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Shufflin’: Bruce and the big band.

PHOTO: Leif Zurmuhlen

Magical

By John Brodeur

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Times Union Center, Nov.15

‘If you like joy, go see Bruce Springsteen.” Jon Stewart offered that advice to viewers of The Daily Show last month, a day after seeing the Boss’ Madison Square Garden performance. I’d give the same advice to anyone who happens to be reading this, and I’ll even up the ante: If you can sit through a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band show without smiling, much less grinning from ear to freaking ear, you simply do not have a heart.

As many acts of his generation age into grizzled carcasses of their former selves, plundering their ancient rock glories for every last dollar, Springsteen remains Springsteen. He’s not only grown older (he’s 58 now) gracefully, but for all the energy the guy puts forth every night, you’d think he hadn’t aged a day since shaving his beard and promising to prove it all night back in ’78. For two transcendent hours, Bruce and the monolithic E Street Band pulled out all the stops—literally, as they ran songs end to end, pausing for all of 15 or 20 seconds total during the main set—and delivered a big, bountiful harvest of rock & roll.

The Springsteen way is to create excitement, build anticipation. That was evident in the hour wait between doors and showtime, during which the expected roars of “Brooooooce” rose up from the floor anytime a crew member flinched. And when he screamed “Is there anybody alive out there?” into the quiet to begin the show, he set the bar damn high for what was to come. But the excitement never stopped. Everything Springsteen did, whether he was shaking his hips on the catwalk, pinching out an arena-size guitar solo, or punctuating the air with his hands as he sang, was in the interest of creating energy—and exchanging that energy with his audience. The childlike grin on Springsteen’s face during “Thunder Road” said it all: I’m a part of this, too. We’re all in this moment together.

Riding a late-career high with the recent Magic disc can’t be hurting things, either. Nine of the new album’s 12 tracks were played, yet at no point did it feel like the new material was being shoved down our throats. There’s a reason critics have ranked it among his best: The new songs are so strong, so Springsteen, they fit right in beside “She’s the One” and “Candy’s Room” (yeah, he played that).

To add to the variety, “Reason to Believe” was given a Texas boogie feel (raise your hand if you didn’t think they were playing “La Grange”); also, according to Springsteen’s Web site, this was the first time “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” and “The E Street Shuffle” made the same set since 1975. This was a class-act rock show, through and through. So what if they didn’t play “Rosalita”? Springsteen and his all-killer, no-filler band took a capacity crowd higher and higher last Thursday, and I’d recommend it over and over. If you’re into joy, that is.

It Takes All Kinds

Songs of the Spirit

Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Nov. 17

A big ol’ pan-cultural show like this looked way too good to pass up, and it left me with some memories I’ll carry forever.

Like jazzbo trombonist Craig Harris and his band doing a funkified jam with Tibetan monks, who were throat-singing, chanting, and playing these huge alpenhorns. It didn’t exactly work, frankly, as the monks use sound creation as a meditative device, and not an interactive tool; I’m not sure they understood the concepts of trading fours, giving the drummer some, or taking it to the bridge. But it was fabulous anyway.

Like Iranian songstress Haale (whom I have told you repeatedly to check out), with her über-percussionist Matt Kilmer, being accompanied by the sublime trumpeter Frank London, whom I last saw playing with Levon Helm a few months ago.

Like London and accordionist-singer Lorin Sklamberg (both of the Klezmatics) doing a song cycle of wicked klezmer tunes sung in Yiddish, with Haale and Tracy Grammer singing backup. This rocked severely.

Like the Kenyan children’s choir, 60-plus strong, all orphan kids ranging in size from 3 to 6 feet tall, doing a short, joyful, chaotic set, and then upstaging every performer that followed.

Like the aching crystalline voice of Tracy Grammer, and the dulcet trumpet tones and incredible African singing of Hugh Masekela.

And then there was Odetta. Looking incredibly frail and wispy as she was wheeled out, she let loose into “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Keep My Body Down” and all bets were off. Surrounded by the Kenyan kids, she sang Leadbelly’s “Boll Weevil,” and then wailed with the kids all over the call-and-response spiritual “Tell Me What Month Our Jesus Was Born In,” a song that she explained was written by slaves, and sung to educate their children about the months of the year.

Oh Lord indeed! I usually hate feel-good concerts for all the obvious reasons. But this was something else again. After three very short hours, I hit the streets of Troy walking on air. Happy Holidays.

—Paul Rapp

Voodoo Chile

Dax Riggs

Valentines, Nov. 14

It was amazing to see Dax Riggs take the stage for an encore on Wednesday night. Amazing not just because he graced the crowd with an intimate solo rendition of the Misfits’ “Skulls,” but because he had for more than an hour endured the heckling of drunken buffoons who called for songs he had just played; buffoons who demanded encores a few songs into the set, and insisted he play songs he has not played since 1997.

Riggs has built up two sometimes divergent followings: one from his work in the early ’90s with death-metal band Acid Bath, and the other from his more bluesy/glam projects such as Agents of Oblivion and Deadboy and the Elephantmen. The former seemed to be the contingency that showed up en masse on Wednesday night, and they seemed less tolerant of Riggs’ recent work. Drunk and acting like tough-guy third-graders, these overgoateed assclowns tried desperately to draw attention to themselves rather than paying attention to the show.

At best, this was annoying. At worst, the idiots harassed the band’s guitarist about playing with his shirt off, told him to go back to Louisiana (he is from Brooklyn), and distracted the obviously sensitive and temperamental Riggs, who generally makes a habit of dumping his heart and soul on stage every night.

But Riggs’ performance was stellar. His voice was crisp and clean, not as strained as it had been at earlier dates of the tour, and his backing band now toys with the simpler tunes in Riggs catalog. “How Long the Night Was” and “Stop I’m Already Dead” were delivered with zeal, exploding out of their normally moderate pacing. At times they were delivered with in a workmanlike fashion; at others, they felt like the devil clawing at my soul (’tis a good thing).

Other tunes like “Evil Friend” and “Forgot I was Alive” were reorchestrated with a loungey, keyboard-heavy feel that allowed Riggs to show off his vocal range. While the new takes on old songs were generally welcome, some of Riggs’ older material lost the soulful swamp vibe that used to be their heart.

And yet what is most inspiring about Riggs and his music is his insistence to look forward to experiment to build off the past, dissect it, kill it and then and sometimes just briefly resurrect it. Once again, it is starting to look a tad easy for Riggs and his band, and that means it is likely he’ll soon throw it all out the window and start all over again.

—David King

Pass It Along

Solid Blues

Proctor’s Theatre, Nov. 13

Solid Blues, last week’s stellar show at Proctor’s featuring gospel belter Mavis Staples, harmonica ace Charlie Musselwhite, youthful roots trio the North Mississippi Allstars and New Orleans piano professor Joe Krown showed what a big tent the blues has become since its beginnings in Mississippi and East Texas. The lucky listeners in the Schenectady landmark were treated to not only top-shelf blues but soul, gospel, protest songs, and even early country music in a performance that served as a potent reminder of why the music of the American South became the envy of all the world.

The concert opened with Joe Krown seated at a Steinway grand parked on stage right. A 50-ish ivory tickler in a century-old tradition going back through Dr. John and Professor Longhair all the way to Jelly Roll Morton, Krown unfurled a quartet of tangy instrumentals that ranged from boogie-woogie to early jazz. The highlight of the brief set was his original tune “Old Friends,” a slow, meandering ballad.

The North Mississippi Allstars, a threesome from that state’s hill country consisting of brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson on guitars and drums and bassist Chris Chew, followed. The Allstars, who later on backed Musselwhite and Staples, began acoustically, with Luther and Cody on delivering savory lead picking in a bluesy version of the Carter Family chestnut “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Shortly afterward, Luther plugged in an electric guitar and Cody switched to drums for an electric segment that included Bob Dylan’s unfortunately relevant “Masters of War” and the Marvellettes girl-group classic “Beechwood 4-5789” with Chew on vocals.

Charlie Musselwhite, one of today’s top blues harp players (disclosure: Musselwhite wrote the foreword to my book, Masters of the Blues Harp), kicked off the second set with his driving original “The Blues Overtook Me.” The 63-year-old bluesman sang in a gravelly baritone, and in his solo breaks whizzed around the harmonica like a hummingbird, pulling off tasty and often difficult riffs with aplomb. Also memorable was his tune “Black Water,” a half-spoken, half-sung lament about the damage from Hurricane Katrina interspersed with desolate, moaning harmonica interludes.

Capping the bill was Mavis Staples, 68, from Mississippi’s renowned gospel group the Staple Singers. A vocal powerhouse, Staples was much more of a soul singer than a blues chanteuse, shouting, testifying, and bedazzling with her gritty alto. Her first offering was J. B. Lenoir’s grim description of the murderous Jim Crow South, “Down in Mississippi.” In her 40-minute set, she also tore through the Band’s “The Weight” and the traditional gospel anthem “Eyes on the Prize.” Her closer, with Known joining in, was a high-voltage medley of “Down by the Riverside” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Aside from the high quality of the music, there was a heartening symmetry in the lineup of performers: Three were older, three were younger. Three hands to pass down the roots music tradition, three hands to carry it on.

—Glenn Weiser


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