Article 2007-04-05 New York City, NY

Wrestling With Songs Tougher Than the Rest

Bruce Springsteen, finally taking the stage at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night, started out by assuring the crowd that he was still alive. Or maybe he was reassuring himself. The evening had felt, he said, “a little bit like that dream everybody has, where you’re invisible and you’re floating above a room, and all these people are talking about you.” The kicker, of course, is that it turns out to be your funeral.

Mr. Springsteen was the surprise twist in “The Music of Bruce Springsteen,” and the only logical conclusion. He had observed roughly a third of the concert’s 20 performances from the vantage of a mezzanine box: floating above the room, if hardly invisible. What he heard was a raft of artists grappling with his songs and, a bit more arduously, his style.

Some of them managed the task brilliantly; nobody made it seem easy. Mr. Springsteen’s songs occupy various stations in the emotional expanse between defiant and defeated, and they don’t take kindly to revision. Robin Holcomb’s piano-and- vocal take on “Brilliant Disguise,” with its cloak of strange new tonalities, was among the concert’s most inventive turns; that it wasn’t too enjoyable was only partly Ms. Holcomb’s fault. Another pianist, Uri Caine, devised a jazz abstraction of “New York City Serenade.”

The Holmes Brothers saw no need to tweak the gospel lilt of “My City of Ruins,” which they performed with the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. The choir was a reminder of the concert’s cause, music education. Proceeds — a net of $150,000, by the tally of the producer, Michael Dorf — benefited the nonprofit initiative Music for Youth.

Many of the other artists went for extreme simplicity, reining in the atmosphere of the songs. This could be deadly, as a band called Low Stars proved with an earnest four-part vocal harmony on “One Step Up.” (It wasn’t half as spirited as the sha-la-las warbled by Bobby Valli, and an entourage he called the Jersey Guys, on “Jersey Girl” — actually a Tom Waits song.) Earlier the singer-songwriter Josh Ritter had played “The River” as a coffeehouse standard, and the Bacon Brothers had made “Streets of Philadelphia” into a folk ballad. Both acts sounded sincere, and too polite.

That wasn’t the case in the haunting solo acoustic work of Steve Earle (convincingly morbid on “Nebraska”) and Joseph Arthur (deliberate and brooding on “Born in the U.S.A.”). Juliana Hatfield, alone with an electric guitar, made “Cover Me” sound a bit more like a desperate plea. And Pete Yorn played a “Dancing in the Dark” that stressed the darkness over the dancing; he was after the restless twinge already lurking in the song.

Had Jewel appeared as advertised, she presumably would have played in an acoustic vein as well. Her unbilled replacement was Patti Smith — a serious upgrade — singing “Because the Night,” the song jointly written by Ms. Smith and Mr. Springsteen that remains her biggest hit. Backed at the piano by Tony Shanahan, Ms. Smith delivered the anthem with clarity and cool intensity; she punctuated the end of one chorus by nonchalantly spitting on the stage.

It was a hard act to follow, as Dave Bielanko pointed out when his band, Marah, walked onstage. They met the challenge with a spirited version of “The Rising,” one of several numbers in the concert that faithfully echoed the sound of Mr. Springsteen’s E Street Band. Results in this area were occasionally messy. The singer M. Ward barely got through “I’m Goin’ Down” with Elysian Fields; “Hungry Heart,” as rendered by the punk striver Jesse Malin and the Ronette survivor Ronnie Spector, was a shambles.

But Damon Gough, the British singer-songwriter known as Badly Drawn Boy, pumped “Thunder Road” with a bright and goofy exuberance. Later, the Hold Steady — the last scheduled act, appearing after Odetta’s magisterial and wry “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On)” — managed to turn Springsteen emulation into an act of operatic dimensions.

“There’s gonna be a rumble out there on that promenade,” snarled the band’s lead singer, Craig Finn, on “Atlantic City,” making the line his own. A moment later, guitars and drums kicked in heavily, and Mr. Finn ratcheted up with them.

There was nowhere to go from there except to the source: Mr. Springsteen, with his harmonica and acoustic guitar. “The Promised Land,” his first song, was stark and grim; on “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” he slipped in a self-referential aside. Then he beckoned the full cast onstage for a “Rosalita” reprise, offering the verses to any takers. Mr. Finn took up the gauntlet, barely able to contain himself: he seemed about to burst. Beside him, Mr. Springsteen grinned widely. A guy could get used to funerals like these.

By Nate Chinen via The New York Times.

Springsteen Toasts Himself With Help from Patti Smith, the Hold Steady

Towards the end of last night’s Bruce Springsteen tribute concert at Carnegie Hall, seventy-seven-year-old folk legend Odetta was wheeled onstage, only to launch into Bruce Springsteen’s single worst song ever: “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On).” Accompanied only by a piano player she delivered a rendition that was part spoken-word and part Woody Guthrie talking blues. It was hypnotic. Immediately afterwards, Brooklyn indie rockers the Hold Steady took the stage and played the most joyous version of “Atlantic City” I’ve ever seen. Dancing around like Talking Heads-era David Byrne on speed, frontman Craig Finn delivered the sorrowful tale of a desperate man like it was “Joy to the World.” If not for the show’s finale, it would have been the greatest performance of the night.

The show — a benefit concert for the children’s charity Music For Youth — began with Steve Earle’s stark solo acoustic take on the title track from Nebraska. Soon after, last-minute addition Patti Smith (who replaced Jewel on the evening’s all-star bill) sang a stripped-down “Because the Night” accompanied only by a pianist. “This song has followed me through my days,” an emotional Smith said of the tune she co-wrote with Bruce in 1978. “At times it’s even rescued me.” Other highlights included the Elysian Field’s slowed-down, sensual version of “Streets of Fire,” Marah’s amped up take on “The Rising” and Badly Drawn Boy a.k.a. Damon Gough’s ebullient run-through of “Thunder Road.” The Jersey Guys (an elderly vocal group featuring Frankie Valli’s brother Bobby) did a doo-wop “Jersey Girl.” It was unclear whether or not they realized it was actually a Tom Waits song.

After the Hold Steady finished, there was an odd moment of stillness on the stage. And then the evening’s announcer said, “What if I were a genie in the bottle and could grant you one wish?” Everybody the hall jumped to their feet and yelled “BRUUUUUCE,” as the man of the evening (unbilled but widely rumored to appear) ran on stage with an acoustic guitar and harmonica rack. He gave a brief speech about how he felt like a ghost hovering above his own funeral all night before playing a slowed-down version of “The Promised Land,” followed by a rare solo acoustic “Rosalita.” He paused in the middle to give an update on the song’s protagonist — who in later years “broke up the band and wrote happy songs that nobody liked.” He then called all the night’s performers back onstage for a full-band rendition of “Rosalita.” Finn, Gough and Jesse Malin all took verses as Bruce played guitar, sang harmony and grinned from ear to ear.

By Andy Greene via Rolling Stone.
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