If Pete Seeger had steamed down the Mississippi in his sloop Clearwater all the way to New Orleans, picked up a zydeco musician or two and headed to Preservation Hall, he might have birthed “The Seeger Sessions“, Bruce Springsteen’s latest CD, released this past Tuesday. It is an homage of sorts to Seeger, although as the WaPo pointed out in Joe Heim’s review this week, not a single one of the 13 tracks were written by Seeger. They were, however, popularized (or at least performed) by him.
The liner notes say, “This is a LIVE recording (emphasis theirs), everything cut in three one-day sessions….with no rehearsals.” Indeed it has the sound, the feel of one big jam session. In fact,
on Track 11, “Pay Me My Money Down”, a rollicking sing-along, you can hear Springsteen calling out the key changes — “B Flat!” “D!” — to the band, at one point ripe for a solo calling out, “Somebody!” — and somebody (the accordion, in this case) sure enough comes in on cue. It does give it a bit of gritty reality, as if your crazy uncles all got together on the same night, bringing an eclectic bunch of instruments to your parents’ house to play.
From the opening track — the whimsical “Old Dan Tucker” — you know this isn’t your father’s Springsteen album. Gone are the heavy electric guitar strains. The highways jammed with broken heroes are are replaced by a lot of banjo, fiddle, accordion and lots of horns. And, gone is Clarence Clemons’ saxophone. in its place is a true Preservation Hall-type mix of trumpet, trombone and sax — sometimes subtle, sometimes loud, always right. Springsteen’s vocals get closer to Dylan’s at a point, with that strange accent that seems to grow more pronounced with age. He certainly didn’t get it from growing up in New Jersey.
In any event, along the way are some great 100 year-old tunes. They are fairly true to the era, ignoring an occasional Hammond B-3 sound, of course. “O Mary Don’t You Weep”, an old Gospel number, is similarly infectious — “Pharaoh’s army got drownded”, goes the chorus, “Oh Mary don’t you weep.” Try not to sing along. Other old classics include “Jesse James,” about the famous outlaw, and one tribute to the steel king “John Henry” (“Listen to my cold steel ring, Lord, Lord. Listen to my cold steel ring.”). “My Oklahoma Home” (“It’s blown away”) tells the tale of a dust bowl home caught up in a great storm, both atmospheric and economic. We’ll leave the politics aside, as we think Bruce should probably stick to the music, but his rendition of “We Shall Overcome” is a bit dreary and slow, and the band adds little to it. But not every track can be a barn-burner.
This week, he’ll be playing at the famed New Orleans Jazz Festival. When we first heard about that, we thought he’d be oddly out of place in that genre. Having listened to “The Seeger Sessions”, it’s clear that this week, with songs from this CD, Bruce Springsteen will be right at at home in the Big Easy. It’ll all sound very, very familiar.
In short, if you’re a big Springsteen fan, not sure this CD will appeal to you. Even fans of his “Nebraska” CD — both of them — will find this quite different. It isn’t brooding. It’s just completely different from anything he’s done. The arrangements are eclectic, fun and often infectious. We’d recommend it.
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