- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2006

“What would Bruce Springsteen do?” is the Dixie Chicks’ new motto, according to a profile in Time magazine. It’s apparently supposed to help the beleaguered Chicks keep their cool amid all the nattering nabobs of the media.

But the Dixie Chicks are confusing cause with effect: It takes more than a stingy PR strategy to maintain an aura of Olympian detachment; it takes years, decades, of building an audience, cultivating integrity and earning trust. And lately, Mr. Springsteen, who appeared Sunday night at Nissan Pavilion, seems to be cashing in that Olympian capital like Michael Jackson at a Neverland fire sale.

It started with his direct intervention into John Kerry’s presidential campaign and has continued more recently with attacks on the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. “President Bystander,” he sneered of Mr. Bush at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

To harp on politics, though, is to miss what’s most daring about Mr. Springsteen of late — namely, the resolve with which he has dragged his audience to, for example, concert halls where he plays few recognizable hits but, rather, bleak original folk music (last year’s “Devils & Dust” tour). All this, while demanding perfect silence.

Mr. Springsteen is on another detour from the E Street drag as he tours in support of “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” a collection of folk and gospel songs linked to Pete Seeger.

The mostly empty lawn at Nissan Pavilion Sunday suggested Mr. Springsteen failed to convince a big chunk of audience to take the “Seeger” plunge. But those who followed the detour signs — and, let’s face it, the Boss’ fan base is like a trans-Atlantic jetliner that can still cross the pond with disabled engines — saw Mr. Springsteen in total command of a modern hootenanny.

He also was back in his more familiar, Energizer Bunny-showman mode: “You have 20 seconds to rise from those chairs,” the big band leader commanded the audience before tearing into a chugging rendition of the classic “John Henry.”

Mr. Springsteen and the 19 members of his Seeger Sessions Band — which includes a six-piece horn section, a string section of guitars, fiddles and banjo, plus a vocal ensemble — performed several “public rehearsals” and officially debuted at New Orleans’ Jazzfest. The group then played 10 dates in Europe. The time abroad paid off: Mr. Springsteen and company were at once tight and loose, trading solos with joyful precision, all within subtly crafted song arrangements full of modulations and controlled stop-time crashes.

Space won’t permit a complete roll call of players, but let us praise in particular:

• Fiddler Sam Bardfeld: he was a delight worthy of the late Stephane Grappelli, bringing a lithe, Gypsy-jazz sophistication to traditionals like “O Mary Don’t You Weep” and “Erie Canal.”

• Banjoist Greg Liszt, who lent down-home urgency to the murder ballad “Jesse James” — and, with his suspenders and wild hair, could have given Ned Beatty his biggest fright since “Deliverance.”

• Drummer Larry Eagle, the group’s linchpin, the powerhouse; he ensured the music rolled as brilliantly as it rocked.

• Vocalists Cindy Mizelle, Curtis King and Marc Anthony Thompson, who, led by Mr. Springsteen’s wife Patti Scialfa, made certain that gospel numbers like “Eyes on the Prize” and “We Shall Overcome” retained their sacred beauty.

• And the horn players, who generally made every tune feel like you were reveling deliriously in the second line of a Mardi Gras parade.

In addition to all the traditional and gospel fare, the 21/2-hour show featured revamped versions of Springsteen originals such as “Open All Night,” “Cadillac Ranch” and “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch).” The Boss’ underrated 1992 ballad “If I Should Fall Behind” sounded gorgeous and haunting in 19th-century wilderness garb; a buoyant new arrangement of “Johnny 99,” however, ill-fitted the song’s stark tale of desperate violent crime.

Mr. Springsteen also worked in pointed political statements with the Irish anti-war ballad “Mrs. McGrath” and “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?,” a song originally penned by Blind Alfred Reed and updated by Mr. Springsteen to speak to the tragedies visited on New Orleans: “There’s bodies floatin’ on Canal and the levees gone to Hell/Martha, get me my sixteen gauge and some dry shells.”

None too delicate was an encore performance of “Bring Them Home (If You Love Your Uncle Sam)” — so far the only song of this entire project that was actually composed by Mr. Seeger.

The song, originally a call for the return of American soldiers in Vietnam, wasn’t technically the Memorial Day tribute to fallen warriors it was meant to be. And did it mean we should withdraw all troops stationed abroad? Even from places where no one’s asking them to leave?


The evening ended with a lively take on “Buffalo Gals,” which, if it didn’t specifically remind you of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” certainly made life wonderful for a couple of hours.

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