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Published: Friday, 6/16/2006

The Boss packs Seeger Sessions shows with energy and attitude

BY ROD LOCKWOOD
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Bruce Springsteen performs with his wife, Patti Scialfa, and the Seeger Sessions Band. Bruce Springsteen performs with his wife, Patti Scialfa, and the Seeger Sessions Band.
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Bruce Springsteen has done this hundreds of times.

He ambles onstage and tosses a wave to the crowd before grabbing a guitar. He nods to the band and checks that everyone is ready before counting off the first song with that familiar "1, 2, 3, 4!" and stomps on the accelerator.

The effect is always the same - an exhilarating reminder that our time here is finite so we'd better make something of it right now - and it's one of the biggest reasons a Springsteen concert is so intoxicating.

The Seeger Sessions Band show he brings to suburban Detroit's DTE Energy Music Theatre tomorrow is in some ways even more rewarding than the E Street Band marathons of the past.

In Columbus a few weeks ago, Springsteen - his guitar pulled up high across his chest the way Bob Dylan held his so many years ago when he revolutionized folk music - was his usual live-wire self as he led a big band that bristled with energy and raw power.

On the opening song, the old standard "John Henry," the four-piece horn section gave the music a boozy slur while a pair of violins sawed away so hard and fast they sucked the breath out of your chest.

Sixteen musicians in the Seeger Sessions Band roared through the warhorse of a song like they'd all die together if they didn't wring every ounce of soul out of it while several thousand folks - most of them deep into middle age - danced, howled, and sang.

That was just the first song of 20 delivered up over two hours and 15 minutes, the intensity level so high out of the gate that it seemed impossible to replicate it over the course of an entire show.

For those with tickets to tomorrow night's show, consider yourself blessed. If you're feeling a bit uneasy, thinking that without the E Streeters something will be missing, relax. This is nothing like Springsteen's early '90s shows with a band of session aces.

And if you've never seen Springsteen, know that if the concert is anything like the one in Columbus you will walk away converted.

I've seen him nine times, starting with the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour in 1978. That show was a revelation for me personally - I was 17 at the time - and many would argue that era represented Springsteen at his peak. He was young but experienced, and his power as a live performer was still being realized, giving the music a searing wildness.

Springsteen made his reputation on those shows early in his career. They were marathons that fueled the myth and that allowed him to share his idea that rock and roll isn't just about music. It's also part of a shared community, at least in Springsteen's view, and concerts are tent revivals as much as musical performances.

Each one was a unique event, a three-hour roller coaster ride with moments of pure exuberance along with quiet interludes when the crowd knew to shut up and listen because the man had something to say.

Over the years, he's experimented with different lineups of musicians and performed solo, but one thing stays consistent: his commitment to an evening of entertainment that, no matter how corny or overstated it sounds, leaves you somehow transformed when it's over.

It does me, at least.

A few factors made the Seeger Sessions show even more special, though, and the longtime fans who are passing on these shows - and judging from the relatively lackluster ticket sales, there are lots of them - are missing a chance to see Springsteen at his best.

Here's why:

●He's way outside his comfort zone. He has more than a dozen musicians crowded up there with him and somehow the arrangements have to find room for all that noise while staying true to songs like "Jacob's Ladder," "We Shall Overcome," and "John Henry" that we've all heard a million times. He pulls it off by doing things like letting the banjo player - looking like an Amish Angus Young - take center stage right away on "Old Dan Tucker" and giving the violin players lots of space in the songs.

The horn section, made up of remnants from Southside Johnny's Asbury Jukes, is a force of its own that gives the music a sexy, spicy slant and takes the dusty folk songs to New Orleans for a soul infusion. Then throw in an accordion, upright piano, dobro, pedal steel, a bunch of guitars (none electric), backup singers ...

All of this combines to take Springsteen someplace he's never been as a band leader. He's always taken chances, but never quite like this. And even when it doesn't work - the musicians' take on The Band's "Rag Mama Rag," which they were playing in front of an audience for the first time in Columbus, steamrolled the song into oblivion - it's fun watching him try.

●The songs are great. Springsteen has always been the master of pacing a show, building tension through his selection of songs and then releasing it at just the right moment. The Seeger Sessions musicians ultimately form what is a big, flexible party band, but they also stick to arrangements that allow Springsteen to make his points about faith, community, and the honest rewards that come from hard work.

And just when things start to get heavy, he plugs in a celebratory redemption song that offers relief. In Columbus, poignant anti-war anthems "Bring 'em Home" and "Mrs. McGrath" were followed with the fiercely angry, hard-rocking protest song "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" And then came "Jacob's Ladder," a joyful gospel-tinged rave-up that everyone sang along with as a mini community.

●The audience loved it. With the exception of a couple of the slower songs, pretty much the entire crowd spent the bulk of the show standing, singing, and dancing and there was a palpable buzz in the air when the show was over.

●Finally, it's Bruce Springsteen. One of the most renowned live rock performers ever, Springsteen never gives a bad show, just varying degrees of great ones.

Yes, the ticket prices are high at about $110 a pop once you factor in the service charges. But if you can afford it, the sanctification that comes with being bathed in some of this country's greatest traditional music performed by one of its best interpreters is well worth the price of admission.

You're in the church of rock and roll and folk and soul and country and bluegrass and blues. Consider it tithing. Pay your money down and enjoy.

Contact Rod Lockwood at: rlockwood@theblade.com

or 419-724-6159.



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