Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Laying The Ghosts To Rest

Bruce Springsteen and The Seeger Sessions Band, Hammersmith Apollo, 8/5/06

Having already written at length on the 'We Shall Overcome' album, I was simply going to state that this was one of the most enjoyable gigs I've ever seen and leave it at that, but I've since decided further comment is necessary after all.

Back in 1975, Bruce Springsteen's first live show in the UK was heavily promoted with an advertising campaign stating 'finally London is ready for Bruce Sprinsteen'. Although the concert has since been released on both CD and DVD as part of the 30th anniversary reissue of 'Born To Run', it actually seemed that Springsteen wasn't ready for London (he considered the show a poor performance). Tonight, returing to the same venue for the first time since that fateful performance, he is in rejuvenated form.

This Seeger Sessions show worked brilliantly as much because of the audience as Springsteen himself. Mercifully, nobody seemed to have come here expecting a run through of hits, although the five original compositions in the set were rapturously received. This audience completely engaged with the traditional material, indulging in a supremely entertaining mass singalong with 'Pay Me My Money Down' at the end of the main set, and even taking Bruce by surprise when shouting back the 'blown away!' responses during the choruses of 'My Oklahoma Home'. At least partially as a result of this game participation, the show had all the righteous energy of an E Street Band performance.

Seeing Springsteen in a venue of such relative intimacy can only be described as a privelege - he remains the gutsiest performer in the business, and the gritty growl he deploys on many of these songs only adds to this. He's a superlative bandleader too, counting off the songs and directing the soloists. Yet, more remarkable still is the space he gives to the rest of the band. Lead vocals are frequently traded with wife Patti Scialfa (who leads a haunting reading of 'How Can I Keep From Singing?') and his guitarist. Soloists are encouraged to move to the front of the stage where they can bask in the glow of spotlights. There's a spirited, rough 'n' ready feel to much of the set - as Sprinsteen would have it 'the sound of music being made not just being played'.

Highlights include a savage, blistering 'Jesse James', a bluesy reworking of Nebraska's originally stark 'Johnny 99', a medley of 'Cadillac Ranch' with 'Mystery Train' and a brilliantly arranged gospel take on 'Long Black Veil'. The centrepiece of the show, however, is an altered reading of Blind Alfred Reed's 'How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?' with new verses that specifically reference Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Bruce precedes it with a rant aimed squarely at 'President Bystander'. It's a powerful moment, and one that suggests that traditional protest music, through being recontextualised, can still ring true even in these most cynical times. There's adventure as well as rediscovery going on here.

The huge band taps into gospel, folk, country, blues and New Orleans jazz traditions, drawing them all together into a wildly energetic and captivating mesh. Even the more tentative tracks from the album work well in the theatrical setting. The album recording of 'We Shall Overcome' perhaps sounds a little tentative - but here Bruce truly does manage to turn it into a prayer. Similarly, 'Eyes On The Prize' sounds like the work of a true believer.

The encore includes 'My City Of Ruins', written for his hometown of Asbury Park but then performed for New York City in the aftermath of 9/11, it has now been co-opted by New Orleans as well. In this context, it demonstrates just how neatly Springsteen fits into this songwriting tradition.

They close with a spare, intensely vulnerable reading of 'When The Saints Go Marching In', and Bruce makes this most familiar of melodies entirely his own. It's a moving end to an extraorinary concert - as I said at the start, one of the best I've ever seen.

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