Born to Run (2016)
THE SEEGER SESSIONS
In 1997 I recorded “We Shall Overcome” for Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger. Growing up a rock ’n’ roll kid, I didn’t know a lot about Pete’s music or the depth of his influence. But once I started listening, I was overwhelmed by the wealth of songs, their richness and their power. It changed what I thought I knew about “folk music.” Through Soozie Tyrell, I met a group of musicians out of New York City who occasionally came down and played at our farm. Accordion, fiddle, banjo, upright bass, washboard—this is the sound I was envisioning for the Pete Seeger project. We set up next to one another in the living room of our farmhouse (horns in the hall), counted off the opening chords to “Jesse James” and away we went.
We made a half-dozen recordings. I sat on them for almost a decade but from time to time I kept being drawn back to them. They weren’t quite like anything else I’d cut before and their freshness kept commanding my ear. I set up another session in 2005 and then one more in 2006. Everything on the record was cut in those three one-day sessions (’97, ’05 and ’06), mostly first or second takes, all live and all with a band I’d never played a note with before they showed up at our farm barn dance. The Sessions Band was born.
• • •
There was one show in America that stood out as not only one of the finest of but one of the most meaningful of my work life: New Orleans.
I’d been invited to play the first post-Katrina New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival as a headliner. I finally had a band that I felt would contextually fit Jazz Fest and might be able to pull the weight of that position.
I understood the great symbolism the festival would have to New Orleans that year and I wanted to make sure we honored it. They’d been through hell, with half the population lost, their city destroyed; people would be attending for deep, deep reasons and that would need to be taken into consideration.
Shortly before we were to leave for Louisiana, I thought of the city’s unofficial theme song, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I was compelled to seek out all the lyrics. I saw most of them had never been heard and that this was a much deeper piece of music than what had been popularly known over the years. I slowed the song down to a meditation on resilience, survival and commitment to a dream that lives on through storm, wreckage and ruin. It was a quiet hymn, the way we presented it, but it was our thanks and our prayer for the city that had birthed blues, jazz, rock ’n’ roll and so much of the most epic American culture.
• • •
In order to sound check at the festival grounds, we would need to be onstage at eight thirty a.m. on the day of our show. That’s gut-level brutal for musicians but we needed to sound check. This was a new band’s first gig in front of people. I had to make sure my musicians were comfortable and left the stage knowing we could be great. The Edge of U2 was there at the crack of dawn with us, checking it out. I’d been longtime compadres with the guys in U2, going back to that 1981 club appearance in London. I feel a great bond with their band. Bono had emceed my induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and besides being one of the last of the rock bands always willing to play for all the marbles, they also happen to be some of the nicest people I’ve met in the music business. Years later they continue to support me and show up at our gigs regularly, so it was great to see the Edge’s goatee smiling by the side of the stage.
It’d been pouring rain all morning; the field was soaked and looked like the land of a thousand lakes. It was bone-chilly and damp. We kicked into Blind Alfred Reed’s “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” and the first thing I noticed was the stage was acoustically dead; there was very little ambient sound. This can make things sound flat and unexciting, even too quiet, to the group. The house sound was too far away to add that little extra buzz and fullness that lets you know you’re hearing some of what the crowd is responding to. All of this often happens in outside venues. For the audience, the sound will be clear and unfiltered by arena echo, but for the band, it can make you feel cut off from the crowd, and that’s always deadly to me. So, you adapt. You concentrate and will that bridge between yourself and the audience. Then let your showtime adrenaline fix do the rest.
We came off the stage after sound check smiling. It’d do. I stood in the wings, greeted the band stage-side and told them we’d have a great afternoon.
Showtime in New Orleans
Allen Toussaint, New Orleans’s spiritual godfather (who passed away in November of 2015), went on right before us. That’s a hell of an opening act and tough to follow. After his set, Allen came down and met the band. He was the gracious, elegant mayor of New Orleans and welcomed us to his city. Now it was time for the “kids.” We walked on to a nice round of applause—not tumultuous, but welcoming—and kicked into “Mary Don’t You Weep.” I immediately sensed the crowd was not going to be easy. They were seeing something even our fans who were there to support us hadn’t seen before, and much of the audience had come to see many of the great other acts of the day. So we went to work. Sometimes two pieces have to move around a little bit, squirm and find some wiggle room until they lock into place. I could feel that was what was happening and I knew when that arises, you just put your head down and play your music. You have to be confident in all of the thought and rehearsal that brought you to that stage. Still, it’s always unnerving.
It turned into a beautiful evening. We were in the last hour before sundown and the weather was glorious. Gradually, things moved, loosened up; people started dancing, swaying, taking in the noise we were making and going with it. We had the balls to blow “Jersey Dixieland” in Dixieland! The crowd was judging but generous too. Then we hit “How Can a Poor Man” and I made sure I annunciated every line as clearly as I could to be understood. We were an hour and fifteen minutes in and I was pushing our rhythm as far toward rock while still letting the band swing. Slowly I could feel those two pieces sliding together. Then “My City of Ruins”; that’s what it took. A mutual acknowledgment of pain and hard times.
We closed at exactly sunset. I walked to the front of the stage, where to my left, over the field’s rim, the sun sat, a red ball on the horizon. I let its golden light wash over me like no spotlight could and I felt the band and the crowd fall into each other’s arms. We finished with the prayerful arrangement of “Saints” we’d worked out just for this moment. I watched white handkerchiefs flutter from a thousand hands in the last rays of the sun. There were some tears both on and off the stage as the cool evening rose up and the crowd dispersed back onto the streets of the Crescent City.
I’ve played many, many, many shows, but few like this one. I had to work very hard and lead the band with a conviction I wasn’t sure I felt myself. But maybe that’s what the evening was all about: trying to rise above the uncertainty of the day and find something to stand on. You cannot book, manufacture or contrive these dates. It’s a matter of moment, place, need, and a desire to serve in your own small way the events of the day. There, in New Orleans, there was a real job to do. One the lovely but fleeting notes that poured out of that day’s participants and off the stage onto the streets of New Orleans could only scratch the surface of. Still, something as seemingly inconsequential as music does certain things very well. There’s a coming together and a lifting, a fortifying, that occurs when people gather and move in time with one another. It’s a beautiful thing.
This was one of the shows that went to the very top of the list for me. I don’t know if we were great but I know it was a great evening. Sometimes, that covers a lot of ground and is all the day calls for.
In the 1970s I went to a Grateful Dead show at a community college. I watched the crowd swaying and doing its trance-dance thing and I stood very outside of it. To me—sober, nonmystical, only half hippie, if that, me—they sounded like a not-very-talented bar band. I went home gently mystified. I don’t know if the Grateful Dead were great but I know they did something great. Years later, when I came to appreciate their subtle musicality, Jerry Garcia’s beautifully lyrical guitar playing and the folk purity of their voices, I understood that I’d missed it. They had a unique ability to build community and sometimes, it ain’t what you’re doing but what happens while you’re doing it that counts. In New Orleans that year, we were a left-field but good fit and filled our important slot well. Then New Orleans did the rest.
A lot of what the E Street Band does is hand-me-down shtick transformed by will, power and an intense communication with our audience into something transcendent. Sometimes that’s all you need. I once read a review of a very competent hit-making group where the reviewer stated, “They do all the unimportant things very well.” I knew exactly what he meant. Rock ’n’ roll music, in the end, is a source of religious and mystical power. Your playing can suck, your singing can be barely viable, but if when you get together with your pals in front of your audience and make the noise, the one that is drawn from the center of your being, from your godhead, from your gutter, from the universe’s infinitesimal genesis point . . . you’re rockin’ and you’re a rock ’n’ roll star in every sense of the word. The punks instinctively knew this and created a third revolution out of it, but it is an essential element in the equation of every great musical unit and rock ’n’ roll band, no matter how down-to-earth their presentation.