“The Nebraska Project” 2006 New York Guitar Festival – World Financial Center Winter Garden (New York, NY)
Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album Nebraska is not the most obvious choice for a tribute concert — or any concert. As far as I know, Springsteen himself has never attempted what the New York Guitar Festival presented on the opening night of its three-week run: the entire album, start to finish, in all its grimness, desperation and doubt. That it managed to end on a high note anyway was only partly due to an appearance by the Boss himself.
Famously recorded as four-track demos in Springsteen’s New Jersey bedroom, the songs on Nebraska leave plenty of room for interpretation. But the record is all of a piece, tied together by Springsteen’s voice and lonely guitar, which means any collaborative effort with a different artist performing each song will necessarily lose the original’s coherence. That was true of the 2000 album Badlands, a similar song-by-song tribute that included Johnny Cash, Chrissie Hynde and Aimee Mann, and it was true of this free concert as well.
But coherence wasn’t really the aim, as the disparate roster of performers made clear. Michelle Shocked, Mark Eitzel and Laura Cantrell might have been safe singer-songwriter choices, but the bill also included wild cards such as Marc Anthony Thompson (a.k.a. Chocolate Genius), wild bluesman Otis Taylor, and guitar accompaniment and interludes from Marc Ribot, Harry Manx and Gary Lucas.
Some artists performed solo, some with bands, some in odd combinations (rocker-turned-kiddie-fave Dan Zanes was paired with guitar hero Vernon Reid of Living Colour). The show meandered a bit, particularly in the between-song patter by emcee John Platt, a local radio personality. There were the inevitable muffed lines and technical difficulties. But the overall quality of the performances was high, and the songs themselves proved plenty durable.
Some of the participants elected to play it as straight as possible. Jesse Harris led a four-piece band through a faithful “Atlantic City”; the National followed with a similarly unfussy “Mansion On The Hill”. Eitzel took the most obvious tack, singing “My Father’s House” alone with an acoustic guitar, and sounded great.
Shocked brought along trumpeter Rich Armstrong for the murderous title track; his atmospheric accents suited the song’s spookiness. If only Martha Wainwright had felt similarly bound to her source material. Accompanied by Ribot, she sang a sort of expressionistic art-pop rendering of “Highway Patrolman” that managed to misplace both the song’s melody and its narrative drive. In one of the guitar interludes, Lucas did a much more successful (and radical) deconstruction of “State Trooper”, improvising electronic loops and manic slide guitar over the song’s basic riff.
Two other performers stood out. Cantrell, backed by a small acoustic country combo, proved on “Used Cars” that sometimes all you need is a great song and a great singer. And a real surprise was a mid-show cover of “Born In The U.S.A.”, which Springsteen originally recorded in the same group of demos. Jazz-pop vocalist Jen Chapin, accompanied only by her husband Stephan Crump on bass, gave the song a smoky cabaret treatment that somehow managed to retain its sense of loss.
Crump and Chapin (daughter of Harry Chapin) also kicked off the stage-filling encore, a sing-along of Woody Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Hills”. It was a reasonable choice, since Guthrie’s Dust Bowl songs are among the obvious influences on Nebraska, and it didn’t hurt that one of the hands on deck was Springsteen. He ambled out in normal Boss-wear — jeans, denim jacket, bandana — and tried to blend in as much as possible. Inevitably, though, he was called on to sing one verse, and then another, and soon he was handing out solos, shouting, “OK, just the singers now” for an a cappella chorus, and finally leading the twenty-plus musicians through “one more time!” before signaling the big finish.
After the song, Platt pulled Springsteen aside. What did he think, Platt asked, of the various musical interpretations and discussion? “All the interpretations, all the performers, everyone was wrong,” Springsteen deadpanned. “These songs, like all rock ‘n’ roll, are really about getting a woman to take off her pants.” Then he grinned, thanked the performers and the crowd, said he was “honored from my ass to my heels,” waved and walked off. Reason to believe? Sure enough.