Chad's parents gave us lawn seats to see Bruce Springsteen on Monday at SPAC, touring in support of the album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. I hadn't heard the album before we went—it was a recent iTunes purchase by Chad, and I hadn't got around to updating my iPod off his computer. I just figured, hey, Springsteen live! How can this be bad?
Fortunately I was right: it was a great show. There are only three dates left on it: tomorrow at Madison Square Garden, and then Saturday and Sunday in New Jersey at the PNC Bank Arts Center. If you're in the area, I recommend investigating further—I don't think they're sold out.
The short version is that the concert displayed a very high level of musicianship and energy, Springsteen has stage presence like whoa, and I am sadly ignorant of classic folk songs.
The long version is behind the cut.
First, two quick notes to set the scene. We had lawn seats, and a thunderstorm had come through earlier in the day, but the weather had cleared beautifully and it was a calm, crisp, temperate night. There was an unfortunate glancing encounter with an incredibly rude woman just before the show started, but music calms the angry Kate.
Also, if a band uses a recording of "Down to the River to Pray" as the "we're coming out now" music, and the band includes a blond woman with a violin, people will inevitably say, "Hey, is that Alison Krauss?" (It wasn't.)
Generally speaking, my reaction to the band was that they were really tight. Everyone else talks about this tour as loose ("ragged but right," according to the Times Union review), so what I was hearing was, I think, professionalism and craft: everything fit together, the sound was rich and full. I'm not musically experienced, and a lot of places where Chad heard a casual feel or improvisation as people passed off solos folk-circle-style, I couldn't hear it. All I knew was that there wasn't long aimless noodling bits or people seeming uncertain about what was going on.
What I did hear was energy and enthusiasm. Springsteen pours his heart into his singing, to the point where I don't understand how his vocal cords make it through the night. (Or how the trumpet player didn't pop some blood vessels.) And either everyone was having fun up there or they're really good actors.
Also, I mentioned the stage presence like whoa? Yeah. The last time I was so dazzled in that rock-star-crush way was college at a Melissa Etheridge concert (it must've been in support of Yes I Am, since I didn't much like her subsequent albums).
Comments on the set list, via Backstreets.com (lists all from 2006, so large page). All songs are from We Shall Overcome unless otherwise noted.
- "John Henry": Kick-ass. It has a couple of verses that appear to be uncommon variants; in the second-to-last, after John Henry dies, his woman Polly Anne drives steel (in some of the variants collected here, she does so after he's sick, not dead), and in the last, "you can hear John Henry's hammer ring" every Monday morning when a bluebird begins to sing.
This is a song that's as good on the album as live.
- "O Mary Don't You Weep": Also as good on the album as live. I don't know what to call this; Big Band gospel with a slightly sinister touch? Good stuff, anyway.
Also, it took some listening to determine that it's "Pharaoh's army got drownèd" rather than "drowned, hey." I'm not good at hearing lyrics either.
- "Johnny 99": Okay, the online setlist claims this was performed, but looking at the lyrics, I absolutely cannot place it. So no comments.
- "Old Dan Tucker": Better live with everyone singing along than on the album; I'm not that crazy about it as a song. The Times Union calls this a Cajun arrangement, for whatever that's worth.
- "Eyes on the Prize": Low, spare, and intense. Maybe not the best vocal fit, but moving.
- "Jesse James": Chad told me, as they started, that the Pogues had covered this. I immediately heard Shane MacGowan's growly mumble and a slightly faster tempo, even as the band was playing. Unfortunately the Pogues' version is sung by someone else, and so I ended up liking the version in my head better than either of the actual versions I heard.
This one was still pretty good, though.
- "Adam Raised a Cain": Another one not on the album that I can't remember. Sorry.
- "Erie Canal": This was a severely disorienting moment for me, as by the second line there was the full-on sing-along that usually requires an entire song to work up to.
This is how you know I wasn't raised in New York, that I don't know this song from elementary days. (I don't think Massachusetts has an equivalent; some people have to memorize "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere," but that's not the same.)
Except for a tempo change at the beginning and end, Chad tells me this is a pretty straight version. I really like the insinuating tune.
- "My Oklahoma Home": The Times Union called this a "Western swing thing." It's more fun when the audience gets to echo the "blowed away" in the chorus.
The first hint of current events, as Springsteen noted that we're seeing large numbers of people displaced from their homes now.
- "Further On (Up the Road)": Not on the album. Beautiful. Toward the end, each of the backup singers repeated the chorus solo and then passed it on.
- "Mrs. McGrath": Yes, it's famous and important, but I don't much like it as a song. This is the Irish one about a son whose legs are blown off.
- "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?": Originally a Depression-era song, rewritten to refer to New Orleans; not on the album. A rehearsal version is available at Springsteen's official site (no permalinks). Not bad for a topical song (I tend to think the less specific the political song, the better).
- "Jacob's Ladder": Springsteen led into this with a half-sung preacher schtick that was pretty amusing. Kinda sorta like "O Mary Don't You Weep" but more upbeat. Or something.
- "We Shall Overcome": Another very spare rendition; Springsteen said he decided to approach it as a prayer. I'm really not familiar with other versions, but this worked for me.
- "Open All Night": An older Springsteen song, which the Times Union called "unbridled jump 'n' jive boogie-woogie." It disoriented me briefly because it and "State Trooper" (from the same album) share a lyrics about "In the wee wee hours, your mind gets hazy / radio relay towers, lead me to my baby."
- "Pay Me My Money Down": Very long silly going-out song. The audience was encouraged to sing the chorus as the band left, still playing, until only the tuba player and Springsteen were left. I'm afraid there is only so long I can be enthusiastic about singing two lines over and over again, and the going-out went well past that, but it was still a lot of fun, more so than on the album.
- "Bring Them Home" (encore start): Not on the album; you can hear a version at the link above to Springsteen's site. I'm not that crazy about it as a song.
- "Buffalo Gals": Won't you come out tonight? Because I first encountered that phrase in a Le Guin story, I think of it as buffalo-the-animal girls, not girls from Buffalo, NY, which apparently it was meant as. The crowd loved it. Not on the album.
- "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)": Another energetic reworking of an older song.
- "When the Saints Go Marching In": I'd really like a recording of this edition. Couple additional verses, very slow and haunting—someone started clapping fast when the chorus came up and then stopped when they realized that no, this isn't that kind of version. Another song they learned for New Orleans.
A lot of these folk songs I'm hearing for basically the first time here, and so they'll probably end up being my default versions like the Indigo Girls' "Tangled Up in Blue" is (the one with the bluesy Montague Street verse), because that's just how my brain works. I'm okay with that, though, especially as I have the memory of the live performances.