal and between a few bites of takeout, Springsteen says it's basically "all the beats and styles I don't use with E Street, which is my rock band."
He's doing this now, some suggest, because he has to.
"Bruce makes records that reflect the time in America in which he makes them," says Meg Griffin, a longtime NYC radio host now at Sirius Satellite. "An artist who does not travel new roads experiences creative death, and like all the great ones from Van Gogh to Hendrix, Bruce has the courage to explore his soul."
He also does it because he can.
"I have no rules left," says Springsteen, matter of factly. "I don't have to get on the radio. It's wide open for me. The singer-songwriters I admire - Dylan, Neil Young, Woody Guthrie - move forward all the time."
As does he - a rocker who stepped away for 1982's dark and brilliant "Nebraska," 1995's stark "Ghost of Tom Joad" and 2005's pensive "Devils & Dust."
This time it's "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions," which is released Tuesday and features 13 songs recorded by, among many others, Pete Seeger.
Some are well-known, like the spiritual "Oh Mary Don't You Weep" and the folk ballad "John Henry," but Springsteen says familiarity wasn't his criterion.
"I looked for characters I knew," he says. "I'd say, okay, in 'Erie Canal,' I know that guy. I know this guy. I heard 'Oh Mary' and I thought, I wrote like that in 'Promised Land.'"
Several songs have spiritual themes, he notes, "and I've written a lot of religious music."
In the folk tradition, he also added touches of his own to traditional songs. The merchant seaman's lament "Pay Me My Money Down" is now a wild workout that includes the line:
"I wish that I was Mr. Gates They'd haul my money in in crates. ..."
So "The Seeger Sessions" is no exercise in musicology. It's personal. "It returns me to some of the music I was doing when I started recording," he says. "My second album had an accordion, a tuba, jazz sounds, circus sounds. When we streamlined E Street into more of a rock band, we did less of that. So it's an area I like getting back to."
He's also taking it on the road, with rehearsal shows tomorrow through Wednesday at Convention Hall, then three weeks in Europe. Back home, he starts in Boston May 27 and comes to Madison Square Garden June 22 and the PNC Bank Center, Holmdel, N.J., June 24-25.
"This show is going to be fun," he says, because the record was already fun. "We did it in three days, all live, no overdubs."
That's a big step for a notorious perfectionist.
"The sense of raggediness in this music is important," says Springsteen. "You want to keep the raunchiness of the characters, because they were raunchy. They lived in a raunchy time.
"Part of this music is the wide elbow room you feel inside it. I sometimes tell the band, 'If this gets any better, it'll be worse.'"
Another part of his mission now is figuring out which of his own songs fit the tour's rhythm.
"Cadillac Ranch" requires little reworking, but "Open All Night" has become a foot-stomper and "Johnny 99" is now a funk number. Then there's "Adam Raised a Cain."
"It's bluegrass, like from 40 years ago," says Springsteen. "Those guys loved biblical and religious imagery, and they could easily have done 'Adam.'"
The broader challenge, he says, is that "unlike E Street, this band has no previous material. My 30 years of previous songs, we're not playing any of that. I have this long-standing arsenal and all of it is gone."
He laughs. He likes this. Not all of his fans agree.
"I just have no interest," says Mark Ashkinos, a fan since the '70s. "I'm a rocker. When he rocks with 'Where the Bands Are' or 'Mary's Place,' I'll pay attention again."
Springsteen says he will be back - at some point.
"I love playing with E Street," he says. "I always will. I have a bookful of new songs sitting there to play with E Street."
But not yet. "I have a very good and really sizable core audience that's adventurous," he says. "It's not as large as the audience with E Street, but it's a good size and I'm interested in taking them on an adventure."
In Europe, that's a go: Fans snapped up every ticket in minutes. Back home, there may be some hesitation, as this week's Asbury Park shows were not his usual instant sellouts.
He seems confident word will soon get out that these shows are just a plain good old time.
"There will be no seats on the floor," he says. "It's rowdy music. I'm hoping my rock fans will respond to that part."
And no, the man who sang for presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry in 2004 isn't throwing a show without a message.
"I'm always looking for topical things in songs," he says. "Not rhetoric or demagoguery, but broader implications, like in 'Oh Mary' or 'Eye on the Prize.'
" 'My Oklahoma Home' jokes about this guy's woman being carried away by a twister. It's light. But it's really a song about losing everything - and in New Orleans today we have our biggest disaster since the Dust Bowl. That's the way our lives tie into old folk music. It's why songs like this last."
"I guess if you think you'll wake up and walk around tomorrow, you're an optimist," he says, after a brief pause. "And I sing about hope. But I've also played the other end heavily.
"A song like 'Promised Land' has very sharp internal edges. The verses are blues and the chorus is gospel. The blues is like you feel something big pressing down, a real perniciousness, and then you look for something to lift the weight. There's so much brinksmanship. That's how the world feels so often."
Springsteen's contribution to lifting this burden, the reason he still matters even to people who wish he'd play "Jungleland," is music, particularly live music.
So, at the age of 56 and long past the point where he needs the money, he keeps doing it, which makes especially intriguing another verse he adds to "Pay Me My Money Down":
"If I were born a rich man's son I'd sit on the river and watch it run ..."
Is that going to happen?
"I'd love to watch the river run," he says. "My problem is that I'm not very good at sitting still. My children have taught me to be a little better at it. But I tend to like to keep moving."
And maybe, on the way, keeping track of the seeds he has sown.
Originally published on April 23, 2006