Rock and Roll Adult: Garland Jeffreys Returns from In Between

“I’m on the 90-year-plan,” Garland Jeffreys cracks.

When you’re helping to raise a 15-year-old daughter and your first album in 13 years is about to hit the market, there’s a reason to map out an ambitious future.

Jeffreys has been playing the occasional festival in Europe and the odd show here and there over the last decade, but mostly what he’s been is a full partner with his wife, Claire, raising their daughter, Savannah, in New York.

“She’s benefited from two parents who’ve been around,” he adds. “I didn’t see any reason to have a child and raise a child if you weren’t going to be around.”
She’s learned well, giving the old man a run for his money. She has a fan following on Youtube and a solo gig at The Bitter End later this month. “We’re raising an entrepreneurial rock and roller,” he says from his apartment near the East Village. “”That’s what you’ve got to be today.”

With Savannah Jeffreys well on her way, it’s time for dad to get back in the game, something Jeffreys does emphatically with “The King of In Between,” an effort worth the long wait.

“I wanted to make an album that means something,” he says. “I’ve really set the standards high and I’ve struggled at times to make songs that would work and are representative of me and what I’m thinking.”
The album features his strongest material since 1991’s “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat,” one of the signature discs of that decade. Jeffreys typically moves easily through rock and roll, reggae, and folk blues as the melodic foundation for his mix of personal history and social commentary.

“It’s very simple,” he says. “The music I grew up with and listened to my whole life is coming through me when I’m working.” That’s everything from Frankie Lymon to Dinah Washington to The Band to Dylan to Hank Williams and Motown.

“Some artists are easily recognized,” he adds. “Every song can sound the same on an album. I’m the opposite. I like the idea of trying to come up with a sequence of songs that are different from one another and make it work. That’s the challenge.”
For the album, Jeffreys called in favors from friends old and new. Steve Jordan plays drums, Brian Mitchell mans the keys, Mike Merritt is on bass and most of the guitar parts are played by Duke Levine and Larry Campbell. “One of the key things I say to these guys is I have no money,” Jeffreys says, chuckling. “They don’t call me for a month after that. But they understand. Any time someone asks me to sing on an album, I do it for free. You have to help out one another.”

Jeffreys called up Campbell, who he’d met in passing over the decades, and asked him to drop by his apartment to hear a few songs. The idea was for Campbell to contribute guitar and violin. But when they started recording, the two got along so well that Campbell became the album’s co-producer.
“I think the common thread — what I’m always looking for — is an honest interpretation of who you are,” Campbelladds, the morning after he’d played another one of Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles upstate. “He does that really well. The genre isn’t important. It’s about being true to yourself and expressing that. If that’s there, then I’m in.”

Campbell’s favorite cut on the disc is “Streetwise,” a slice of string-fueled Philly soul laid behind Jeffreys’ reflections on the world his child faces. Jeffreys suggested Campbell arrange the strings. Instead, he came into the studio one day with two violins and began laying down the string parts. “He doesn’t get off the seat for four hours,” Jeffreys recalls. “He lays down al lthe strings himself. I’d never seen anything like it before. The guy is amazing.”

Even Campbell says: “I think we really nailed something there. I think we really crystallized Garland’s initial vision of that tune.”

Jeffreys did return to the strudio for a couple of cuts because he felt there wasn’t enough energy on the record. One, “Coney Island Winter,” kicks off the album with ringing rock guitars and a deadpan delivery that owes a little to Jeffreys’ longtime friend, Lou Reed, who he met while a student at Syracuse University in the 1960s (Felix Cavaliere of The Rascals was another running mate there).

Other cuts like “All Around the World” and “The Contortionist,” featuring Reed and Savannah Jeffreys on background vocals, dip into reggae. “‘Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me” is a a shuffle that would make ZZ Top proud.

“Sooner or later gonna dust my broom,” he sings. It’s one of two songs on the album about facing mortality; the other is “In God’s Waiting Room.” “Here I am loving the song. I check with Larry and Steve and they think it’s great. I bring it home and my wife and daughter hate it,” he says. “I’m not connecting with the idea it could mean I’m going to die. I’m thinking about what a great song it is.”

Jeffreys admits he’s been wondering recently if he’ll live long enough to be around when his daughter makes her first record or gets married. “I’m not planning on leaving any moment too soon,” he says. “I’m healthy. I have no illnesses.”

The songs were written over the last five years and many were played live in the studio with the band. “There’s nothing like having a great band, a great bunch of players,” Jeffreys says. “You go over it, you get the chords straight and lay the track down, vocals at the same time, and there it is. You can add a couple of things afterwards.”

There is a sweetness as well as a toughness to his writing. The album explores the New York of his youth and of today, moving from remembrances of Coney Island to what he sees on the street outside his Stuyvesant Town apartment, where he says he likes to go down and sit in the park and shot the breeze.

As always, Jeffreys explores race and identity, which he addressed directly on “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat,” notably with “Hail, Hail Rock ‘N’ Roll” and “The Color Line.”

Jeffreys himself found it hard to fit in (listen to “I May Not Be Your Kind’). His father was the product of black and white parents. His grandmother was Puerto Rican. His grandfather was part Native American. He was raised Catholic, the only family of color in church.

“There was the awkwardness of being different,” he says, singing a line from “Spanish Blood:” “Say you’re Spanish; say you’re Spanish blood.”

That’s what he did as a youth, pass as Spanish, not black. “I would hide and get through,” he adds, hiding in his own skin.

And he notes that his daughter is a mixture of races as well and “lives in a world that is totally accepting. She said to me, ‘Dad, that’s your problem, not mine.’ ”

“I absolutely love to see my daughter with her friends hanging out on the basketball court with all kinds of kids,” he adds. “It’s that way now.”

Jeffreys started singing in kindergarten. He remembers crooning “Do the Huckle Buck,” offering a few lines during the interview. When he was older, he sang “It’s Almost Tomorrow” at an assembly. “That was it, man,” he says remembering. “That was the way a career started.”
After studying at Syracuse and abroad in Italy, he dropped out of graduate school and started a band. He moved upstate for a while, then returned to the city.

In 1973, he released his first solo album, “Garland Jeffreys.” A single not on the album, “Wild in the Streets,” became an FM radio hit. Among those who played on the tune were Dr. John and the Brecker Brothers.
His biggest hit came later in the 1970s with “Matador” off the “American Boy and Girl” album. The tune hit the top of the charts in several European countries. “It came out in ’79 and it still produces revenue and helps provide for our lifestyle,” he says. “I wish every songwriter has one of these.”

Most of his catalog is out of print, but he intends to get them back on the shelves and online in the next few months.
Jeffreys turns 68 this month, but he looks and sounds much younger. Being a songwriter hasn’t been easy over the past decade. He’s remained big in Europe; he’ll play festivals in Spain and Belgium this summer with his Europe-based band, The Coney Island Playboys. But he’ll focus more on playing in the States, building again a fan base.

Jeffreys headed upstate to play a Midnight Ramble with Helm and Campbell a few weeks ago, closing the show with a sing-along of “The Weight.” “I’m glad he’s doing it again,” Campbell says. “You can see he’s got all that enthusiasm and fire. He just gives it up. He’s the real thing.

My Favorite Music of 2010

Here are the discs that were most memorable for me in 2010. If you like this kind of music, please check out my house concert series, North Shore Point House Concerts, and get on the email list for 2011 shows.

Kevin Welch “A Patch of Blue Sky” (Music Road)

That Kevin Welch isn’t a household name is a crime for fans of finely wrought, soul-searching, and soul-touching songs. Welch has been writing for more than three decades and he’s a master songwriter, a son of Oklahoma (like Woody) who recently moved from Nashville to the hill country of Texas. “Blue Sky” is his first solo record in eight years (although he’s released a couple of must-have discs with buddies Kieran Kane and Fats Kaplin during that time). It’s ten songs framed by his rich, expressive voice (listen to him take that breath at just the right time on “Answer Me That”) and tasteful Americana instrumentation (hey, he’s credited with inventing the genre).

Every cut is a highlight from the opener, “Come a Rain,” a litany of simple character statements – “Jesus was a pagan, Woody was a punk” – on through the soulful, gospel sounding title track that’s both hopeful and defiant and blessed with soaring harmonies by the Trishas, which include his daughter, Savannah. Dustin, his son, lends a major hand, helping with the writing and playing guitar. Welch has never shied from the tough questions, the broken hearts and broken dreams. Welch’s heartfelt writing is only part of what makes “Blue Sky” so compelling. His voice has gotten better, more emotional, over the years. He may have been through some rough times, but he can see the clouds parting on []”A Patch of Blue Sky:”

Peter Wolf “Midnight Souvenirs” (Verve).

If you only know Peter Wolf from the late-era J. Geils Band hits, then you’re missing something, maybe everything. On “Midnight Souvenirs,” his first solo disc in eight years, he’s the master of ceremonies for a house rockin’ night of R&B (real, soulful analog R&B). Just try to stay in your seat. Wolf, the night owl, leads you through a long night into day of hip-shaking, love making (and breaking), and soul depraving time. Wolf chooses his dance partners well.

A duet with Nashville bad girl Shelby Lynne on“Tragedy” is a perfect marriage. The cut opens the album and announces we’re going to party over the sadness.  A mid-album folk rock turn by Neko Case on the fiddle-driven “The Green Fields of Summer” provides a welcome breather. And Merle Haggard indulges Wolf’s twang inclinations with the closing “It’s Too Late for Me.” (Wolf started his career as a DJ and I wonder if “Green Fields” pays homage to the folk classic while “Watch Her Move,” a rollicking piece of R&B makes a nod to Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “She Moves Me”).

Bruce Springsteen “The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story” (Columbia).

The deluxe boxed set is a revelation in several ways. First, there’s the newly released material, two discs of buoyant pop rock that ranges from the smolder or “Fire” (yes, written for Elvis who died during these sessions) to the rocking “Because the Night” to the Buddy Holly beat of “Outside Looking In.” The songs are so filled with pop overdubs and instrumentation that they’re jarring at first in contrast to the beautifully remastered disc of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” Springsteen’s best album. In the accompanying notebook, there’s a song list suggesting Springsteen was listening to Elvis, Buddy Holly, Percy Sledge, Phil Spector’s girl groups, and the Animals during this period and the songs show those influences, sometimes on their sleeves. In a way, they’re the missing link between “Darkness” and “Born in the USA.”

The DVDs are excellent, especially the documentary on the making of the album, the live show from Houston in 1978 and other goodies, notably a searing version of “Badlands” live from Phoenix, 1978. The reproduced notebook with revision after revision of lyrics and song choices is an enlightening glimpse into Springsteen’s work ethic. More than anything, the set shows Springsteen’s inner editor and discipline. “Darkness” would have been a weaker album with any of the discarded cuts, including “Because the Night,” even though they’re superb songs. In the documentary, Springsteen says “Because” would not have fit as a love song and he didn’t feel he had the perspective and time to judge whether it was a good song or not. That’s the kind of internal discipline and focus that makes an artist great.

Darrell Scott “A Crooked Road” (Full Light).

I’ve been a fan of Scott’s since his “Aloha from Nashville,” but “Crooked Road” may be a career best and that’s saying something for the guy who spent part of this year playing in Robert Plant’s Band of Joy (after touring with Steve Earle last year). This two-disc set turns deeply inward for a mid-life meditation on family, love, longing, and where he’s headed. It’s a mile wide and a mile deep with plenty to ponder even as you tap your toe along with Scott’s fluid melodies and voice, which can range from comforting to ragged and raw (notably on the bluesy “Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.”)

Scott plays every instrument and sings layers of vocals on every cut. And he doesn’t just contribute the strings he’s famous for, but cello, piano, organ, accordion, bass, drum, and percussion. the Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and others have made his songs hits but it’s clear from “The Crooked Road” that the best interpreter of Darrell Scott tunes is Darrell Scott.

Tift Merritt “See You on the Moon” (Fantasy).

Tift Merritt’s latest meditation opens with “Mixtape,” a catchy pop song driven by hand claps and framed by strings about making a mixtape for a potential lover, the narrator seeing herself “like a rare B-side.” It’s utterly captivating and it’s also utterly unlike anything else on the album.

Few artists have made an many stylistic turns in as few albums at Merritt, who debuted as an alt country chanteuse on “Bramble Rose,” then moved into mainstream blue-eyed rock and soul on the Grammy-nominated “Tambourine” before the quiet “Another Country.” “See You on the Moon” is an often revelatory album that walks the line between the best of her last two efforts.”Engine to Turn” and the Byrdsy “Six More Days of Rain” reach the edge of the catchiness found on “Tambourine.” “Never Talk About It,” guided by a strummed acoustic guitar, and “All the Reasons We Don’t Have to Fight,” are spare, elegant, and beautiful. Merritt’s voice has grown quieter, more emotionally fragile over time. If “Tambourine” grabbed you and demanded attention, “Moon” sits back and beckons.

Tim O’Brien “Chicken & Egg” (Howdy Skies Records).

“Chicken & Egg” floats by so easily and tastefully, it’s tempting to underestimate the craft in Tim O’Brien’s playing and singing. Best known for his bluegrass playing in Hot Rize and other ensembles, O’Brien’s 13th album covers plenty of ground from the amusing title cut to remembrances of his mother and father, both of whom have died in recent years, to a serious hymn about sinners. “Not Afraid of Dyin’ ” is a moving collection of things O’Brien’s father said. The music meanders easily from swing to gentle rockabilly. There are well chosen covers and a typically hilarious “The Sun Jumped Up” with lyrics from Woody Guthrie set to O’Brien’s music.

Blue Rodeo “The Things We Left Behind” (TeleSoul)

It says something about Blue Rodeo’s Lower 48 profile that this fine double disc was released in their native Canada last November, but not in the States until a couple of months later. Why the group never rode the alt country wave of the 1990s that saw Wilco, The Jayhawks, Whiskeytown and others emerge isn’t clear. Blue Rodeo has sold millions of albums up north, won a ton of Juno awards and regularly sells out arenas. Not so much here and that’s a shame. Especially because after a couple of treading-water releases, the band is back in excellent form this time out, moving easily from rockers to ballads to a couple of stretched-out jams on an ambitious double disc that clocks in at 80 minutes (two easily digestible albums).

Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy, the songwriters and co-lead singers, have been penning great tunes for nearly 30 years. On The Things We Left Behind” there’s a sampling of roots styles here, from rockers to ballads and they all work. They explore influences ranging from The Beatles  — several cuts feature “Abbey Road”-era harmonies and guitar work — to the early Eagles/California sound of “Arizona Dust” to rockers like “Never Look Back” and “Candice,” which opens with a piano riff that instantly brings The Band to mind. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say these guys are direct descendants of The Band. Their writing has been consistently superb over a long period and now, as they look back on a life lived, it’s grown only deeper. “It’s such a small place you came from; it’s so far the other way that you’ve gone,” they sing on “Million Miles.”    Along with “Diamond Mine,” “Five Days in July” and “Lost Together,” “The Things We Left Behind” is essential, a return to form that shows the band still has plenty left.

Graham Parker “Imaginary Television” (Bloodshot).

The conceit behind this album, if you believe the press release (and I don’t), is that Graham Parker was asked to create a theme song for a television show. His offering was summarily rejected and that sent him off penning an album of tunes for non-existent shows, shows he’s outlined in the liner notes. To me, that sounds like the wiseass Parker just having one more laugh. The premises are amusing. Parker claims “Weather Report,” the disc’s rocking opener, is about a television series centered on an agoraphobic who’s obsessed with the Weather Channel. But his lyrics portray a man on the outside trying to figure it all out.

Whatever the motivation and creative juice, “Imaginary Television” is one damn fine, if often mellow, rock and roll record with Parker’s typically sneering wit looking at life after mid-life. Close listens — and this disc only gets better with each listen — reveals “Imaginary Television” is a song cycle about a man taking stock of who he is and where he fits as an artist, pamphleteer, and a husband and father. “I don’t feel comfortable inside my own skin,” he sings. “It doesn’t keep things in.”

Kim Richey “Wreck Your Wheels” (Thirty Tigers).

Kim Richey burst onto the scene 15 years ago as the next big thing in country music. But country music abandoned her (and country music) for arena rock retreads and, on her last few albums, Richey has abandoned country music, even alt country, for a quirky, introspective pop style the defies boundaries. Just listen to the opening title cut,  a slow-burning lament.

Richey spends a lot of time in London these days and “Wreck Your Wheels” has a post-Beatles feel to the instrumentation, which is colored at times by cello, flugelhorn, glockenwhatsit, and vibes. Recorded in Nashville with the band in one room, there is a compelling intimacy throughout. Her voice may be more beautiful and quietly captivating than ever, variously sexy and wise. The songs confront romantic heartache, a longtime Richey staple, but also explore maturity. All are co-writes with some of Nashville’s best, including Will Kimbrough, Mark Olson, Pat McLaughlin and Britain’s Boo Hewerdine. (Pay attention to the video. That’s my kids with the word “wouldn’t” at the 1:32 mark).

Megan McCormick “Honest Words” (Ryko).

Megan McCormick’s debut album opens with one of the best guitar riffs of the year, a brooding intro to the rockhouse raw”Shiver,” a tune Stevie Ray Vaughan would have been proud to play. McCormick,  a 24-year-old Nashville songwriter who grew up in Idaho and Alaska and studied bluegrass in college, has made a good, old fashioned electic rock record with touches of juke joint rock blues, k.d. lang’s atmosphere, and Bonnie Raitt’s heartfelt rock. Why it went largely unnoticed is baffling.

“Gonna sell my soul to the rock and roll” she sings on “Do Right,” a loping rock cut that, like so much of the album, insinuates itself effortlessly so you’re unconsciously tapping along. “Addiction” barrels along like a cut from an early Heart album. But there are also beautifully introspective numbers like “Wreck” and “Lonely Tonight,” a lush torch song. Throughout, McCormick’s guitar playing, rich and deep, highlights tune after tune. There’s nothing “alt” about McCormick’s disc, which may explain the lack of attention. But it’s a superb, promising debut.

Eric Brace and Peter Cooper “Master Sessions” (Red Beet Records).

“Master Sessions” is testimony to the magic that happens when you put two up and coming singer/songwriters and a small group of brilliant Nashville players and hit record. Brace, the creative force behind Last Train Home, and Cooper, an emerging solo artist, combine for more than the sum of their past.  The harmonies are unforgettable, classic, and touching. The covers are perfect from the opening version of a Seldom Scene favorite to Tom T. Hall’s “I Flew Over Our House Last Night.” The originals, including Cooper’s co-write with Don Schlitz (“The Gambler”) and the duo’s “Circus” fit with the classics. And the side players — the boys’ heroes — Lloyd Green (the Byrds, numerous others) on pedal steel and Mike Auldridge (Seldom Scene) on dobro. Nashville veterans Pat McInerney, Dave Roe (Johnny Cash) and Jen Gunderman (Jayhawks) help make this one of the irresistible surprises of the year.

Justin Townes Earle “Harlem River Blues” (Bloodshot).

This album is so unpretentious yet so sweeping in its view of America and its musical touchstones. From workers on the MTA to lovers on the wane, from Harlem to the mines of West Virginia, from The Replacements to rockabilly, from Woody folk to slow-burning soul, this disc shows the breadth of Earle’s interests. Earle seems to have taken all he’s digested and the experience of his previous albums and distilled it into this gem. And it needs to be said: “Workin’ for the MTA” is an instant classic.

His recent move to New York has only widened his wandering eye. Earle has a keen sense of character and a willingness to step out from under his famous father’s shadow. If he can keep the demons at bay, he has the potential to become the next great chronicler of the American experience.

The Socratic Showman

By the end of his long second set at my house concert series the other weekend, David Olney had sung from the perspective of an iceberg facing the Titanic, a donkey carrying Jesus to Jerusalem, and a French prostitute chronicling the unvarnished fear of a soldier headed for death on the front. He’d thrown in a bit of Socratic history, discussed his idea of the faith of the Holy Radial, and recited Coleridge.

His old buddy, Townes Vant Zandt once said the his favorite writers were Mozart, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bob Dylan, and David Olney. Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt have recorded his songs. Steve Earle, a pretty fine songwriter, has played his tunes live, offering his own testimonial.

Olney is an inventive, masterful songwriter. The songs stand on their own as among the best you’ll hear. Go online or to your local record store and check him out.

Live, he’s a showman. Like Bruce Springsteen, James Brown, Leonard Cohen, and others, he knows the experience is even more important than the songs. He wants to make his audience laugh, cry, and think. After his version of “1917,” an utterly devastating song about war and fear, the audience seemed almost unable to break out of his trance to applaud after an emotionally draining seven minutes. Watch the video below and see if you don’t have the same reaction.

It was his performances, his ability to merge his stories, wit, and pacing with the songs he crafts so carefully that first brought him to my attention. Over breakfast after a house concert, Kevin Welch, himself no songwriting slouch, said “You know who you ought to have here: David Olney. Check him out.” Months later, Kim Richey offered another endorsement, saying Olney’s songs were great, but his live show was even better.

About that time, Olney released “The Wheel,” the first album of his I bought. “The Wheel” is a sort of concept album about the cycles of life, love, and nature.

“There are hints of a concept in these songs about the spiritual and psychological struggles to maintain balance and hope. The best ones center on the search for comfort, love and simple clarity amid the roadblocks put up by demons and fate,” wrote Robert Hilburn, the venerable Los Angeles Times critic. “Backed by strikingly aggressive sonic textures (with violins sometimes dueling guitars) on such tracks as “Big Cadillac” and “God Shaped Hole” and then by only the most tender strains elsewhere, Olney gives us an album with the most original mix of heart and fury since Tom Waits’ “Mule Variations.”

Another reviewer sums up Olney well: “He writes both some of the most gorgeous love songs·and some of the most chilling character studies·that you will ever hear. And he delivers them with a mixture of grace and good humor that places him in the company of the very best of solo performers· Unlike most modern songwriters, Olney makes no big show of how sensitive he is. He just gets on with it, giving us human beings in all their glory and foolishness·  David Olney isn’t so much a singer, or a songwriter, as a tour guide for the human condition, the good and the bad that’s inside us all.”

Olney and a few of us stayed up, talking and drinking after the show. He grew up in Rhode Island, went to school in Chapel Hill, but found his way in Nashville. His revelation came early, opening for Townes Van Zandt, who he says introduced a different, fearlessly poetic and narrative brand of songwriting. The two became friends over the years before Van Zandt’s death.

Olney is an ambitious songwriter, not afraid to reach. He’s been a rocker. He’s been a folkie. He knows Woody, he knows Townes, but he also knows Buddy Holley. (He also knows Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee and about any other novelist you’d care to mention). It’d be wrong to label him. For a recent album, “One Tough Town,”  he said: “I see One Tough Town as a retrospective of a hundred years of American music. Blues, country, rock, swing and all stops in between. No such vision can be complete. There’s just too much to cover to achieve that goal. But it has been my life’s work, and my life’s pleasure, to see how close I can come.”

I booked Olney shortly after “The Wheel” was released and he put on a stunning solo show. But his show the other week, a duo performance with the instrumental master, Sergio Webb, surpassed that first performance in breadth, artistry and intensity.

What strikes me about Olney and other songwriters whose performances are so entrancing is the thought and the bravery that goes into their shows. Olney puts himself and his characters out there and dares you to come along.

In Olney’s case, there’s no set list. He certainly hits some of the same notes on most nights — songs like “1917,” “Women Across the Water,” and the romantic “If It Wasn’t For the Wind” seem to appear every show. But the rest is what strikes him as right for the moment, whether it’s a cover of Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues” or a neat pairing of Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise” with Olney’s defiant and playful “The Way I Am.”

Olney just kept playing the other night, going on for nearly 90 minutes in a second set that someone later said seemed like 30. He earned repeated standing ovations. They were for the songs, for Olney and Webb, but they were also thanks for a night of substance, art as commentary and thought-provoking springboard, not just escapism.

Earlier, Olney had introduced “Sweet Poison” with a Springsteen-esque riff on Socrates’s fate, ever the engaging showman merging heart and mind and rock ‘n’ roll.

Bruce Turns 60

To celebrate Bruce Springsteen’s 60th birthday, I’m posting an essay I wrote about his “Rising” tour six years ago. An evening sharing a concert with Springsteen is as close as I get to church these days.

In those days, my 5-year-0lds once got into a car with a babysitter and asked her to put on “The Rising.” She didn’t have it. “What’s wrong with you?” they asked. Today, I’m proud they know the lyrics to the Springsteen canon. Here’s that essay.


Bruce Springsteen knows that healing is a painful journey, but not one without its joys. He knows, too, that dealing with grief isn’t linear or logical. Pain precedes celebration, which precedes more pain and then a sort of reluctant acceptance.

Pick the wound that needs healing. The death of a loved one. The loss of national innocence. A crisis of faith, religious or otherwise. He’s just ambitious enough and just humble enough to think that in three hours he can push us towards understanding and reaffirming our hopes for the better future.

That’s why his traveling revival show, which comes to a sold-out Richmond Coliseum on Thursday, may be the most emotional rock and roller coaster ride ever, plunging into despair then breaking through to joyous, affirming highs.

When I saw him last August in Washington, D. C., Springsteen and the E Street Band drove us to our knees with that first harsh slap of grief, let us up for that celebratory realization we’d been spared, plunged us back into despair and finally carried us along on a celebration of the hope central to life.

When the lights finally came up for the last time and the band had descended into the black netherland below the stage that night, faith had been restored, if only fleetingly. How else can you explain 22,000 souls shouting joyously along to the line from “Badlands” that “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive?”

While shorter than the marathon three-hour concerts of the past, Springsteen’s current show packs a more powerful punch. At the MCI Center, he rarely spoke, abandoning the often-long stories that once introduced tunes. He seemed to realize there was nothing he could say that wouldn’t sound trite.

Instead, he spoke with his hands, often his right hand displayed on the overhead video screen. At times, he needed supplication, his palm up, beseeching. During other songs, his fingers stretched out, offering comfort. And often, very often, he raised his right hand overhead, volunteering a benediction.

What will be interesting on this second leg of “The Rising” tour is how Springsteen adjusts the set list for the times. His 1988 tour for “Tunnel of Love” explored the often contradictory themes of that album intensely early in the tour, but by the end he had largely slipped back into the rock and roll house party of the “Born in the USA” shows.

Springsteen performances appear spontaneous when they are carefully constructed, down to the last detail. The set list he created for “The Rising” show was masterful.

He opened with “The Rising” followed by “Lonesome Day,” songs chronicling the first moments of loss, that deep, bottomless empty feeling. When he launched into “Prove It All Night,” the song in this context was transformed from its appearance on “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” This night, it was about faith, about getting through to that first night with the bed empty next to you.

I’ve always felt “Darkness on the Edge of Town” was Springsteen’s best album. Proof on this tour is how well four tunes from the album fit with a set list dominated by songs centered on the 9/11 tragedy.

“Darkness on the Edge of Town,” performed early in the set, takes on a larger meaning.  “I lost my faith and I lost my wife,” Springsteen sang, substituting the word “faith” for “money,” which is in the original. “Them things don’t seem to matter much to me now.”

“Darkness” provided the entry into the most chilling part of the show, with Springsteen stepping to the microphone and asking the audience  — the audience at a rock and roll show — to be silent for the next two songs. “I know,” he said, “that you can do it.” We could.

When silence and darkness descended over the arena, he began a mournful, suffering acoustic version of “Empty Sky” with only Patti Scialfa’s harmonies for accompaniment. He followed with “You’re Missing,” a second, chilling body blow. They were a risky and extraordinary pairing. It’s one thing to explore loss before an audience in a small club or theater. It’s another to prod  22,000 souls intent upon reliving their rock and roll glory days to do it in the MCI Center.

From the depths, Springsteen brought us into the light, following with a bright, acoustic guitar-army sing-along of “Waitin’ for a Sunny Day.” Like several songs from “The Rising,” it works better in the new, less-cluttered live arrangement.

With the light, there followed a search for understanding, pairing “The Promised Land” from the “Darkness” album with “Worlds Apart” from “The Rising.”

“There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor. I’ve got my bags packed and I’m headed into the score. Gonna be a twister that blows everything down that ain’t got the faith to stand its ground,” he sang, joined lustily by the crowd. They are lyrics from 1978, but they could easily be from Sept. 12, 2001.

Two songs later, “Badlands,” another “Darkness” gem, speaks to today perhaps even more eloquently than it did when released 25 years ago. “Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland,” he sang. “Got a head-on collision mashing in my guts, man. I’m caught in a crossfire I don’t understand.”

But he’s not lost for long. “I believe in the love that you gave me,” he affirms. “I believe in the faith that can save me. I believe in the hope and I pray that someday it may raise me above these badlands.”

“Badlands” artfully segued into the house party centerpiece of the show, a rollicking version of “Mary’s Place,” destined to follow in the steps of other live workouts like “Rosalita” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.”

“Mary’s Place” is deceptive, more than a simple sing-along. It’s about a wake, about gathering around the family with food and music, a reality Springsteen highlighted by grasping the microphone, crumbling to his knees and singing the coda, “you’re missing, you’re missing” before launching into the final verse about having a picture in his locket leading him through the dark and then letting the audience sing along: “Seven days, seven candles lighting your way. You’re favorite record’s on the turntable. I drop the needle and play. Turn it up, Turn it up Turn it up.”

He knows the celebration of a wake eventually gives way to the lonely reality of loss so the show featured another dip into grief with “Into the Fire.” It’s a rock and roll meditation that could easily take its place alongside Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand” and Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer’s “Gentle Arms of Eden” in a modern hymnal.

“The sky was falling and streaked with blood. I heard you calling me, then you disappeared into dust. Up the stairs, into the fire. Up the stairs, into the fire,” he sang. “May your strength give us strength. May your faith give us faith. May your hope give us hope. May your love give us love.”

At the MCI Center, as well as throughout the tour, “Into the Fire” closed the show. With Springsteen, of course, the last song is just a table setter for the encores.

“Thunder Road” and “Glory Days” opened the first encore. But the climactic catharsis, the rock and roll rapture of the evening was delivered by “Born to Run.” The house lights came up full as the band charged into the anthem, transforming the cavernous coliseum into a cozy little revival tent.  It’s hard to describe it as anything other than the release of pure joy, thousands of true believers standing, pumping their fists and screaming along. We’re all getting old, facing the inevitable, but for four minutes, the past vanished and we could imagine that the future was still boundless and tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.

Before we left, there were reminders that nothing is assured —  “American Skin (41 Shots),” Springsteen’s brilliant look at the Amadou Diallo killing from the viewpoint of the cops, the victim and his mother — and “Born in the USA,” his indictment of the treatment of Vietnam vets.

If that took us down, Springsteen didn’t leave us there. He went to the piano alone to open “My City of Ruins” then the tune built into a gospel band number worthy of the late Curtis Mayfield.

In Washington, as on most tour stops, the band closed with “Land of Hope and Dreams,” symbolic of the journey Springsteen takes his audience on over two and a half hours.

He’d opened the show singing: “Can’t see nothing in front of me. Can’t see nothing coming up from behind. Make my way through this darkness. Can’t feel nothing but this chain that binds me.”

By the end of the evening, he’d managed something rare in music today, a night of purpose, meaning and a soothing dose of rock and roll redemption.

For the close, he transported us, inviting us aboard the train of saints and sinners, losers and winners, whores and gamblers, and lost souls to meet him in the land of hope and dreams. “Leave behind your sorrows. Tomorrow they’ll be sunshine and all this darkness past,” he sang, offering succor.

Fittingly, he and the band closed with an acapella verse from another revival train tune, Mayfield’s “People Get Ready:”

“People get ready; there’s train a comin’. Don’t need no ticket. Just get on board.”

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