There were a dozen or so people in my house, talking and laughing and eating. I was wrecked. Drained. Spent. Exhausted. I’d spent the day with Bruce Springsteen. Well, so had something like 75,000 others, including everyone now in my house. We were all wrecked. Drained. Spent. Exhausted. But also exhilarated. Inspired. Elevated.
It was April 30, 2006, and Springsteen, debuting the Seeger Sessions Band and its repertoire of songs Pete Seeger had sung, had that afternoon closed the first weekend of the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival after the devastating flood eight months prior. It was no less than the most moving musical experience I, and most all there, have ever had and likely will ever have. It was just what we needed, catharsis in the pure exuberance of the music (horns and accordion and banjo and wild barroom choruses abounded) and the perfectly honed blade of the song choices, observations and screeds from various ages and various events that now, in the hands of Springsteen, captured all the mix of anger and sorrow of this time with our city of ruin (and yes, that particular song was the emotional killer of the day). But also there were the laughs and release we needed, and the hopes that we, well, hoped could be watered by the tears we shed.
As our housemates and guests ate and chattered in the kitchen, I was in the front room trying to write my thoughts of the day for AOL, for whom I was lead blogger of JazzFest, an intense gig of trying to wrap my head around what was happening here and express it in words, with pretty much no time to think. My catharsis, I guess.
The AOL blog, along with everything else from its editorial features of the time, was wiped from the internet when Huffington Post took over some years ago now. But I did save what wrote, and with official release this week of a superb recording of the Springsteen concert, available here via his web site, I went back to what I’d written. There was so much to say, so much that maybe couldn’t be said, at least in words. But here is what I managed to get out in the moment, filed a short few hours after the last note of “When the Saints” faded into the night:
Bruce and Tears in “City of Ruins”
Posted Apr 30th 2006 9:11PM by Steve Hochman
The rain stayed away, but the tears flowed freely when Bruce Springsteen capped a rousing, moving, inspiring and all-those-other-adjectives-that-long-ago-got-overused-for-the-Boss-at-his-best performance with “My City of Ruins,” turning the key line of his song associated with post-9/11 New York into a very present tense as “my city is in ruins.” And in the process he showed that he was indeed the perfect artist to close the first weekend of the first JazzFest coming as the city tries to recover from ruin. The tears came in his first encore song, following 90 minutes that had already touched with grace and power on hope, frustration, anger, gallows humor — in other words, all the things left floating around New Orleans after the waters receded — exactly in the tradition of Pete Seeger, the folk singer Springsteen has paid tribute to with his new “The Seeger Sessions” album. None of the rumored guests (Edge, Elvis Costello) materialized, but they weren’t needed.
In full hootenanny mode with as many as 19 backing musicians wielding fiddles, banjo, pedal steel and horns among other things, he brought old spirituals (the opening “Mary Don’t You Weep” with its line about Noah being shown a rainbow and the stern prophesy of “no more water but fire next time”), workers tales of tragic nobility (“John Henry,” a tale of sweat equity if there ever was one) and civil rights anthems (“Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”), making them all relevant to the immediate surroundings not just with the lyrics and tone, but with dips into New Orleans music traditions. The horns in particular mixed Dixieland and second-line funk, and Springsteen’s own early ’80s song “Johnny 99” was turned into something that could have been a rollicking number from the late New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair, under a portrait of whom Springsteen performed on the Acura Stage, well over 70,000 captured by every note.
As for the anger, he offered a revision of the Depression-era Blind Alfred Reed song “How Can a Poor Man Stands Such Times and Live,” writing three new verses specifically themed to the Gulf Coast renewal. Introducing the song, he told of having toured the areas of devastation on Saturday, saying he never imagined he’d see such a thing in an American city, condemning the “criminal ineptitude” and “political crony-ism” that contributed to the disaster and dedicating the song to “President Bystander.”
And then there was “My City of Ruins.” How does one follow that? The frivolous sing-along “Buffalo Gals” would seem a strange choice, but this is Bruce and he and his band made it perfect, with the whole audience now showing broad grins. After that was his own “You Can Look But You Better Not Touch,” a fun if trivial rocker, but here turned into a celebrative zydeco hip-shaker. And then he went into really dangerous territory, as he himself admitted, taking on the song most associated with the city, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” But he spoke of his own love for the city (noting that he and wife Patti Scialfa came here when they were first “fooling around” and, with a laugh, that “no one found us either”) and he played it slow, with band member Mark Anthony Thompson sharing some of the vocals and focusing on some lesser-known verses — “I am waiting for the morning, when the new world is revealed . . . ”
The tears returned. And the smiles.