May 5, 2006

So there we were, O Best Beloveds, on the final day of the first weekend of Jazz Fest, faced with a dilemma the likes of which we had never encountered in 16 straight years of Fest attendance, to wit, the Springsteen problem. On one hand, there was Bruce, playing his first Fest ever, doing his first official show with his new Seeger Sessions Band, closing out Sunday, on one stage. On the other hand, every single other stage had performers that in any other year would have been can’t miss/must see logical closers for that day. I mean, not a bum act in the line-up. Still, after some thought and angst, we opted in favor of the weekend’s superstar because after all, if one pretty much got the idea after a few songs, one could then toddle down the track to see the Meters, an option some in fact chose, bless them. The rest of us? Oh, my.

Because what we got was the most perfect convergence of time, place, artist and material there could be. Springsteen’s songs have always been heavy on the despair, hope and redemption themes, but this particular tour spotlights folk songs–familiar Seeger-associated tunes, of course, but also 200 year old Irish anti-war ditties, and much more–most written in direct response to some particular human tragedy. Further, it turned out that Springsteen had quietly toured the Lower Ninth Ward the day before, and he was mad. I’ve heard him editorialize on a few topics over the years, but never one so fresh and urgent and never in front of the very people affected by the issue in question, much less around 50,000 of them.

So the show kicks off on a rousing high note with “Mary Don’t You Weep,” making it instantly clear that while there are a great deal of musicians on the stage (twenty, at the final count, though I swear he kept adding more as the show went on) none of them were exactly superfluous, and all of them were on fire. No missing the E Street Band this time around. (“Do you suppose,” Rob wondered a couple days before, “That some people will be disappointed to find out he’s playing with a jug band?” Probably before, but surely not after.) Loosey-goosey enough for Bruce to be comfortable with tuning and timing issues, tight enough to wallop our hearts. Which happened early on, when Bruce told of his visit to the flood ravaged areas, using the exact words so many of us have used–that you can’t believe you are seeing this in a major American city.

But there was more. “The criminal incompetence makes you furious,” he said, citing “political cronyism” as the reason the emergency agencies that should have helped were not able to. He then explained he had rewritten the lyrics to “How Can a Poor Man Stand These Times and Live?” to reflect the situation in New Orleans (you can hear a rehearsal tape of it on his web site, though local station WWOZ has a tape of the song from Fest itself,complete with rant) and then dedicated it to “President Bystander.” And at that point, 50,000 people asked him to marry them. Between that, and songs about, as he put it, “the other great American disaster that displaced families,” the Dust Bowl, and “Jacob’s Ladder,” (all about transcending strife), all of it performed with verve and soul, and we were concluding this was one of the best Springsteen shows we had seen in twenty years.

And then they came back for an encore, and did “My City of Ruins.” And….well, you know. “My city is in ruins,” he sang. “Come on, rise up.” And we burst into tears, and so did every person around us, I mean, gulping, heaving sobs of pain and relief. And then he sang, “With these hands, with these hands…” and 50,000 people lifted up their palms in prayer and promise. Because it wasn’t just a symbol. These are people putting up dry wall, hammering in nails, cleaning up trash, running restaurants and hotels and grocery stores, with those very hands. After all, just across the street, there are houses still in crumbles, right next to houses that gleam with new paint and love. It seems unlikely that a performance of this particular song has ever had this particular resonance before, nor that it will ever again.

There was more, a fair amount of it, all of it connecting in the emotional punch ways originally intended by their writers, and yet rarely experienced during basic performances, but such was the timing of this show, plus a cover of “When the Saints,” turned acoustic elegy with heavy emphasis on verses not usually played when the jazz bands kick it out, and in the end he went over his time slot by half an hour (Bruce is physically incapable of playing less than two hours), not that anyone cared. And as we walked away, dazed and exhilarated, revived and somehow also shattered, we thought about it, and I asked a few who had seen their share of rock shows over as many as forty years, which covers a large chunk of the rock era, and everyone came to the same conclusion. This was not just a great rock show, or even perhaps the best Springsteen show any of us had ever seen (and included in this number was someone who had seen him at the Bottom Line), but a moment in rock history.

I mean, wow.