On paper this record should just be rubbish. Bruce Springsteen + folk music + seventeen piece folk band + political issues = a mess. However, rather surprisingly it works well. It sounds like a hippy-hoedown, loads of people living in the past and playing some old, old music. This is supposed to be a set of Pete Seeger songs as sung by the Boss but most of the songs on the album are folk classics which were interpreted by Pete Seeger. It seems like the title and premise of the album is more to do with Bruce Springsteen’s attempts at marketing himself as the heir apparent to the folk movement than Seeger’s actual songs. For boss fans reading this, please do not take this as a criticism, this is merely an impartial observation.
It appears that Bruce has little inspiration at the moment. Although his album Devils + Dust was well received by critics, it quickly disappeared to the back shelves of our record collections. The re-release of Born to Run also reinforced how good a performer Bruce once was. So in many respects, one could claim that the fact that Bruce has decided to release a CD of covers shows how ‘low’ Bruce has fallen. However, this is quite simply the wrong way to look at it. Even if Bruce is lost for inspiration, he most certainly isn’t for performance.
Tracks such as ‘Old Dan Tucker’, ‘John Henry’ and ‘Jacobs Ladder’, ‘Pay Me My Money Down’ are quite simply breathtaking interpretations of these classic ditties. These are as rocking as it is possible to get with no electric instruments and a seventeen piece band. The vocal performance of the boss is again proof of his interest in this project. His vocals soar and yet are restrained and respectful of the songs on offer. ‘Oh Mary Don’t You Weep’ uses the ‘big-band’ sound to great effect. All instruments kick in and throughout the song but it never sounds as if there are too many cooks spoiling the broth. ‘Jacobs Ladder’ is perhaps the best example of this. It will quite obviously become a euphoric moment when Bruce plays this in concert and will engender much crowd participation. However, after a few listens on the record it does become annoying. This is not due to the choice of the band or the sound, just the limitations of the song.
Although much has been made of his politics in recent times, the album isn’t nearly as politicised as one might expect. The politics is on a much more subtle level than Neil Young’s recent record for example. Songs like ‘Eyes on the Prize’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’ most certainly have a modern-day resonance with the current American political situation but overall it never over-powers the music. The political context is in the background, providing the backbone but not the meat to these amazing songs.
Overall, Bruce has delivered a strong record. This isn’t rock and roll and it isn’t really folk. It is some kind of big-band New Orleans hippy-hoedown. It certainly isn’t cool to any extent (in a music industry sense, this is as far removed from the Arctic Monkeys that one may find). This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea and some will classify this as merely a side project in the grand scheme of the Boss’ overall career. However, for me it is far more than that, it is an important stepping-stone for him to rediscover his inspiration. If his recent songs have proved to be lacklustre, returning to his roots and music’s roots may be enough to kick-start that amazing songwriting brain of his. I’d much rather a passionate and inspired performance of a non-Springsteen song than a mocking pastiche of the man’s former self. Whether this album does this remains to be seen, until then, crank up the sound, open some beers and listen to this album on a hot summer’s night and absorb the music of an inspired performer and amazingly talented band. Just don’t tell your NME reading friends that you enjoy this album.