Tuesday, April 25, 2006

'Seeger Sessions' a Rock of Ages

Friday, April 21, 2006
Newark Star-Ledger

For a folk album, Bruce Springsteen's "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" really rocks.

On most songs, the Boss sings in a gritty style that's closer to the bar-band Springsteen of "Ramrod" and "Cadillac Ranch" than the somber Springsteen of "My Hometown" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad." Songs like "John Henry," "Jesse James," "Old Dan Tucker" and "Pay Me My Money Down" hurtle forward with unstoppable force. A large acoustic band -- fiddles, acoustic guitars, upright bass, accordion etc. --generates a steady-flowing river of sound, with a mini-choir adding gospel passion.

Drums crash, banjo riffs careen wildly. Just when you least expect it, the band will break into Dixieland, or gypsylike fiddles will take over.

Allowing listeners to catch their breath, Springsteen tones down the band's bombast on ballads like "Shenandoah" and the classic protest song, "We Shall Overcome." But these moments are rare.

Trumpeter Mark Pender, saxophonist Ed Manion and trombonist Richie "La Bamba" Rosenberg -- all longtime members of Southside Johnny's Asbury Jukes -- are among the 13 backing musicians. The last thing you would do if you wanted to make a traditional folk album is hire a bunch of Jukes.

"It was a carnival ride, the sound of surprise and the pure joy of playing," Springsteen, 56, writes of the album sessions, in the liner notes. "Street corner music, parlor music, tavern music, wilderness music, circus music, church music, gutter music, it was all there waiting in those songs, some more than one hundred years old."

In the past, Springsteen -- who was scheduled to present the first rehearsal show for his Seeger Sessions Band tour, last night at Asbury Park's Convention Hall -- has been a perfectionist in the recording studio. But he resists the urge to polish here, leaving in a muffed line on "John Henry," and shouted-out musical directions on "Pay Me My Money Down."

He recorded the album in three one-day sessions spread out over nine years, going back to 1997. That was the same year he contributed a single song, "We Shall Overcome," to a Pete Seeger tribute album. Recording that song led him to explore Seeger's recorded work further; the "richness and power" of what he found there inspired this album, he writes in the liner notes.

"We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" comes out on Tuesday, almost a year, to the day, after the appearance of Springsteen's last studio album, "Devils & Dust." Not since he released his first two albums in 1973 has he put out two studio efforts in a year or less (unless you count "Human Touch" and Lucky Town," released on the same day in 1992).

Of course, "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions," isn't a major statement, like "Born To Run" or "Born in the USA" or "The Rising." It's a detour, an experiment, a genre exercise, in the tradition of albums like "Everybody's Rockin'" (Neil Young does rockabilly) or "Almost Blue" (Elvis Costello tackles country).

This doesn't mean it's as ill-conceived as those albums. And it doesn't mean that there aren't some threads that connect the songs to Springsteen's prior work. The working-class pride of "John Henry" makes it a natural Springsteen number: the title character dies trying to keep pace with a steam drill, but his spirit lives on. The spiritual uplift of "Jacob's Ladder" and the antiwar sentiment of "Mrs. McGrath" (about a grief of a mother whose son loses his legs at war) are also familiar Springsteen themes.

In the less-than-glorious tradition of "Pony Boy" and "My Best Was Never Good Enough" (the final tracks of "Human Touch" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad," respectively), Springsteen ends the album with a throwaway: the children's song, "Froggie Went a-Courtin'." A better choice would have been the richly textured group-vocal version of "How Can I Keep From Singing," heard only as a bonus track on the DVD side of this DualDisc release.

The DVD also includes footage of Springsteen and the band recording in the living room of his Colts Neck farmhouse; the room is so small the horn players have to stand in the hall. At one point, the musicians venture outside the house, with their instruments, for an impromptu jam session in a field. Springsteen beams, and why shouldn't he? It always feels good to make a fresh start, or just take a break from business as usual. And how many rock superstars get a chance to do that at his age?

Springsteen talks, on the DVD, of the importance of "recontextualizing" folk music. Presumably, that's what he intends to do when he adds the line, "I wish I was Mr. Gates," to "Pay Me My Money Down." But overall, Springsteen seems to realize that folk music doesn't always have to be recontextualized. It's timeless.

Springsteen performs at Convention Hall in Asbury Park Monday through Wednesday. Tickets are $100. Call (201) 507-8900 or visit www.ticketmaster.com. He will also take the Convention Hall stage Tuesday, with doors opening at 6:30 a.m., for a live broadcast on the channel 7 television show, "Good Morning America." Tickets are free, and will be available starting at 9 a.m. today via www.ticketmaster.com. Ticket information is not available for his shows at the Tweeter Center in Camden, June 20, Madison Square Garden in New York, June 22, and the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, June 24-25.

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