A Springsteen-Seeger Shindig

Des Moines, Iowa, USA; June 10, 2006

by Sean McCarthy

In one of the better moments of a Family Guy episode, two rednecks started debating whether a spirited concert was a hoedown or a hootenanny. The argument eventually led to thrown fists.

While I didn't see any fist throwing at Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band's performance at the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines the other night, I was sizing up whether a hoedown or a hootenanny was breaking out. Like most shows of this summer tour, the environment is being kept intimate -- the upper levels of the arena were quartered off, even though they could have easily been sold.

The folksy, populist messages that stem from Pete Seeger's songs may have been lost on many of the graying, TGI-Friday's-fed crowd, but the enthusiasm emitted from the crowd and from Springsteen and The Seeger Session Band provided a welcome, irony-free evening. No tongue-in-cheek covers of bad '70s anthems and no high school skits acted out onstage.

The stage was minimal: a few iron chandeliers with purplish lights glowing and a draped backdrop of a skyline that occasionally switched throughout the night. Nothing could distract the audience from probably the tightest 17-piece band you'll see this year on a national tour. Not surprisingly, the band stormed through virtually all of We Shall Overcome -- The Seeger Sessions. What was surprising was the few Springsteen songs that were woven into the set.

"Johnny 99" and "Atlantic City," two songs from Springsteen's bare masterpiece Nebraska, were given the ragtime treatment that Seeger's song are given on The Seeger Sessions. As a result, those harsh songs almost took on a comedic zeal with a boisterous horn section. In some songs, Springsteen opted to perform primarily alone, specifically in the Iraqi War-themed "Devils and Dust" and the September 11-themed "My City of Ruins."

For most of the two-and-a-half hour show, Springsteen was more than happy to share the stage with the Seeger Session band. Wearing a pinky-sized goatee, Sprigsteen grinned as Mark Pender pointed his trumpet to the heavens during his solos. During the last song of the first set, Springsteen sat down as he stared on in mock-helplessness as Art Baron stood at center stage and played an extended tuba solo during "Pay Me My Money Down."

Most of The Seeger Sessions was recorded in three days. And the show, from Soozie Tyrell's violin solos to Mark Clifford's banjo picking, had a looseness that led to some extended jamming during songs like "John Henry" and "Jesse James." But make no mistake about it -- a show this flawlessly executed was created with the discipline of a general. And as that general, Springsteen had full command of the night -- urging people to "get off their asses" when he saw a section lull into their seats in one song, and bringing the audience to a hush when he was extolling the importance of keeping New Orleans in peoples' minds and to not let it be "Disneyfied."

Bruce Springsteen conducts the Seeger Sessions Band.
Photo courtesy of Des Moines Register.

Springsteen briefly touched on how Seeger's populist anthems apply in today's times of terrorism, Katrina and the wars in Afghanistan just as much as they did during the dustbowl era. He specifically touched on this link as he led the band into "We Shall Overcome." In another poignant moment, Springsteen talked about listening to the entire song of "When The Saints Go Marching In" -- and playing that song at the New Orleans Jazz Fest.

Even though some people were yelling "Broooooce!" during some of the more serious moments of the show, Springsteen remained unfazed. Thanking the audience throughout the show and sporting enough kicks to wow a karate instructor well into the second hour of the show, Springsteen showed why he's a consummate showman in rock. At the end of the night, the audience was treated to a show that was worth every cent of the big event ticket price.

Before last night, I never had the honor of attending a Bruce Springsteen show. I knew about the hype. Even though I know this wasn't a typical Bruce Springsteen show, I was happy to cross off Springsteen from my "must see before I die" list (leaving The Rolling Stones, Nick Cave, Bjork, PJ Harvey, Slayer and The Arcade Fire). I know about the energy emitted from Springsteen and his band, the three-hour-plus marathon sessions and the bellows of "Broooooooce" from the crowd. I can say without the slightest trepidation that the show lived up and surpassed any hype I've heard about a Springsteen show. Hoedown or hootenanny? This was a full-out shindig.

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