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Last chance power drive: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Pepsi. Photo by Martin Benjamin.

Somber Spirit in the Night
By Paul Rapp

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
Pepsi Arena, Dec. 13

The Boss was late. Like over 50 minutes late, which is a long time to sit in the Pepsi and listen to tinny and barely audible recordings of mundane garage rock. At 8:19 I wrote “Bite Me, Boss” in my trusty Jimmy Olson reporter’s notebook.

About 20 seconds into the opening strains of “The Rising,” I’d forgotten all about the long wait. After the second song, “Lonesome Day,” I remembered what I’d written down and felt embarrassed. By the end of the third song, “The Ties That Bind,” I ripped the page out of my notebook and ate it.

This was a show unlike past shows: Where before, Springsteen and Co. would deliver pretty much a pedal-to-the-metal celebration for three hours, this was a different animal. Almost every song from the new album, The Rising, was performed, every one somehow related to 9/11. And almost every other song performed had some identifiable conceptual link to the link as well. On some level, rock & roll is always about catharsis and redemption. On Friday night, everything Springsteen did was about catharsis and redemption on every level. To underscore the obvious, everyone onstage wore black. Well, except for Little Steven, who snuck in a little purple.

The high points of the show were also the quietest. “Empty Sky,” an acoustic duet between Springsteen and his wife, Patti Scialfa, was as beautiful as it was devastating. Every time Scialfa got a turn, in fact, she did something amazing. Everything seemed to be played a little legato, and the anthems (and most of Springsteen’s songs are anthems) were more stately and dramatic as a result. More emotional and more powerful. The entire band played with the simplicity the songs demanded. The feeling for much of the night was less celebratory than it was inspiring and galvanizing.

All of this elegant sobriety didn’t always go down smoothly. The show would explode every now and then, the house would rock, and Springsteen would declare “It’s party time” or something and then execute a 15-foot slide on his knees across the stage. Then, just as quickly, the mood would turn somber again. Things seemed to be roaring to a big finish at around the two-hour mark: The lights were up, the tempos were fast, the music was loud. Springsteen was clowning around, although his inexplicable attempt to pull Little Steven into an Amos & Andy routine was just plain dumb, and Steven is to be commended for not playing along. Anyway, once again the energy dissipated, and the show ended on a whimper, to confused and subdued applause.

The three encores settled the energy question, to be sure, as the band roared through the likes of “Born to Run” and Chuck Berry’s “Reelin’ and Rockin’.” As the band took a bow after the second encore, somebody tossed Springsteen a Santa Claus hat. As he stood there with a “You got me” look, the stage was bombarded with Santa Claus hats. I think you know what happened next.

Punk-Rock Fury

The Casualties, the Forgotten, River City Rebels
Valentine’s, Dec. 5

A 34-year old man trying to write up a show on a Thursday night in winter-storm-warning weather, I got stopped by the door guy, who asked for my “notepad and credentials.” I told him I washed my Metroland laminate by accident, my dog ate my pencil pack and there was an earwig problem in my basement, but somehow, after submitting my home phone number and a half-empty pack of Skittles, I trudged on up the stairs. Not too many there, probably about 150 tops, most very young, smoking cigarettes, dry humping each other in the dark recesses of the venue. Mohawks sliced and diced a pernicious fog as I turned toward the drinking section, where there were exactly four people, and believe me, if I didn’t have a propensity toward immediate arrest, I’d have been right there with them, talking about international security in between remember-whens. I felt so old, I was actually creaking.

I was much better, however, after a dose of the River City Rebels. I liked ’em, but a huge chunk of the young chaos punks weren’t buying it, the fat horns, the dude in the scrunchy, nasty old captain’s hat. The trombonist told the hecklers in the back to stick it and offered free ass-whoopings, blowing that thing just fine without a mike most of the time. He certainly didn’t help to win any fans by lobbing milky spit bombs on his detractors, much of which also found purchase on the cheeks of young ladies in plaid mini skirts. Also rather ridiculous was a prolonged argument with the crowd over who really wrote “Chinese Rock,” but when they actually played something, it was good party music, infusing skanky conflagrations of latter-day American ska into a root base of decent street punk. I was surprised to learn that the band hail from Vermont—maple syrup, damn good mountain biking, and . . . bastion of crucial punk-rock party bands? But GG Allin was from New Hampshire, so there ya go. So much for my jaundiced predispositions.

The Forgotten are from somewhere in Northern California, and delivered sincere, relationship-ending classics. The frontman (I guess they call him Gordy) hoisted a glass and proposed a quaint Irish toast, and the rest was history: They razed the joint and kicked the pit wide open with three-chord choruses, beer and a general taste for usurping the common good with tunes like “Air Raid,” “Class Separation” and “Ain’t Gonna Lose the War.” A chiseled, heavily tattooed guttersnipe on the Les Paul (I guess they call him Craig) handily won the “That’s Exactly How a Guitar Should Sound Award” of the evening, shooting nothing but pure gamma rays into the orifices of folks with the help of a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier. Works every time, and they were gone just as murderously as they came.

The Casualties are the New Yawk City real deal. They snapped into character the minute they hit the stage with more than 30 songs of pure punk-rock fury, at about Mach 10. On the road once again in support of the new and excellent Die Hards CD, these lads do one thing and they do it well. Their material isn’t much else but punk-rock songs about punk-rock living, which explodes at bank-robbery intensity, but hey, they never professed to be Aerosmith. Since you could hurt yourself reading their set list, I’ll simply name a few: “Punx Unite,” “For the Punx,” “Can’t Stop Us,” “Die Hards,” “40 Oz. Casualty,” “Two Faced,” “Nightmare,” “Fight for Your Life,” “Violence,” “Riot,” and the benevolent “Fuck You All.”

It was all complicated belts, pale, endomorphic postures and vinyl being sold at the merch booth. What more could you want? As an old man, I wanted a Maalox tablet, but the good news was that I could wander behind the stage unnoticed. This is because most people assume I’m either a stagehand or someone’s dad. This is horribly depressing, but at the same time I got to watch drummer Meggers kick the living crap out of his kit all night. The man has the face of a ghost and wrists like titanium bushings. Lately I’ve been watching the mechanics, the art of the actual delivery of such volatile stuff, and the fact that these lads do it better than most was clearly written on the awe-stricken faces of the mad teens hugging the monitors in the front.

While fairly unintelligible to the uneducated listener, singer Jorge has an unflappable sense of purpose and is well-accustomed to the deal, very tolerant of stage divers who hog the mike and don’t know when to get the hell off. One was coughed onto the stage and rammed full-bore into the spiky-mopped screamer, only to bounce off him as if he were was the Statue of Liberty and the boy were a sickly seagull. The Casualties are mighty. They are fast. They are none too eloquent. If you ever loved GBH, the Exploited or the Varukers, you would be remiss to deprive yourself of this experience, especially live. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get home to take my heart pills.

—Bill Ketzer

Funk Bonds

John Scofield
Club Helsinki, Dec. 11

John Scofield was in Great Barrington, Mass., last Monday and Tuesday to shake out new material before taking his band into the studio on Wednesday to record a new record. What a great time to see a band like this—when the blades are sharpened, the guns loaded, and everything polished to a spit-shine.

Scofield may be one of the luckiest people in the jazz world: By virtue of his late-’90s collaboration with Medeski, Martin and Wood, Scofield was vaulted from obscure-but-respected journeyman jazz guitarist to superstar of the jam-band circuit. Which is wildly and wonderfully improbable, given that his music is not exactly noodle-dance fodder, and also because Scofield looks much like an affable and gentle 50-something psychiatrist.

Last Tuesday’s sets, before a packed house, were a band effort, to be sure—and not just some guys backing the Big Important Star. The impossibly boyish and powerful drummer Adam Deitch as much as announced this with an opening second-line groove that was deadly funky. Dude’s got serious feet. All evening, Deitch was fused to bassist Andy Hess, who hovered over Deitch, bobbing up and down with the beat like a piston, playing spare and insistent riffs. One would think that being the second guitarist in Scofield’s band would be a hideous and thankless task. One would be wrong. Avi Bortnick not only played rhythm and lead guitar to be proud of (you’ve gotta be a player to evoke Jeff Beck like he did), he controlled the laptop and the electronic nerve center of this very, very wired band. It appeared that every sound generated on stage visited Bortnick’s laptop on the way to the soundboard, where Bortnick would do some electronic woo-hoo on it. Often his laptop did unspeakable things to the sounds, and Bortnick would frequently layer electronica beats or textured sound washes into the mix. While the jazz-rock genre often sounds stalled in the ’70s, Bortnick and his high-tech jim-jaws brought the sound of the band squarely into tomorrow.

Scofield was front and center, playing rich, intelligent solos, spiked with drama and movement. He has a distinctive sound, oddly bell-like and subtle at the same time. He doesn’t play fast as a rule, only occasionally dropping an intermittent lightning lick, as if to just let you know what he can do. He also liberally used electronics (he had a little army of effects pedals in front of him), at one point playing a solo against himself played back backwards—or something like that. He was only playing half the solo, and nobody was playing the other half, so something was doing something up there. Cool.

The tunes were generally built up from Deitch’s irrepressible grooves (or Bortnick’s synthetic ones) with Scofield sailing overhead. Most everything was funky, and things only got into that treacly light-jazz realm a couple of times, and not for long. As George Benson-y as the heads might have been, once Scofield launched into a solo, the gloves came off. And thank goodness for that.

—P.R.


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