Friday, August 9, 2013
Album Review - We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
Back in the year 2006, I was a young lad of the tender age of 21. As a student of New York University, I'll remember my junior year as a time of growing my world: I expanded my friend base, had my share of drama with the fairer sex, and consumed alcohol in amounts that my "current self" would get dizzy just thinking about. And, as always, I was expanding my musical tastes. Junior year was the first time I really got into bands such as the Cure, the Futureheads, the Exploding Hearts, the Replacements, the New Pornographers and the Violent Femmes. While these bands vary from each other, they can pretty much be grouped into "rock" or "pop" categories. It shouldn't shock anyone to see them on the iPod of a young straight white male. Which is why, when Springsteen's Seeger Sessions dropped in April of 2006, it was such a shock to my system.
Having been a Bruce fan since 1999, I thought I knew what to expect from Springsteen. At that time, I had been a Bruce fan for two previous studio releases - The Rising and Devils & Dust. While Devils & Dust was a stripped-down departure from Bruce's normal sound, it was not unprecedented. Bruce had done two previous "quiet" albums, Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, and both times they were followed up by sensation pop albums (Born In The U.S.A. and The Rising, respectively). I expected something similar post-Devils & Dust, instead, Springsteen went the bluegrass direction. I certainly did not see that coming.
At the time, I treated the album as novelty. I remember my 21-year-old self describing it to friends, saying "Bruce has conquered rock music, now he wants to conquer other genres. I bet he does a rap album next!" Oh, 21-year-old Rory, what rapier wit you had. 21-year-old Rory was also fascinated by songs such as "Erie Canal", which he sang in his third grade music class, and the cartoon story presented in "Froggie Went A-Courtin;". However, seven years have passed, and I've recently been playing the album more and more on my iPod. And, if I can't indulge myself in a thousand word rant about a seven-year-old album on my personal blog, where else can I?
While I most consume my music on random on my iPod, this is an album that works best played in order. The opening track, "Old Dan Tucker", is probably the most shocking start to a Springsteen album since "Ain't Got You". It starts with the classic Springsteen countdown, but with the faint hint of a chuckle. Then, where you'd normally have a guitar or piano on a typical Springsteen album, you get a rollicking banjo solo. It is these first few seconds that set the tone for the album - you are getting Springsteen, but a light-hearted, laughing Springsteen who isn't following his own rules.
From there, we are led on a journey that mixes classic Springsteen elements with all the strongest traditions of folk music. There are tales of tragic characters like "Jesse James" and "John Henry", both songs telling stories of their deaths delivered in a joyous romp - if you close your eyes, you could imagine the band playing these songs drunkenly at a bar, trying to cheer themselves up. Songs such as "My Oklahoma Home" and "Pay Me My Money Down" hearken back to Springsteen classics like "Workin' On The Highway" and "Sherry Darling", both sardonic tales sung by a down-on-his-luck narrator. My personal favorite song from the album is "O Mary Don't You Weep No More", which was originally a Negro spiritual. This song is delivered by Bruce and the Seeger Sessions band with exuberant fever. It encapsulates the how the sadness of life can be uplifted with the power of music, which is the main message of the album.
While I can go back and listen to the album any time, it does make me wistful for the Springsteen and Seeger Session band concert I saw that summer in 2006. It has stuck with me as strong as nearly any Springsteen concert I had seen, including seeing him on his birthday and the last show with Clarence Clemons in Buffalo, 2009.
While this isn't from the show I saw, it shows how these old songs got everyone in the crowd rocking along. People were singing "Pay Me My Money" about as loud as they would sing along to "Hungry Heart". The concert I saw was also one of the few times I got to hear songs from Devils & Dust played live, such as "Long Time Comin'". And I absolutely fell in love with this version of one of my all-time favorite Springsteen songs:
All I can say is: wow. It sounds absolutely perfect in this setting - it seems like the song was written 80 years ago. That's what I love about "Atlantic City": there are three completely different versions performed by one artist, and each version tells a "different" story.
Springsteen closed with "Man On The Flying Trapeze", saying that this song helped explain what he was doing, exploring these old songs and bringing them into the forefront again. And that's what is beautiful about this album: it may not be Bruce's best, but there will never be another one like it. The songs may have sad messages, but the joy that Springsteen and the band have just pours through the speakers, and makes me smile every time I listen to it.