I’m a little ragged today because Kate and I went up to SPAC last night to see Bruce Springsteen, who is currently touring behind his album of Pete Seeger songs. This was a short-notice concert– I only got the tickets (as a birthday present) on Sunday– so this review will be pretty much it as far as blogging today, because I didn’t have time to set other posts up for today, and I’m a little tired this morning.
I didn’t really know what to expect from this show, because the album itself is sort of odd– Pete Seeger songs and folk standards, done by a huge mob of studio musicians. It’s good, in a sort of O Brother, Where Art Thou? kind of vein, but it’s not really your typical Springsteen record.
The short version of the review is this: It was a really fun show, and if he’s playing near you, go check it out. The longer version is behind the cut.
This was the most crowded I’ve seen a concert stage, other than the occasional televised all-star jam sort of deal. Kate and I both counted 17 people on stage, including a four-part brass section, two violins, electric guitar, steel guitar, banjo, upright bass, accordion, and two or three background singers and miscellaneous percussion. There may well have been a kitchen sink up there– we had lawn seats, so it was a little hard to tell.
The concept of Springsteen playing folk standards sounds a little risky– there’s the potential for it to become really mopey, in the Ghost of Tom Joad sort of vein. Happily, this was not that– with a few exceptions (“We Shall Overcome,” “Mrs. McGrath,” “Bring ‘Em Home,” the closing “When the Saints Go Marching In”), they stuck to more upbeat material. And other than a few weirdly scholarly song intros, this was Springsteen in E Street Band mode– somewhere between singing and shouting, and working the crowd like a real pro.
All in all, everyone involved in the show appeared to be having a good time up on stage. They spread the credit around a lot, with practically every song featuring solo turns by at least a couple of the musicians. The crowd favorite was probably the trumpet player, who looked like he was likely to suffer an aneurysm from blowing too hard, but both violinists, the accordion player, and the rest of the brass section got plenty of time in the spotlight. The band was tight, but loose, if that makes any sense– they knew exactly what they were doing at all times (which is an absolute equirement if you’re going to put 17 musicians on stage), but the songs still had a sort of ragged, casual feel to them, as if these 17 people just happened to wander into the same outdoor arena at the same time.
The set list was almost entirely folk standards, which lead to some griping from the local paper (“Open All Night” was the only Springsteen original, unless you count re-arrangements and re-writings of standards), but then, that’s what the album they’re touring behind is. While it might be sort of interesting to hear a ramshackle folk version of “Thunder Road,” they’re not under any obligation to provide one. Complaining about the lack is sort of like going to see Neil Young solo, and complaining that he didn’t play “Down By the River”– sure, he could re-write Crazy Horse songs for solo acoustic guitar, but it’s not like he’s short of other material. In this case, Springsteen has a couple hundred years of folk music to pad out the set list, and the songs they did pick were played very well indeed, and well suited to the band. It’s kind of petty to complain about the songs they didn’t play.
It’s an important caveat, though: he’s not going to play “Born to Run,” so don’t go see the show if that’s what you want. If you’re ok with hearing “Buffalo Gals Won’t You Come Out Tonight” as an encore, though, it’s a real good show. There’s even a little of the live shtick he’s known for with the E Street Band, including a funny gag involving an extended tuba solo in “Pay Me My Money Down.”
I’d still like to see him do a greatest hits show at some point–my knowledge of the E Street Band is all based on television– but the same things that make those shows work are present here. So if you like traditional music, and you like Springsteen’s rock stuff, check it out.
(The most important feature of the evening: the weather held up. It was hot and swampy all day, and the forecast called for thunderstorms in the afternoon and evening, so we were prepared for the worst (lawn seats), but the sky cleared up as we reached Saratoga, and it was actually a very pleasant summer evening. We mostly relied on the video screens they had set up, because the people in front of us had folding chairs, and we were on a blanket, but when I stood up, I had a clear view of the stage.)