Bruce and the big band.
PHOTO: Leif Zurmuhlen
Springsteen and the E Street Band
Union Center, Nov.15
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.
Takes All Kinds
Songs of the Spirit
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
Like the aching crystalline voice of Tracy Grammer, and the
dulcet trumpet tones and incredible African singing of Hugh
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.
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
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
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.