A runaway American dream
Sunday May 14, 2006
Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band Hammersmith Apollo, London W6 & LSO St Luke's, London EC1
I have over the past 18 years seen more than my share of Bruce Springsteen concerts. I have seen him together with the E Street Band and alone with an acoustic guitar; singing to 60,000 in New Jersey and playing to a hushed Albert Hall. Witness enough concerts and the rituals become familiar; little feels genuinely surprising; it can seem as though you have seen it all. In all my years of attending concerts nothing had however prepared me for the two extraordinary shows Bruce Springsteen performed in London last week. The first was a return to the venue where he made his British debut 31 years ago; the second was an intimate performance in a converted 18th-century church to an audience of invited guests, which must be an early frontrunner for the concert of the year.
When he first emerged, Jon Landau, then a rock critic and later Springsteen's longtime manager, famously declared he had seen 'rock n'roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen'. It was an exuberant if inaccurate claim; Springsteen was even then more a musical plunderer than a revolutionary, and from Elvis and Dylan to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash he has been generous and explicit about the debt his music owes to others. The songs chosen for the new album might be ancient, but their themes remain pointedly timely. If the project sounded a tough sell on paper, on stage Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions band were an inspiring triumph.
From the opening fiddle introduction to 'O Mary Don't You Weep', Springsteen treated the songs not as museum relics but as though they were entirely vital and vibrant. The audience might have come out of curiosity, but within the first few seconds of the opening number everyone was clapping and singing along. Springsteen smiling broadly, his leg occasionally cocked and his guitar held high as if holding a machine gun. On stage, he has rarely looked as if he's having so much fun. Without his trusted E Street Band or his trademark Telecaster guitar, this was an evening liberated from the regular rituals; no one was expecting to hear 'Born to Run' or 'Born in the USA', and when Springsteen did drop in one of his own songs - 'Johnny 99', 'Cadillac Ranch', 'You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)' and 'Open all Night' - they were so radically reinterpreted as to be virtually unrecognisable.
The symbolism of returning to Hammersmith was not lost on Springsteen, who admitted that the building held many ghosts and memories. When he first played here he was a young man feeling trapped by future expectations; 30 years on, and while many of his contemporaries remain imprisoned by their pasts, Springsteen remains determined to keep moving forward.
Fast-forward 24 hours and inside the converted hall of St Luke's church Springsteen and the band played their second London concert of the week. The church was an inspired choice of venue: We Shall Overcome is filled with songs promising hope to the faithless, salvation to the dispossessed. With an audience of only 300, this was the most intimate Bruce Springsteen concert anyone could recall. As the light filtered through the church windows, the sky outside still blue, Springsteen kicked into a riotous 'John Henry' before tearing twice into 'O Mary Don't You Weep'. A song such as that, with its gospel roots, would have been sung across churches in the American South and there was something surreal and yet magical to be hearing such music sung in an east London church.
Each song was introduced with a few words about its origins and when Springsteen introduced 'My Oklahoma Home' he compared the dustbowl to the recent destruction brought upon New Orleans and the lacklustre efforts of the Bush administration. Having played the New Orleans Jazz Festival only two weeks ago witnessing the aftermath of the hurricane had clearly stung Springsteen, inspiring a desperate and bitter 'How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?' Having toured in support of the failed Presidential bid by John Kerry, Springsteen has been reluctant to highlight the political dimension to the songs he is singing but their remaining relevance is not hard to discern. 'Mrs McGrath' (played twice because the first time the audience's enthusiastic clapping hampered the performance) might be almost 200 years old but it remains as potent an anti-war song as any written since and its closing lines of: 'All foreign wars I do proclaim/ Live on blood and a mother's pain' are as vivid and powerful today as they ever were.
The lyrical content might have been about hardship and injustice but musically these were songs with soaring choruses and surging melodies. Standing only feet away from the band you notice what otherwise might be missed: the generous smiles Springsteen gave to his bandmates encouraging them to enjoy the applause, the easy chemistry between Springsteen and his wife Patti Scialfa and the general air of a man free from pretensions and utterly comfortable in his own skin. Contracted to play for 45 minutes, Springsteen and his superb band played for almost twice that, ending with a rousing 'Pay Me My Money Down'. The crowd continued singing the chorus long after Springsteen and the band had vacated the stage hoping he might return. With the sky outside now black, the show was over. The audience who witnessed it might have been tiny but this was a titanic performance. This was the intimate concert that Springsteen fans had prayed for. How fitting that their prayers were answered inside the walls of an old church.