[22 July 2007]
Bruce Springsteen with the Sessions Band: Live In Dublin, the official audio and visual documentation of the Bruce Springsteen and the Sessions Band world tour arrives just in time in the “American Land” like an injection of bottled euphoria after a deadly struggle with depression. A pot of coffee after a hang over, a smile from a pretty woman, a white flag rising from the air after a gut shredding battle, dawn after dusk – Springsteen and his talented band blast through the wreckage of a war-weary nation, hurricane disaster zone, and de-industrialized poverty and crime stricken wasteland that is still called the United States.
Despite how unfamiliar it seems these days, to say: “Listen to this for the sake of your own sanity, you will feel better. You may even feel inspired.” In powerful populist form, Springsteen offers hope to the world conscious listener, but only after a necessary dose of fatalism that saves him and his musical comrades from appearing naively optimistic.
America is no short supply of irony, right now. Any reader of the New York Times or viewer of Fox News can give themselves a daily dose. Springsteen’s latest ambitious musical vision and execution can now be a part of that daily dose. It is titled Live in Dublin because the “Sessions Band World Tour” played sold out venues everywhere in Europe, everywhere in the world, with only one exception: The United States.
The show received a low turn out despite the fact that Springsteen, one of America’s best and most prestigious songwriters, and band, complete with full horn and string sections and accompanied by a mini-choir of backup vocalists, were attempting to document the history and evolution of American music. Inevitably, large amounts of Springsteen cult members along the Eastern seaboard showed up to concerts in New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. But, the places that birthed the forms of music Springsteen paid homage to – jazz, big band, folk, gospel – and so desperately needed a message of hope and intelligent, critical patriotism; The American South and Midwest, allowed Springsteen to play anthems of solidarity, peace, and racial togetherness to half empty arenas.
I was fortunate enough to attend the Springsteen and Sessions Band stop just outside of Chicago, and was shocked by the low turnout. Casual Springsteen fans told me the same thing, likeminded callers told Chicago’s rock radio stations: they were not interested in a non-E-Street Band tour featuring Springsteen singing folk songs from a Pete Seeger tribute album called We Shall Overcome. It was their loss. Springsteen and company delivered an intense, thrilling and high energy performance of brilliant instrumentation and stylistic variety. A little over half the setlist was comprised of old folk and gospel anthems and the rest featured selections from Springsteen’s own catalogue, radically reworked to fit in with the new format and band.
Although the setlist is a little different, the CD/DVD capturing Springsteen and the Session Band’s three night stand in Dublin showcases the same abilities and qualities of Springsteen, the performer and arranger, and his band as their Chicago concert. In musical terms, the band’s performance is almost flawless and Springsteen’s arrangements are exciting, while authentically resembling the pre-Rock and Roll, pre-Rat Pack singer style era of noisy folk, spontaneous jazz, and visceral gospel.
Springsteen is at a creative peak not seen since the ‘80s and it is obvious from the freshness on his face and in the audience’s ears. The emotions range from pure, unapologetic joy heard while the crowd chants along with “Old Dan Tucker”, “Pay Me My Money Down”, and “Open All Night”. Love and Romance inspire song and dance during a waltz version of the Springsteen favorite “If I Should Fall Behind.” Despair and anger seep through the speakers when Springsteen sings “Mrs. McGrath”, an all too relevant Irish anti-war song about a mother who cannot accept that her son lost both of his legs in a strange war. Those emotions still linger when Springsteen and band turn to “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live”, an old American folk tune with new Springsteen penned lyrics that turn the song’s focus from the Great Depression to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
These performances, themes, and inculcations would be more than enough for an enjoyable, entertaining, yet serious show. But, the folk romp is at its most dynamic and compelling when offering redemption to the fallen, a line of hope to the desperate, and pride to the pitiful. Whether dealing with the personal or political, Springsteen’s lyrics often put things in grim and fatalistic terms that have become darkly realistic after airliners crashed into American buildings, an event which led policymakers to invade a country for reasons that have since been proven false and flimsy. While the death count of soldiers rose, their families, friends, and neighbors grieved and eventually witnessed the destruction of one America’s greatest cities, New Orleans, partially because of the storm and partially due to governmental negligence.
Add to that the decline of the small town, erosion of community, and steady increase of inequality and the harsh observation contained in Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”, Live in Dublin’s opening song, does not seem foreign. “Down here there’s just winner and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line” Springsteen growls just two minutes after walking on to the stage. In the original Nebraska version of the song and updated E-Street band version, the chorus “Meet me tonight in Atlantic City” seems like a desperate plea from a character about to make his last stand and fall harder than ever before. But, with the Sessions Band and under a new arrangement, the song has a flicker of hope. Perhaps, Atlantic City will actually be a place where the “sands turn into gold.” The performance ends with an impassioned “li,li,li,li” sing-a-long of solidarity that informs the listener that the character was met by the one he loves in North Jersey, giving him enough will to believe in the future.
“Further on Up the Road”, taken from The Rising and also performed early in the set, paints a gothic noir scene where the “way is dark” and the “night is cold”, the “gun is cocked” and the “miles are marked in blood and gold.” The singer is once again fatally down on his luck and cries out to be met by somebody, anybody, not in a specific place, but a vague and desolate destination – further on up the road. The Rising dealt with loss, grief and national identity after 9/11, and on its bitter, guitar rock version of “Further” when Springsteen sings “One sunny morning we’ll rise I know” it is hard to believe him, even in a time when everyone was searching for belief. On Live in Dublin after the penny whistle softly finishes its riff, the music comes to a halt allowing Springsteen with a dozen voices joining him to slowly sing that statement of hope and transform it into an easily accepted creed, as long as the “sunny morning” stipulation is accepted. We keep crawling, hiking and trekking our way down the road.
Whenever Springsteen with his Sessions Band offer encouragement and reason to believe to listeners, he demands they be willing to back it up with the intellectual and physical labor required from citizens in a period of national crises. The terms of the hope-for-work trade are never as evident as during “Jacob’s Ladder,” the gospel chant of redemption brilliantly placed right after the grief and populist anger laced descriptions of earthly hell in “Mrs. McGrath” and “How Can a Poor Man”. After Springsteen finishes demanding compassion for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and contempt for those that failed them, we hear the transcendent sound of an organ, high voices of the choir, and jubilant calls from the horn section. Then, the song begins, as does our climb up “Jacob’s Ladder”: “Every new rung just makes us stronger. We are brothers and sisters all.” The only way to have our rising above the wreckage of ground zero, New Orleans, and Baghdad is to climb hard and climb together.
Shortly after September 11, 2001 Springsteen was pulling out of a beach parking lot in Asbury Park, NJ and heard a fan shout, “We need you Bruce.” Springsteen said he understood the sentiment because in times of tragedy people long for the familiar. He responded by writing and recording The Rising, his first album with the E-Street band in 15 years. The songs were good, some better and more powerful than others, but the album failed to capture the totality of 9/11. Perhaps it was too fresh or too close, but the loss felt personal but not national, while political and social questions went largely unexplored. A message of practical hope and critical patriotism was only found on the album’s title song, and its closing number, “My City of Ruins”. The balanced combination of grief, anger, dissent, patriotism, and hope that a bold fan demanded from the sands of New Jersey did not arrive with The Rising. It came nearly six years later in unexpected form, with an entirely new band—“We Shall Overcome: Bruce Springsteen and the Sessions Band on Tour.”
It is truly a shame that hordes of narrow-minded Americans rejected this multi-faceted and exciting project, and Springsteen was forced to reserve filming for Ireland. However, those who did buy a ticket witnessed Springsteen sing an underrated tune from Devils and Dust titled “Long Time Comin’”, which tells the story of a man who never had much of a father as a boy and has not been much of a father to his own children, but is ready to “give birth to a new soul” when his third child is born. They also could have danced and jumped along to “American Land”, a brand new Springsteen song that pays tribute to the American dream and America as a land of immigrants, but cautiously warns, “The hands that built the country we’re always trying to keep down.” Thankfully, both those that were there for this tour and those that were not, can experience the same moments by purchasing the CD or DVD of Live in Dublin.
Springsteen has said that he “always wanted his shows to be part circus, part political rally, part revival, part dance hall.” All the proper elements are exercised well on the Dublin show, and fans will easily recognize them. “Open All Night” and “Blinded by the Light” make for a night circus, and dance hall numbers are in no short supply. As already indicated, the rally and revival portions are covered extensively as well. But, it does not hurt to mention “Jesse James”, a tribute to the hero who “stole from the rich and gave to the poor,” and the rousing spiritual “This Little Light of Mine”. All the parts of any great Springsteen show are here, along with all the essential steps of recovery for a nation attempting to heal itself of several wounds, some self-inflicted and others not.
The defining moment for Springsteen, band, and country comes in the form of a Negro Spiritual that was sung by slaves seeking freedom and blacks demanding equality during the civil rights movement. “Eyes On the Prize” blends political rally, revival, and dance hall to shout: “The only thing I did was wrong was staying in the wilderness too long. The only thing we did was right was the day we started to fight.” It is a tough challenge to all Americans, better left unaccepted by the weak, simple-minded and uninformed. But, maybe if the strong and smart fight long and hard enough with the values of freedom, reason, and debate in their minds, love and passion in their hearts, and determination in their bones they can lead a struggling super power out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land – A place Springsteen first wrote about in 1978 and despite plenty of reasons to be skeptical, still believes in.