Monday, May 29, 2006


(Dave Marsh on Bruce Springsteen in New Orleans, from the May Rock & Rap Confidential)

In a time of warfare against a phantom enemy abroad and a war against the poor creating phantom citizens at home, up pops Bruce Springsteen with an album titled We Shall Overcome. He didn't have New Orleans in mind when he started making it in 1997, but both the music and the ways he's using it speak directly to the situation there today.

Deciding to start his current tour with the Seeger Sessions Band at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on April 30 reflected Springsteen's sensitivity to the issues of poverty and racism and his ability to pick up on a catalytic opportunity. What Vietnam veterans were twenty years ago--a powerful symbol of the people the system tries to erase from view--New Orleans is today.

Discussion of Bruce's new album has focused on its subtitle, The Seeger Sessions, probably because people are puzzled by what it all means. The song selections don't seem nearly as political as their source, Pete Seeger. Yet four of the thirteen--"O Mary Don't You Weep," "Jacob's Ladder," "Eyes on the Prize" and "We Shall Overcome"--have at one time or another been used as "freedom songs." "Pay Me My Money Down" is that rare thing, a song that truly protests the situation it describes. "John Henry," "My Oklahoma Home," and "Mrs. McGrath" are explicitly about oppressed folk. That's almost two thirds of the thirteen song album.

One reason the album seems to avoid politics is "We Shall Overcome" itself. Springsteen's version downplays its spirit-rousing aspect; instead he sings it as one of his desperate love songs, even changing the chorus from "Deep in my heart" to "Darling, here in my heart." The result is a lovely ballad of two people against a hard world, and a violation of the collective spirit that the song stands for. He sings "Eyes on the Prize" in the same emotional mode, but it works a lot better.

The difference between the two is that on "Eyes on the Prize," Springsteen uses his band to build an arrangement that brings in voices and instruments to illustrate a community spirit taking shape out of the dark shadows inhabited by lonely isolated souls.

The music Springsteen makes with his biggest-ever band (thirteen members on the record, seventeen to twenty on stage) abandons much of what has defined his sound. In particular, the stiff rock beat has given way to syncopation. The instrumental focus is on the drums, with the melodic contributions emerging from fiddles and horns, rather than guitars and keyboards. The vocals, both his own and the multipart harmonies, are freer than anything he's recorded. After three albums of tragedy, the mood here swings toward joy. The album's tone is sometimes silly and once in a while fearful but it's never doomed.

Bruce wrote none of these songs yet We Shall Overcome is as personal as any of his records. For once on a studio recording, you can feel the unaffected pleasure he takes from making music, from working with other players and singers.

New Orleans right now is an eerie place, but not just because of the devastation. Abandoned cars and strewn rubble, even the scent of rot, are all over the place in Detroit and, for that matter, Asbury Park. What makes New Orleans different is that despite all the hype about reconstruction, nothing is being done. The housing projects are empty, looking more than ever like prisons. The upper Ninth Ward's population is decimated; the lower Ninth Ward's population is gone. But it's not just people that are missing. So are cranes, building equipment and construction site supplies, even as the courageous volunteers of Common Ground are hard at work in the Ninth, with a blue-roofed house in each part of the ward serving as a center for returning residents, for clean-up, and for visitors.

Musicians in particular are struggling right now, and one reason is that tourism--40 per cent of the pre-hurricane economy--has dwindled so badly. New Orleans does have a great indigenous music community, but the gigs that pay have long been played for outsiders.

The Jazz and Heritage Festival offers a lot of jobs for musicians but the most prominent and best-paying main stages, even the themed tents for jazz and gospel, mainly feature stars from far away. The splendid group of New Orleans icon Allen Toussaint appeared on the main stage right before Springsteen, but with Elvis Costello stepping in to sing several numbers.

Tourists will come to see, hear and eat the music and culture of New Orleans and the Louisiana swamplands. But to get enough of them to fill the huge Fairgrounds racetrack and gain national attention, not to mention lucrative corporate sponsorship, the promoters of Jazzfest need artists like Bob Dylan, Dave Matthews and Springsteen. (The festival is run by a nonprofit corporation, which doesn't mean a lot of money isn't being made.) This aspect of New Orleans may thrive--but it's hard to see how it will do much to change conditions there. It's equally hard to see how presenting a festival with a more local focus would help rebuild the city, either.

Music can do a lot of other things though. Above all, it can provide inspiration and foster connection. Springsteen's always been a man on a mission when it came to those to jobs, and changing bands and singing traditional songs didn't affect that. If anything, this is the strongest outreach he's made in years, stronger than The Rising because he's playing a species of dance music, designed to activate the ass and the mind. And in New Orleans, as noted, "Bruce wasn't preaching to the choir for the first time in a long time."

Springsteen was not only starting a new tour with a new band and new material, but he's Bruce Springsteen, the rock star who is supposed to rise to occasions. He needed a set that lived up to the drama of closing the first big event in New Orleans since the flood.

His big brass section added Crescent City flavor, and drummer Larry Eagle's fat, syncopated beats kept the cadence right. And Springsteen kept things focused. "Oh Mary Don't You Weep," the opening song, ends with: "God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water but fire next time." "Eyes on the Prize" with its recurrent "Hold on" also invoked an embattled spirit: "The only thing that we did right was the day we started to fight." But the show found its legs and definition with a sequence that began with the refugee anthem, "My Oklahoma Home Blowed Away," and ran through the Irish antiwar ballad "Mrs. McGrath" before peaking with the Depression-era anthem, "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live."

Springsteen introduced it with a statement about how shocked, furious and ashamed he felt about what he'd seen since hitting town, then dedicated his rewritten version--"Them that's got, got out of town / And them that's not got left to drown"--to "President Bystander." After that, he had the crowd. With his somber "We Shall Overcome," he gripped them tighter. By the end of that one, even violinist Soozie Tyrell turned to wipe back a tear. That wasn't the climax though. For the first encore Springsteen came out and began to sing "My City of Ruins." As he described that "blood red circle," then pleaded for us to "rise up," tens of thousands of fists raised in the air. Thousands of tears formed a new salty flood.

The concluding "When the Saints Go Marching In," also slowed down considerably, should have been anticlimactic. But Springsteen unearthed verses rarely sung, beginning the song with "We are traveling in the footsteps of those who've gone before." In the ruins of America's oldest big city, those words resonated like a midnight echo in an abandoned housing project.

But I left contemplating the last verse, sung by this tour's Bruce sidekick, Marc Anthony Johnson of Chocolate Genius. "Some say this world of trouble is the only one we need / But I'm waiting for that moment when the new world is revealed."

Those lines took my understanding of one of Springsteen's best lines--"Don't waste your time waiting" from "Badlands"--and turned it around. And that made me consider what it would mean to reveal a new world in this life. We need patience to wait for the new world to reveal itself, that's true. But we mustn't waste that time merely waiting, because only struggle and refusal to surrender can bring that new world forth.

Music can't change the world. But sometimes, it delivers some pretty great marching orders.-D.M.

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