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Concert Review by Nick Morgan

Hammersmith Apollo, London, May 8th 2006

It’s what should be a quiet Monday night in sleepy old Hammersmith town, but the Boss is back and the place is buzzing, ticket touts on the Underground platforms, bellowing hucksters selling blurred posters and soiled t-shirts, and long lost friends meeting in barely articulate embraces of tears. “Shit man, I haven’t seen you here since 1975, I mean shit man, that gig man, he was The Boss ….” In case you don’t know Bruce Springsteen owes the old Hammersmith Odeon (“I guess they changed the name since I was last here”) a great deal – it was here that he burst on the British public’s consciousness in what has become, without exaggeration, one of the legendary London rock and roll nights. “This is a special place for me. A lot of my ghosts are here…”. You can buy the recently released CD and see what all the fuss was about. I might have to, as I was more or less a Springsteen refusnik for many years, and it’s only probably over the last ten that I’ve paid much attention to his work, and his back catalogue. But having recently seen the phrase ‘once in a lifetime chance’ take on a new significance the opportunity to see him can’t be turned down easily. We’re upstairs in the 18 bob seats, and as you might expect we’re packed in like sardines with Real Fans all around us. In fact they’re a little European Community of fans many of whom have travelled a long way to be here. And paid a lot of money (I’m told that e-bay has been humming). At first the incessant booing is a surprise – then I realise it’s a low soulful “Boooooocce” which echoes round the auditorium as the impatient audience wait for the gig to start. When it does start these guys know all the words (I do hate people singing at gigs) and needless to say start singing them far too soon, encouraged by the fellow with the guitar in the middle of the stage. And they know the hand movements – during ‘My city of ruins’ (a nice song from The Rising) it begins to look like a revivalist meeting (“with these hands I pray my lord” goes the refrain); disciples in supplication at the altar of the great one.
I have to say that a seventeen piece band is a bit of a sight these days, almost (I said almost) worth the price of admission. The stage is elegantly draped with velvet curtains, chandeliers too, I guess to recreate an old bar-room feel. Four brass players, bass, banjo (he was just great – keeping the band ticking all night long), two fiddles, keyboards and accordion, two guitars (three if you count the current Mrs Bruce who played too, and, ahem, sang), drums, three vocalists and a pedal steel guitar too. And for all its apparent simplicity the band have been perfectly choreographed, taking turns at the front of the stage – always moving around, everyone knowing exactly who’s where. And the middle is a big and boisterous Bruce, obviously having the time of his life. It’s true – he’s a consummate showman (show-off says The Photographer, who can’t take the Whiskyfun camera out of her cowboy boot for fear of being thrown out) who works the audience to perfection in the course of an artfully constructed set. He fills the stage (and it’s pretty full already) arms waving theatrically, conducting his orchestra, making occasional shimmies along the front of the stage and throwing the odd rock and roll pose. He also takes time to show us that he’s serious Bruce too, that he’s done his homework about the songs (“I went and read about this song in a book”) and that he has strong views (angry Bruce) on recent events in the USA, comparing the displacement of people from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina to the dustbowl migrations. For what it’s worth, on the basis of my wholly inadequate research, around a million people were forced to leave the Big Easy last September (and I don’t think too many have managed to go back) as opposed to 400,000 who left Oklahoma and surrounding areas in the mid 1930s. Who’s surprised he’s angry?
The evening is a celebration of the life and works of Pete Seeger, as is Springsteen’s new album, The Seeger Sessions. Strangely the album has only one original Seeger composition on it, ‘though I’m sure Pete might have played some of the other great American traditional tunes it features. Its release has provoked considerable comment that Springsteen has lurched to the left; the concert was even reviewed on BBC’s Radio Four because of this, and featured on a religious programme discussing the spiritual power of the song. But really, ‘though I don’t for a moment doubt Bruce’s sincerity on the issue of New Orleans or senseless war there isn’t a great deal that’s revolutionary or threatening about these songs or about the evening. Actually I always thought that many of Seeger’s songs (yes Serge, we had to learn them in Primary School, along with the wonderful ‘Shenandoah’) were a little too nice, prim and proper turtle necked jumper protest songs, with a holier than thou middle class feel, and more than a dash of crass sentimentality (if you don’t believe me then go and listen to ‘Where have all the flowers gone’ – ugh!). I’m not dissing Pete here, or his contribution to ‘the cause’, just suggesting that for the most part his songs haven’t really got the substance or joie de vivre to stand the test of time. And even though we don’t get much of Pete tonight I have to say most of the songs that we do get that make me feel as if I’m back in that school classroom – but this time I’m having a great time, with a rollicking seventeen piece backing band rather than a tuneless piano. How good is that?
Set list? Well almost all of the Seeger Sessions tune (strangely he didn’t play ‘Froggy went a courting’ which was an incongruous moment that I was most looking forward to) – of which highlights for me were Dan Tucker (“Here’s a 140 year old Bob Dylan song”), Mrs McGrath (with its strong anti-war theme one of the few real ‘protest’ songs of the night), ‘Erie Canal’ and ‘Jacob’s ladder’ (additional lyrics by Pete Seeger).
There was a fantastic version of ‘How can a poor man stand such times and live’ (a song originally recorded by Blind Alfred Reed in the wake of the Wall Street Crash, and later covered by Ry Cooder) with a verse added by Springsteen on Katrina and New Orleans, and a rather strange combination of ‘Cadillac ranch’ and ‘Mystery train’. It got pretty raucous towards the end with ‘Open all night’ and ‘Pay me my money down’ (which to be frank felt as if it went on for about ten minutes too long), and then an encore including ‘My City of Ruins’, ‘Buffalo Girls’ (not the Malcolm Maclaren version) and finally a restrained and nicely structured version of ‘When the saints go marching in’ – back of course to the forgotten plight of the Big Easy again. The band were glorious – a gumbo of folkabillybluesoulgospelrock. Bruce was tireless.
Even so – as a non Real Fan it did all get a bit repetitive towards the end. But that’s probably churlish. I’ve rarely seen a packed theatre enjoying itself so much – even I think surprising the maestro with their enthusiastic participation and response. Roll on next time. If I can re-mortgage the house then I’ll be there. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)

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