The latest project from Bruce Springsteen that circumvents the nostalgic attraction of the E Street Band doesn’t reduce the visceral appeal or emotional connection between singer and community. The “Seeger Sessions” album, begun as a tribute to one of America’s finest song collectors and most significant interpreters of folk songs, the banjo-playing singer and social activist Pete Seeger, features songs so reworked that the connection to the 87-year-old legend is strictly in repertoire. The underlying link — and this is what the concert evidences more than the “Seeger Sessions” album — rests in the belief that songs can unite and educate even if they’re nearly two centuries old, and that by bringing together story songs of tragedy, community, legends and unjust situations — and letting the audience participate through singing and dancing — the aud leaves a concert hall with a better perspective on the world.
Few have been better than Seeger or Springsteen at spreading a gospel via a concert. The Seeger Sessions Band show Monday was rambunctious and sprawling yet possessed an obvious post-Katrina focus that Springsteen wove through the evening, a concept that probably didn’t dawn on him during the recording of the Seeger-related tunes. The material’s subject matter boils down to perseverance, faith and distrust in elected officials, themes that ran through his response to 9/11, “The Rising,” an inspired balm that for many people helped clarify scrambled feelings.
When he performed at New Orleans’ Jazz Fest in April, he saw a half-empty city in ruin that will require years to rebuild — on Monday, he even noted that short attention spans need to be altered when it comes to keeping a focus on recovery. The city makes for an easy focal point for his audience: The Springsteen crowd is affluent, white and middle-aged — people with fond memories of trips to the Big Easy, or at least a conscious images of what made the birthplace of blues and jazz so vital.
That focal point lent poignancy to the evening’s final song, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” a quality so desperately absent in the title track from the Seeger Sessions album, “We Shall Overcome.” Both tunes open at a funereal pace and grow into epics, but “Saints,” naturally, grew in the playfulness that runs in tandem with its hope for a better afterlife. “Overcome,” meanwhile, never escaped its more powerful ghosts from the Civil Rights era, especially those cast by Seeger’s rendition at Carnegie Hall in 1963. The song’s power is derived from its intent: Springsteen and his audience of spectators have no motivation to make the spiritual transcendent.
Getting people to sing along with unfamiliar tunes — Seeger, it should be pointed out, was a master — can be a struggle, and Springsteen even joked that L.A. would be tougher than most other tour stops. His 17-piece band of horns, strings, voices, piano and acoustic guitars took up the slack, fleshing out songs with show-stopping ensemble bursts. About eight songs received the all-out treatment that drove home the energy associated with Springsteen in his E Street Band concerts.
And as much as it looks like an extemporaneous hootenanny, Springsteen has this show as plotted out as a Broadway act, leaving nothing to chance, whether it be the layering of sound or having the instrumentalists leave their perches and come downstage to solo.
The multitude of instrumentalists provided him with an enormous palette. He was ostensibly backed by a New Orleans jazz band, a bluegrass quintet, a barrelhouse blues trio, a gospel choir and a single accordion. Sometimes they took a romp together (the spirituals “Mary Don’t You Weep” and “Jacob’s Ladder), while elsewhere they let the song fit a single genre (a Kansas City swing-inspired version of “Open All Night”; the pure folk of “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”; the anti-war jig “Mrs. McGrath”).
Eleven of “The Seeger Session’s” 13 tracks made it into the 2½-hour show. They were partnered with songs from 1980’s “The River,” 1983’s “Nebraska” and a mediocre version of “If I Fall Behind” that paled next to the chill-inducing rendition heard on the first E Street Band reunion tour.
Set also included the Boss’ rewrite of Blind Alfred Reed’s Depression-era classic “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live.” (Vocal delivery was a direct lift from Ry Cooder’s 1970 interp of the tune. It was the only time Monday the horns played with a sheen of rock-era modernism.)
Drawing on “The River” and “Nebraska” has its own inner logic: Those records were made at a time Springsteen was being turned on to books such as Woody Guthrie’s “Bound for Glory” — Guthrie and Seeger were traveling partners and bandmates — and he started drawing on the old folkies’ narrative style, universal messages and social responsibility in his own writing. That style is a connective tissue to the work of Seeger — whose name was never mentioned during the show — and the one that gave the fulfilling evening some of its greatest strength.
Springsteen and the band perform June 22 at Madison Square Garden.