Tag Archives: Springsteen

Review: “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” as American as baseball, apple pie and Bruce Springsteen

Popmatters — Bruce Springsteen’s latest record is a folk tribute to Pete Seeger that’s about a thousand times as fun as that description might suggest. But it’s also an album as American as apple pie, baseball and … er, well, Bruce Springsteen. A review of “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions”

 


The Hold Steady Kills Me: An interview with Craig Finn

"Tramps like us, and we like tramps"

Florida Times-Union (2.06) — If rock ‘n’ roll has always been the soundtrack to restless, confused adolescence, Craig Finn and The Hold Steady have taken its most romanticized elements — escapism, nervous love, frequent bursts of lively panic — and put a killer twist on them.

A storyteller whose words stream out in sentences rather than verses, Finn writes stories about growing up with as much sharp-eyed nostalgia as the Beach Boys, Replacements or Bruce Springsteen. In fact, though he represents the suburbs of Minneapolis, Finn proves himself a devout Bruce disciple on Hold Steady’s 2004 debut, The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me, and its 2005 follow-up, Separation Sunday. Both are layered with variations on youthful, Boss-ian themes, both below the surface and well above it (from Charlemagne in Sweatpants: “Tramps like us, and we like tramps”).

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But if Springsteen’s legacy is in perfecting the rock-as-redemption thing, Finn’s may be in hanging it upside down by its heels and shaking out its change all over the boardwalk.

“There’s a lot of teenage nostalgia in rock ‘n’ roll, and Sunday is a teenage album,” Finn said last week. “And it’s a suburban album. When I was 16, I was able to get my driver’s license, and growing up the suburbs, that means you suddenly have this amazing new freedom.”

Sunday also boasts more overt Catholicism than any secular album in recent memory. Finn, who was brought up Catholic and attended Boston College, doesn’t go to church, but he can’t consider himself lapsed, either. “When people used to say, ‘Are you Catholic?’ I’d say no,” he said. “But then I thought that might not be entirely accurate. I certainly do not go to church, nor do I subscribe to some of the beliefs of the Catholic church, but it was such an important part of me becoming who I am that it was a big part of the genesis of the record. Redemption, salvation, forgiveness — those are beautiful, profound things you can always come back to.”

That said, despite never once advocating Satanism or gayness and assigning a starring, reverent role to the big man, the crises of faith conveyed in Sunday may alarm anyone who put forth any effort to, say, cancel The Book of Daniel. “I’m sure there are Catholic priests who would find it really blasphemous, but the chances of them hearing the Hold Steady record are slim to none,” he said with a laugh.

The Hold Steady formed in 2000 from the ashes of Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler’s previous outfit, Lifter Puller. It now includes bassist Galen Polivka, drummer Bobby Drake and keyboardist Franz Nicolay. The band spent much of last year absorbing accolades (including dueling love letters from the New Yorker and the Village Voice) and materializing on most of the known world’s year-end Top 10 lists. “I feel critically acclaimed,” Finn said. “But we still haven’t sold that many records. A huge step in being in a band is getting to the point that you have actual fans. I think that’s where we’re at, which is exciting.”

But if those fans see Finn as the ignition, the Hold Steady’s fuel is its arena-ready sound, which probably gets closer to Aerosmith than anyone who’s ever recorded under the vast indie umbrella ever has. Kubler sounds like he’s scanning the want ads for openings in Thin Lizzy, and Nicolay’s piano gets positively jump-swinging on tracks such as Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night. In two albums, they’ve captured the Replacements’ sloppy swagger and Warren Zevon’s gift for being at once graceful and dust-mouthed and sort of sad.

“People assume that songwriters are talking about personal experience, but no one ever thinks of a filmmaker in the same way,” Finn said. “The record is certainly influenced by my life, but I write songs as a cinematic means of telling a story.”

Stories that have proven accessible both to the kids still inhabiting various personas in search of one that fits, and the older folks who haven’t forgotten how hard that is to pull off.


Live review: Springsteen’s “Devils and Dust” tour — dream baby dream

Like the saying goes, you don’t have to be a Bruce Springsteen fanatic to appreciate his current tour — but it helps.

Springsteen’s current solo Devils and Dust trek is designed as a sprawling, contemplative look at the Springsteen catalog, particularly its quieter back pages. It’s billed as an acoustic tour, but last Friday’s show in Tampa found him hopping between six-string, piano, electric guitar, pump organ, electric piano and ukulele. Familiar songs are certainly played, but he’s not out to simply strip down his anthems. No, he’s out to revisit the dustier corners of his catalog, and he does it with subtle, startling power.

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This was the case once before when Springsteen hit the highway behind an acoustic record. Like 1982’s Nebraska and 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, Devils is a bleak, character-driven disc; also like Joad, it’s set in the dust-and-poverty choked Southwest. It co-stars prostitutes, amateur ultimate fighters, immigrants who died crossing into Texas.

But as was the case on the Joad tour, funny things happen when Springsteen brings Devils’ downcast songs to stage. The Tom Joad tour began as two hours of character sketches of permeating bleakness, and ended over a year later as a fundamentally different show, full of older tracks, personality and surprise (and culminating in sex puns and a song about a mall Santa in a strip club). The show becomes a sprawling and contemplative career overview., punctuated by humor and personality and the sense the Springsteen couldn’t be more pleased bringing these songs out.

First, he quickly moves away from his source material. In Tampa, Springsteen performed 26 songs but just five from Devils. And in many cases, the older songs are rebuilt from scratch. Reason to Believe got a Howlin’ Wolf treatment, with Springsteen roaring the vocals into a distorted bullet mike (think a dying CB radio ratcheted up to 11); it was all disorienting antagonism instead of somber reflection.

Springsteen has been flying without a net all through the tour, monkeying with arrangements and digging into crates — he’s done something like 130-plus songs. Still, the smorgasbord of rarities last week raised the eyebrows of even the online setlist hawks at places like the invaluable fan site Backstreets. The 1980 ballad Fade Away opened on electric piano, along with a veritable suite from The River Fade’s B-side Be True, I Wanna Marry You, Two Hearts and a heart-clutching Wreck on the Highway on electric piano. There were two from Tunnel Of Love — Ain’t Got You (which he wrote as a smirking answer all those who ask “what it’s like to the Boss”) and the plaintive One Step Up. And two from Nebraska, including the pitch-black State Trooper.

In addition, and this is the fun part, Springsteen starts to get chatty, like the wine’s starting to kick in or something. He sets up rim shots that could be swung home in the Catskills, riffing that his relatively lame Human Touch is considered a masterpiece in Norway, or that the uber-wordy Blinded By the Light explains why he never did drugs, although he’s “looking forward to doing them soon.” Springsteen led off Jesus Was An Only Son, a Galilee-set lament solely interested in the relationship of Jesus and Mary, with an extended monologue on his Irish/Italian roots, including a line about Catholicism being a religion of great beauty and faith, as well as “abject horror and terror.” Springsteen even stopped the song mid-stream to bring home some of its points, giving, or at least indicating, access to the machinations behind his songwriting.

But the latter doesn’t even come into play on the show’s biggest dice-roll: Dream Baby Dream, a track originally recorded in 1979 by NYC synth-drone duo Suicide, that closed the night and is one of the most bizarre things he’s ever brought to stage (a dancing Clarence Clemons notwithstanding). It’s little more than a mantra — a sea of phrases like “Come on, dream baby dream, I just wanna see you smile, dry your eyes” — that on paper sounds like a recipe for goodwill-slaughtering disaster. And indeed, it’s either a revelatory moment of thematic unification or a head-scratching snooze, depending on how you felt about the preceding two hours.

Indeed, this show probably split a certain chunk of the ticket-buying crowd; I heard at least one guy walking out lamenting that Springsteen didn’t play “more old stuff,” by which he almost certainly meant anything with some combination of the words “Glory” and “Days” in the title. No, this one’s for the longtime fans, the majority who sat in reverent politeness and not those who couldn’t keep their giggles and “whooooos!” contained within their comfortably appointed skyboxes. This is Springsteen rebuilding, refocusing, putting the spotlight back on his songwriting and reimagining what it’s like to be the Boss.


Late afternoon with the mighty Max Weinberg

94826_300Florida Times-Union – Sitting in with the UNF Jazz Ensemble 1 this weekend, it’s drumming legend and, as Bruce Springsteen would say, the star of late night telly-vision: the mighty Max Weinberg.

Weinberg, a 30-year resident of E Street and emperor of the most excellent Max Weinberg 7 on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, stands among the most visible and rock-solid drummers in the business — and, it should be noted, has proven himself an incredibly game comedic straight man as well (let’s just say one-liners like “I’ve found that reindeer will lick just about anything you put in front of them” weren’t something that popped up a whole lot on Born in the U.S.A.).

But he’s also an in-demand guest speaker who logs regular appearances at colleges around the country with his one-man multimedia show, An Evening With Max Weinberg. And the chance to cameo this weekend with UNF’s acclaimed jazz ensemble provided an opportunity too good to miss, he said.

“I’m thrilled to be playing with the great stage band at UNF,” Weinberg said from New York last week. “They’re wonderful musicians down there.”

Weinberg does these kinds of jazz and jump-blues-leaning shows somewhat regularly and said that such gigs, as well as his work on Conan, help him pad out his musical resume even more. “I think at 54 I’m playing with more versatility and finesse and polish than I ever have,” he said. “We’ve done a cross-section of music on the show — not just rock ‘n’ roll.”

Indeed, he’s keen on trumpeting that cross-section — jump-blues, big-band jazz and swing — to schools as well as the folks in TV land.

“One of the main requirements for being a drummer is to be able to convincingly play any kind of music, or you end up not working,” he said, laughing. “Certainly with Springsteen it’s all rock, but on TV I wanted to play all types of music. The jump-blues is something I started back in the ’90s, and that led me into the big-band era update that we do now, music downsized for a seven-piece band instead of 17 or 18.”

But, he added, some of his newest interests are a couple of decades ahead, closer to the era spotlighted by bandmate Steven Van Zandt on his Underground Garage radioshow. “Lately on the show we’ve been redefining ’70s music, and I find that some of that earlier punk — Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Clash — was more melodic than the punk played in the last 10 years,” he said. “Like ‘Sheena Is a Punk Rocker’ — that’s a good melody that can be adapted to sax or trumpet, so that’s what I listen for. The drums are basically high-energy rock ‘n’ roll.

“Though,” he adds, “it seems to funny to play a Clash song wearing a suit and tie.”

For Saturday’s concert, which is free, Weinberg will sit in with Jazz Ensemble 1 for a number of handpicked tunes, including “one of (his) favorites: our version of Come Fly With Me inspired by the Count Basie recording,” he said.

He’s also lined up numbers by Buddy Rich and Henry Mancini, songs he does regularly with a seven-piece that he can now flesh out for a crowd more than double that. (Weinberg added that during his set he’ll play alongside UNF’s drummer. “I don’t like to leave anybody out,” he said.)

After the show, which benefits the ensemble, Weinberg will take questions from the audience “across all topics,” and stick around for autographs.

This fall’s found him busy in Bruce-land as well: Weinberg contributed interviews and insight to a 30th anniversary edition of Born to Run coming out on Tuesday, Nov. 15, which includes a DVD of a previously unreleaed full 1975 concert. “Thirty years ago,” Weinberg said, “Yeah, that really brings back a lot of memories. And that concert is really something outrageous.”


Little Steven Van Zandt: Just a prisoner of rock n’ roll

Florida Times-Union — He’s not the only one, nor the oldest, nor the richest. But Little Steven Van Zandt might be the most charismatic, dedicated and visible crusader around these days scrapping to preserve the dirty purity of what they used to call rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s a thread that runs through the activities in what appears to be a fairly insane (and probably paisley-colored) day planner. Van Zandt, 54, splits his time these days as lead guitarist for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, shooting the sixth (and reportedly final) season of The Sopranos and hosting a radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage, which airs locally from 10 p.m. to midnight Sundays on WFYV (104.5 FM).

The show, like all his projects, is powered by one core rule, Van Zandt said.

“The old and the new can live side by side, and in fact strengthen each other,” he said by phone last week. “The old stuff gives the new stuff depth. The new stuff gives the old stuff relevance. My philosophy is: Cool is timeless. And that’s how people respond. We get e-mails from 12-year-olds and 62-year- olds.”

That workmanlike investment in the sprawling history of rock is driving Van Zandt to spend most of August on a last-ditch crusade to save CBGB, the grimy, venerated New York club that became the nucleus of punk in the ’70s by first spotlighting acts such as Television, the Ramones and Blondie. The club’s 12-year lease is up on Wednesday, Aug. 31. And its owner, Hilly Kristal, and its landlord, the Bowery Residents’ Committee, a non-profit organization that benefits the homeless, have been embroiled in a tangled and long-running legal logjam over disputed rent payments for months.

“We’re making progress,” Van Zandt. “The clock is ticking, though.”

The club scored a legal victory late last week when a Manhattan civil court judge ruled that CBGB didn’t have to pay long-disputed back rent to the BRC — and that it couldn’t be evicted on that basis.

But its future is still cloudy. When CBGB’s lease expires in two weeks, its rent will be doubled to more than $40,000 a month. Yet Van Zandt remains optimistic that the club will still be standing when the legal smoke clears.

Van Zandt took the role as mediator for the club — the only one he’s heard of that regularly pops up in travel books — out of something close to duty. “I couldn’t say no, you know what I mean?” he said.

“Part of our fight in this revolution to support this rebirth of rock ‘n’ roll, this huge contemporary garage-rock scene, is creating a new infrastructure, because most of the old infrastructure is gone. To lose yet one more club . . .” he trails off. “This is the last club left! Leave us at least one!” he added, laughing.

If the club infrastructure is crumbling now, the radio infrastructure has been exploded for years. Which is why the Underground Garage is such a critically acclaimed novelty — here’s a show that spins Ramones, Carl Perkins and Amboy Dukes nuggets next to stuff by the White Stripes, the Caesars and the Kaiser Chiefs. It’s not a cliche to say that it’s the kind of thing that just ain’t done anymore.

“We’re the only format in the world that plays new rock ‘n’ roll,” Van Zandt said. “You can hear hard rock, you can hear hip-hop, you can hear pop, but you can’t hear new rock ‘n’ roll anywhere.”

The show’s a certified winner — three years in, it airs on Sirius satellite radio and 130 FM stations in 190 markets nationwide. David Moore, program director for WFYV (104.5 FM), said the show is No. 1 in the male 25-to-54 demographic for its time slot, and No. 2 among non-talk stations — all for a Sunday night slot that’s “not a day or time usually associated with high levels of rock radio listening.”

But for all its critical noise, Van Zandt seems surprised, even perplexed, that it hasn’t been ripped off more.

“We have seen some influence in odd ways,” he allowed. “Steve Jones [of the Sex Pistols] as a DJ in L.A. This Jack format, oddly enough, is kind of a result of our success — even though they’re not including new music, unfortunately. But I must be honest, I am a little disappointed we have not been able to convince people to play more new music. I don’t really think audiences are gonna run for the hills if you play something new once in a while.”

To that end, Van Zandt is working on a TV version of the Underground Garage, one of seven music-oriented pilots he has in various stages of development and more avenues by which he can get new music in front of a nuttily crowded marketplace.

“I wanna make that relationship between playing new bands on the radio and seeing new bands on TV, it makes a big difference,” he said. “We’ve now played over 100 new bands in the past three years, and we wanna put the faces to the sounds.” He said he hopes to have something on by the first of the year.

He also remains fully active on E Street as well, and has contributed to a release commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Springsteen classic Born to Run. He predicts there’ll be another record and tour with the band. “There is a very cool thing that’s gonna come out about that,” he said.

And after a 21-month hiatus, Van Zandt will reprise his role of mobster Silvio Dante when the sixth season of the Sopranos starts on HBO in March. The cable channel last week announced an extra eight “bonus episodes” in addition to the previously announced 12-show run.

But for the next two weeks anyway, Van Zandt’s energies are centered on the club. “We’re staying very optimistic about this,” he said. “It’s quite a fight, though.”


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