By Steve Hochman
It was “Mary Don’t You Weep” that did it. You know, the song at every Bruce Springsteen concert that becomes the defining moment.
Following the opening pairing of “High Hopes” and “Johnny 99,” “Badlands” kicked the show into high gear with Springsteen swapping a shiny three-color sunburst Fender Telecaster for his familiar battered and worn blond model. Rousing and fiery, the 1978 anthem made full use of his expanded E Street Band.
And there was the crowd-pumping guest appearance of John Fogerty (a headliner on the Sunday closing Jazz Fest day) for scorching duets on his Creedence Clearwater Revival classics “Green River” and “Proud Mary.” Or maybe the fury-fueled new version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” featuring former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, now a full frontline E Streeter. Or… or… or… Well, many choices, all delivered with the varying shades of power, fervor, somber earnestness and playful humor we’ve known so well for four decades now. Not to mention energetic vitality, as at 64 he still invests his performances with remarkable physical vigor, even under this day’s bright sun that would have wilted many a younger figure.
But a strong case is to be made that the emotional centerpiece of the show was “Mary Don’t You Weep,” a spiritual drawn from the catalog of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an African-American gospel vocal ensemble with a history stretching back to 1871. It was that with which he’d opened his 2006 appearance here, the first Jazz Fest after the devastating Katrina flood in fall 2005, and his first time playing at the famed gathering, as he was debuting the folkier Seeger Sessions band and repertoire honoring the spirit of Pete Seeger. Saturday, “Mary Don’t You Weep” had a central spot in the setlist and, intended or otherwise, became the keystone, its themes of faith, hope, community, justice and redemption the day’s touchstones.
In 2006, though the setlist nearly all was drawn from the album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, the keystone song was the older “My City of Ruins,” which had previously served as a 9/11 lament. In New Orleans that song held a combination of sorrow, anger and, yes, gritty but uncertain hope, so perfectly summing up what those there were experiencing. It was as moving a show as you could imagine, those tears of 75,000 fans falling on the still-soggy town.
In 2012 he returned with the E Street Band, but picked things up where he’d left off six years before. The tears came her with “The Rising,” during which he asked everyone to remember someone no longer with us, to acknowledge and honor the presence of our ghosts — it was the first tour after the death of long-time Springsteen compadre Clarence Clemons, the sax-wielding “Big Man.” The show was largely celebratory, perfect for the rebounded (or at least rebounding city). But that and a few other moments made it so much more, and nearly as moving as the 2006 appearance.
As he returned a third time to the same headliner’s Acura Stage, his bond with the city and the festival, and vice versa, now stood as a full-on romance. This day didn’t seem as loaded with emotional impact as the 2006 show (how could it?) or the sense of renewal of 2012. So that left Springsteen and band free to put together a set that touched all bases, and yet clearly aimed right for, and from, the heart of New Orleans. That was embodied in the healthy dose of the Seeger songs, which he’d reportedly been working up and adding to his set in recent days leading up to and specifically for this show.
The hint that something like that was up came after a brief run of rocker hits (“Badlands” followed by “No Surrender” and “Hungry Heart”) with Springsteen sprinting through the audience to platforms in the middle of the crowd. Singer/acoustic guitarist Patti Scialfa (the Boss’ wife) brought out surprise guest Rickie Lee Jones to sing backup on the gunslinger saga “Jesse James.” Here the E Street Band converted into a folk ensemble (Garry Tallent Jr. on string bass, Lofgren on banjo, organist Charles Giardano taking up accordion), with the horn section that came on board after Clemons’ death (including his nephew/protégé Jake Clemons filling the Big Man’s solos, if not shoes) adding a very New Orleans old-style jazz element.
All in all, four Seeger selections were included in the two-and-a-half hour show, even more notable for this day being the 95th anniversary of the birth of the folk great, who died in January. In addition to “Jesse James” and “Mary,” there was the adaptation of Blind Alfred Reed’s Depression broadside “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” and, in the show’s penultimate slot, the giddy shanty “Pay Me My Money Down.” And non-Seeger songs “Death to My Hometown,” “Shackled and Drawn” and “Land of Hope and Dreams” (all found on 2012’s Wrecking Ball) bore musical kinship via their folk roots. There was also a somber version of the city’s signature song “When the Saints Go Marching In,” reprised from 2006 with Morello and Scialfa each taking a verse here before the horns came forward again.
Introducing “Saints,” Springsteen briefly recalled his association of these songs and their skiffle-y/folky-jazzy spirit with nights spent in the Crescent City, the birthplace of so much music that courses through our culture — “the city where it all started,” he noted. And they provided the thread, spread out among and tying together foundational songs (“Born to Run,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” “The Promised Land,” all with the fans singing along on every word), working-man sagas (“The River” with Springsteen falling into a wordless wail at the end) and shared-vision anthems (an inspirational “The Rising,” though without the ghost invocation).
Even with the full horn section, violinist, background singers and extra percussionist having been appended to the core band over the years—and even with compadre Steven Van Zandt on leave from the band—E Street remains a guitar-centric, rock-centric ensemble. Nils Lofgren (often on a natural-wood Stratocaster, but moving to electric banjo for the Seeger material) is a crucial musical contributor, while Morello has brought both energy and righteous spirit.
And then there was the perpetually dynamic “Thunder Road” closing the show, the condensed, close-up epic of youthful love/lust somehow only having gained vivid richness and resonance with the nostalgic patina of passing years — not a yearning for the past, but an expression of a spark still alive in both Springsteen and his loyal legions. The frisson down the spine, the reflexive sigh and smile and perhaps, yes, tears that come when he plays the lonesome harmonica lick that starts it off and then sings, “The screen door slams….” That’s a moment. Always.