Bruce Springsteen has been busy lately so here are five reviews for the price of one, covering three very different live shows and two albums, The Seeger Sessions and Magic Rock columns, Mail on Sunday, May 29 2005, April 23 2006 and May 14 2006
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
O2 Arena, London
Coming just after Led Zeppelin’s reunion, another one-off gig at the O2 Arena might be considered an anti-climax. But Bruce Springsteen doesn’t do anti-climaxes.
London has seen a lot of him lately, with shows at the Albert Hall in 2005, at Hammersmith and Wembley last year, and now at the largest venue in town. Four stages, all dissimilar, and Springsteen has mastered the lot.
In 2005 he performed solo, delivering a pensive evening, occasionally lit up with exuberance. Last year he brought a rumbustious 19-piece folk ensemble, and now he has reassembled the E Street Band, the most durable, lovable backing group in rock.
There are tedious queues to get in, as when you land at an American airport. The band make up for it by hitting the stage running, ricocheting straight from the adrenaline shot of Radio Nowhere to the cheery clarion call of No Surrender and the cascading psychodrama of Night.
When each song ends, one of the four guitarists has already swapped instruments with a roadie, ready to launch into the next one. It’s a guitar relay, a simple but effective device which takes organisation and skill and makes for a storming start.
Springsteen’s new album, which wraps political lyrics in comfortable tunes, is called Magic, but there’s no sorcery in his handling of a live audience. As he told Esquire magazine (US) two years ago, every performance is a quest: ‘I’m searching for the invisible thread of energy and inspiration or soul … that [will make] a song explode to life… Sometimes it can take you through all 25 songs… Sometimes you're looking for it again after one.’
Here, the thread is never lost. It slackens a little 20 minutes in, during the workmanlike Lonesome Day and the brooding Gypsy Biker, but soon tightens again with the controlled fury of the title track of Magic. In Springsteen’s early work, politics means workplace relations; nowadays, he tackles civil rights and foreign policy. His beliefs are straightforward: liberty, integrity, fraternity.
Introducing Magic, he mentions how grim it has been ‘for the last six years under George Bush’ – the lies told, the liberties curtailed. The fans cheer, but one keeps conspicuously quiet. It’s Geoff Hoon, the Labour chief whip, who, as Tony Blair’s defence secretary, played his part in misleading us into Iraq.
As the song ends, Hoon slips out. In a perfect world, he would be off to No 10 to resign, having seen the light. In the world we live in, he returns with a beer; later he dances, reassuringly badly.
The tempo rises again with the spooky rockabilly of Reason To Believe and the perfect rousing pop-rock of Because The Night. These are among 13 songs we get from 1975-84, while the other 12 are all post-2001. Springsteen is serving up two versions of himself: the young thruster bursting with a ‘roaring confusion’, as he once put it, and the reflective, politicised, still passionate veteran.
Devil’s Arcade stands out among the new tracks, while the best of the oldies is the epic ballad Racing In The Street. It’s a young man’s song, about cars and girls and broken dreams, so it gains a layer of pathos from being sung by a 58-year-old whose voice, somehow, is still getting richer.
There are many things Springsteen doesn’t do. He doesn’t change his image: his idea of a wardrobe update is to wear dark-blue jeans rather than black. He has no set, preferring to pack in 500 fans behind him. The lighting is rudimentary and the video screens are just communal binoculars, showing us the band’s faces. If there are more chins these days, the eyes are still alight with commitment and camaraderie.
Although concessions have been made to the advancing years – no more knee slides, no four-hour shows – there’s still time for a six-song encore. The sunny Girls In Their Summer Clothes starts a mass singalong which runs through the bombastic-but-beloved Jungleland and the unstoppable Born To Run. Then there’s a breezy Dancing In The Dark, a delirious American Land, and a jokey Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.
It’s not the biggest concert yet staged at the O2, but it is the best.
FIRST PIECE: MAY 2005
Royal Albert Hall, London
Bruce Springsteen likes a challenge. Last time he was in London, he brought the E Street Band with him, played the drab and lifeless Crystal Palace athletics track – and filled it with the communal exhilaration which is his speciality. On Friday night, he tried something quite different: a solo show, designed to achieve intimacy amid the grandeur of the Albert Hall. The room was small by Springsteen’s standards, yet dauntingly large for a solo performance. And once again he lit it up.
He had stated clearly that this would be no greatest-hits show, but fans who were braced for an evening of dusty folk songs found themselves treated to a series of surprises. After strolling out, bowing graciously and remarking on the weather (‘nice to be back in sweaty hot London’), Springsteen sat down at a harmonium of the kind normally lugged onto this stage by the Bootleg Beatles.
He played some big, sonorous chords, added a wheezy harmonica solo and sang My Beautiful Reward, the closing track from Lucky Town (1992). It’s an ordinary song, a routine ruminative chugger, but he sang it with quiet strength. The effect was like some of Johnny Cash’s last recordings: churchy, rugged and compelling.
Then he got up, ditched the harmonium, squeezed a more demented sound from the harmonica, beat out a menacing rhythm on a drum pad on the floor, and sang Reason To Believe (from Nebraska, 1982) as a wild blues with his voice put through some kind of squeeze-box. He had gone straight from Johnny Cash to Tom Waits, which is no short distance. And he had played two songs, on two instruments each, without picking up a guitar.
That changed with the third song, the title track of the new album Devils & Dust. He strummed away roughly and gasped out a breathless vocal, as if his soldier-narrator were running for cover. There was another harmonica solo, more conventional this time. This was folk with the twist of modernity that Springsteen hit on with Streets Of Philadelphia: Woody Guthrie for the post-ambient era. Three songs, three very different sounds.
He rang the changes all evening, switching from acoustic guitar to grand piano and back to a more tinkly guitar, and eventually returning to the harmonium and vocal effects. There were even a couple of straight-out rockers played on electric guitar, an instrument that is far more powerful when deployed sparingly. The energy that Springsteen usually pours into running, dancing and stage-sliding went into making sure that the solo format didn’t become a straitjacket.
At 55, the Boss is in the veterans category now: it is 30 years since he sang Born To Run and was hailed – more or less accurately – as the future of rock’n’roll. No rock star has aged better. Still slim, hungry and open-minded, he is also older, wiser and wittier.
As the evening went on, he talked more and more between songs. He discussed the Pope, the President, the Queen, the Virgin Mary, Freud, Roy Orbison, the origins of man, the vicissitudes of parenthood, and the difficulty of writing about your mother in a rock song. For a superstar, he’s a terrific conversationalist.
After throwing his weight behind John Kerry in the presidential election, Springsteen could be feeling sore, but he has turned his disappointment into dry humour. He reckons it was the windsurfing that did for Kerry. ‘Phoney chemical-weapons plants – they’re all right. But windsurfing? That’s where the American people draw the line.’
The jokes come only between songs. Springsteen takes his craft seriously, writing prolifically (242 songs so far), thinking hard, creating characters who face tough choices. As he moves between musical styles, the themes remain the same: family, work, sacrifice, redemption. Catholicism lurks between the lines, as he now ruefully admits: ‘all those women named Mary – what was that about?’ But mainly these songs deal with what it is to be human. All the issues rock tends to run away from, Springsteen is happy to confront.
Even the faithful have found the new album hard going. There are too many words and not enough tunes. A couple work better in concert, where he can tee them up with a crisp preface, but on the whole the latest material here is the least brilliant. If he was choosing on quality alone, he might have dropped Lonesome Day, Leah, The Hitter and Silver Palomino in favour of Born To Run, The Price You Pay, I’m On Fire and Empty Sky.
And yet there are still plenty of highlights. The River, played on the piano with a subtly revised melody, is majestic. Nebraska is graceful in its grittiness. The Wish, a little-known song about his mother, is musically orthodox, lyrically deft and emotionally irresistible, suffused with a fabulous fondness: ‘how proud and happy you always looked, walking home from work’.
The first encore, Ramrod, is a romp, as Springsteen ventures into the stalls and finds himself being stroked by starstruck women (‘dirty work, someone’s gotta do it!’). And he has two final surprises up his sleeve. The Promised Land is startlingly reinvented as an eerie lament, with Springsteen slapping out a sparse rhythm on the rump of his guitar, and then it’s back to the harmonium for the spooky art-pop of Dream Baby Dream by Suicide, an act he appears to have nothing in common with.
He performs with his whole being – body and soul, big heart and quick wits. It’s a magical thing to see.
SECOND PIECE: APRIL 2006
We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
Columbia, out tomorrow
Bruce Springsteen’s music comes in two varieties – big and small. His big albums have included Born To Run, Born In The USA, The River and The Rising, all landmarks in rock history. The small ones have ranged from the classic Nebraska to the laboured Ghost of Tom Joad and the patchy Devils & Dust.
Big Springsteen, fondly known as The Boss, is an extrovert with a band, a beat and a personality that can light up a stadium. Small Springsteen is an introvert, solitary, sombre and not afraid to be bleak.
From a distance, his new album looked unmistakably small. It has arrived only a year after Devils & Dust, and consists entirely of traditional folk songs popularised by Pete Seeger, the 86-year-old godfather of protest singing. Springsteen’s fans may have been bracing themselves for another medicinal experience. Instead it turns out to be a treat, which reconciles the two sides of Springsteen’s persona.
Folk music tends to mean one person scratching away at an acoustic guitar, with perhaps the odd guest dropping by to play the uilleann pipes, but this record features 14 people and they are clearly having a ball. Springsteen has pioneered a new genre: eclectic big-band folk.
With 30 years’ success behind him, he is probably the richest man ever to sing these songs. This isn’t a problem, as he has always championed the underdog. In fact it’s a bonus. Not only can he afford to hire the equivalent of two E Street Bands, but he also has a large enough room – a barn at his New Jersey farmhouse – to get them all performing at the same time.
The album glows with the communal exhilaration that is Springsteen’s speciality in concert. It feels like a live album, except that live albums tend to disappoint. The vivacity springs from the way it was recorded, in three one-day sessions spread over nine years. ‘This approach,’ Springsteen explains in a shrewd sleeve note, ‘takes the listener along for the whole ride, as you hear the music not just being played but being (ITAL) made (END ITAL).’
That is a big claim, as some of these songs are as old as the hills. Springsteen roped in his biographer, Dave Marsh, to look up their history, and he traces several to the 19th century and one to 1549. There are negro spirituals, Celtic ballads, and workers’ anthems taken up by the civil-rights movement – songs of freedom and frustration, from the street, the church and the fields. The most recent track dates from 1961. By rock standards, this is ancient history.
Springsteen is doing for the first time what Seeger did for most of the 20th century: maintaining and reanimating a tradition. ‘He had a real sense of the musician as historical entity,’ Springsteen told the New Yorker in a joint interview, ‘of being a link in the thread of people who sing in others’ voices and carry the tradition forward… At the same time, Pete always maintained a tremendous sense of fun.’
Springsteen has pulled off the same balancing act. His guiding principle seems to have been the more miserable the lyric, the more joyful his arrangement should be. Several songs start small and scratchy, with a mandolin or a fiddle to the fore, before swelling into great big crossover blow-outs embracing country, swing, ragtime and Dixieland jazz. It will be a stony heart that can sit through it without wanting to dance round the kitchen.
After an uncertain start, there is a golden run of nine songs from the raucous O Mary Don’t You Weep, via the rousing Erie Canal and Jacob’s Ladder, to We Shall Overcome, a song so familiar that it could easily fall flat. Springsteen, who has mostly been singing like a mildly inebriated lion, switches to his ruminative mode, the backing singers line up behind him like the choir of a small country church, and the effect is one of radiant understatement.
Paradoxically, this is very much a Springsteen album: like his best work down the years, it can change your mood. And it is oddly topical, evoking both Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. Springsteen says that listening to Seeger’s oeuvre ‘changed what I thought I knew about folk music’. This album could do the same for you.
THIRD PIECE: MAY 2006
Bruce Springsteen with the Seeger Sessions Band
Hammersmith Apollo, London
When you tell people how good Bruce Springsteen’s new album is, they take some convincing.
‘All folk songs? All old? Written by, who was it, Woody Guthrie?’
‘No, Pete Seeger.’
‘Oh I know. We’ve got tonight, who needs tomorrow –‘
‘That’s Bob Seger. This is Pete. He’s an 86-year-old protest singer. And he didn’t actually write the songs, he just sang them.’
‘So who did write them?’
‘It’s quite hard to say…’
The album (We Shall Overcome, on Columbia, reviewed last month) does sound earnest, until you listen to it. Once you discover how much fun Springsteen has had with these traditional tunes, all resistance melts. More than any of his albums, this one captures the contagious warmth of his concerts.
To make it work live, he probably just had to turn up, but the Boss doesn’t know how to give less than his all. This time last year, he played the Albert Hall on his own, creating a powerful intimacy; now he has gone to the other extreme, bringing 19 musicians and turning the former Hammersmith Odeon into a hoe-down.
The tone is set before he opens his mouth, with short, spirited solos from the honky-tonk pianist and the fiddler. The band launches in with the accordion taking the lead, then the horns (which include a tuba). The tune is O Mary Don’t You Weep, the fourth track on the album, sent up the order because it’s stronger than the first three.
There are a multitude of Marys in Springsteen’s songs, but this one is different: it’s Mary the sister of Martha from the New Testament. The song, a negro spiritual from the age of slavery, swells and swings and galvanises 5,000 21st-century Londoners, very few of whom are black.
The only worry is that Springsteen might have played all his trumps too early, but the band has terrific range and he uses it to switch genres, often in mid-song. This is folk with lashings of jazz, gospel, Cajun and country. The musicians are male, female, black, white, old and young, the gene pool Yiddish, Irish, English and Afro-American. Springsteen’s inclusiveness has reached new heights.
By re-arranging several songs, simplifying here, amplifying there, he makes them his own. By choosing them carefully, he makes them topical. Mrs McGrath, a mother’s lament from the Napoleonic Wars, clearly alludes to Iraq, while My Oklahoma Home, about losing everything but the mortgage, conjures up Hurricane Katrina. These are hymns ancient and modern.
Rather than reverence, they are treated with exuberance. The gospel songs have a whiff of the bar as well as the choir, and Springsteen’s voice, often sombre in the past 20 years, reverts to the delirious holler of his youth.
The fans pick up the mood, singing and swaying like a football crowd saying goodbye to their ground.
The evening peaks in six different places, with the beautiful sadness of Eyes On The Prize, the surging joy of Erie Canal and Jacob’s Ladder, the bold jump-blues of Open All Night, the raucous thump of Pay Me My Money Down and the churchy stillness of My City Of Ruins. It closes with a masterclass in musical restoration as Springsteen and an outstanding backing singer, Marc Anthony Thompson, take the old chestnut When The Saints, strip it down and find its soul. The crowd go out into the night not just humming but throbbing, having seen the gig of the year so far.
FOURTH PIECE: SEPTEMBER 2007
Columbia, out tomorrow
Shepherds Bush Empire, London
Ever since 1982, when he followed the surefire success of The River with the startling bleakness of Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen has been running two careers. One is in rock, the other folk; one is that of a mainstream superstar, the other that of a liberal activist, a lonely thing to be in today’s America.
Last year, with The Seeger Sessions, he finally reconciled the two sides of his persona. He released a bunch of angry old folk songs, took an 18-piece band on the road, and performed with such exuberance that his fans had a ball.
Having brought some fun to his inner folkie, he is now doing something similar with his stellar self. He has reconvened the E Street Band for the first time since 2002 and added a sharp political edge to their big-band, good-time sound.
The tunes here are big and uncomplicated. Often the chorus is just the verse in light disguise, so you find yourself humming along within seconds. Of the first two tracks, one has a riff that evokes the Blue Oyster Cult classic Don’t Fear The Reaper, while the other has a chiming intro reminiscent of the Searchers’ Needles And Pins.
It’s as if Springsteen is determined to get back on the radio. Paradoxically, the song with which he makes this most obvious – the Oyster Cult homage, and first single – is Radio Nowhere, a rousing attack on the emptiness of American broadcasting.
If the tunes are comfort blankets, the words are wake-up calls.
After getting his fingers burnt openly endorsing John Kerry, Springsteen has opted to slip back into the shadows of metaphor. Some of his redneck fans may not spot the politics at all. But Magic, like Born In The USA, is a title not to be taken at face value. It sounds celebratory when it’s really full of contempt.
The title track itself, an elegant chugging ballad in the line of I’m On Fire, contains no proper names, but surely deals with the tricks the Bush administration has played on the American people. ‘Trust none of what you hear,’ Springsteen murmurs, ‘and less of what you see… The freedom that you sought [is] drifting like a ghost among the trees.’
The Iraq war is not mentioned by name either, but amid Springsteen’s familiar characters and settings there are references to the desert and the wounded. Overtly on Devil’s Arcade, more obliquely on Last To Die, he channels his outrage into a stirring empathy.
There is personal stuff too, including a track called I’ll Work For Your Love which, with its fusion of the romantic and the work ethic, could have come from nobody else. He waxes wistful and elegiac as well as aggrieved.
Girls in Their Summer Clothes is one of his warmest tunes, Long Walk Home is noble and dignified, and Magic itself is a classic. Only two tracks fall flat, and only the sax solos feel dated. Springsteen sings beautifully throughout, his voice a touch more honeyed with each passing disc. At 58, he remains exceptionally alive.
Another week, another major talent from Canada. Leslie Feist is a band veteran turned singer-songwriter who has taken 15 years to become the next big thing. Her lovable signature tune, 1234, is on the new iPod ad, and her album The Reminder (Polydor) offers plenty more where that came from.
In concert, she is charming, with Sixties hair, an elastic voice and a subtle sex appeal. She skips nimbly between different modes – solo and band, pop and folk – and plays a nonchalantly ramshackle guitar.
The gig threatens to turn into reality TV when she colludes with a fan to invite him up on stage. He plays the piano (rather well), recites a poem (atrociously), and finally proposes to his girlfriend – who says yes, possibly in order to stop him doing anything else.
Feist gets back on track with a buzzy version of Past In Present, which begins a triumphant last half hour. Afterwards, she was pipped to Canada’s Polaris prize by the excellent Patrick Watson (reviewed last week), but she is the one who looks like making it big first.