Milano Session Night (Crystal Cat Records 799-800)
Milano Datchforum, Milano, 12th May 2006
Tracklisting: CD 1: Intro, Jesse James, O Mary Don´t You Weep, Johnny 99, John Henry, Eyes on the Prize, Old Dan Tucker, Cadillac Ranch, Erie Canal, My Oklahoma Home, If I Should Fall Behind, Mrs. McGrath
CD2: Intro, How Can a Man Stand Such Times and Live?, Jacob´s Ladder, We Shall Overcome, Open All Night, Pay Me My Money Down, My City of Ruins, Ramrod, You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch), When The Saints Go Marching In, Buffalo Gals.
Bruce Springsteen has always enjoyed a very special relationship with Italy; and it is from Italy, indeed, that several of the essential historical, indispensable bootlegs for Bruce-addicts have come: one need only think of classic Great Dane productions (“The Saint, the Incident and the E-Street Shuffle”, “Live in the Promised Land”, “Pièce de Resistance”, etc) or from Templar records (“Born to be the Boss”), not to speak of the many that are coming from there as well in recent years. This particular concert in Milano bears witness to the italian cult to the Boss, and to the extraordinary quality of his peformances there.
The italian concert captured in this CD, performed on the 12th May 2006 at the Datchforum of Milano, was one of the most powerful in the firs european leg of the tour undertaken by Bruce to promote the “We Shall Overcome” album, in which he reinterpreted some American folk classics that had been covered, at one time or another, by Pete Seeger. In consequence, it is not the E-Street band that backs Bruce here, but the large folk-country ensemble that he simply called “the Seeger Sesions band”: a group of mostly unknown musicians able to create a deeply rich, rhythmic, muscular sound, full of echoes of American styles as diverse as country, folk, New Orleans jazz or rag-time. The members of this varied band (almost, in fact, a little orchestra), are the following: Mark Thompson on guitar, Frank Bruno on guitar, Sam Bardfeld on violin, Charles Giordano on piano and accordion, Greg Liszt on banjo, Soozie Tyrrell on lead fiddle, Marty Rifkin on pedal steel guitar, Jeremy Chatzky on electric and upright bass and Jeremy Eagle on drums, plus the horns section of Art Baron (tuba), Eddy Manion (sax), Clark Gayton (trombone) and Curt Ramm (trumpet).
To them must be added the backgound vocals of Lisa Lowell, Curtis King Jr., Cindy Mizelle and Springsteen´s longtime companion and wife, Patti Scialfa; all in all, there are no less than seventeen persons backing Bruce here!! The mix that is offered here provides (as is usually the case with Crystal Cat productions) a warm entourage where the audience is made present and felt all the time, but without drowning or clouding the variety of the instruments. Bruce´s voice is very clearly heard, upfront and powerful throughout, and the power and sonic variety of the “Seeger Sesiona” band is also evident all the time. Charlie Giordano´s keyboards, Greg Lizts´s banjo and Soozie Tyrrell´s fiddle are heard in clearer definition than the rest of the instruments here, and that in itself is to be celebrated, as it is them that do most of the soloing throughout the concert, with some interventions by Marty Rifkin and Curt Ramm. The horn section, as a whole, does not come as clear as in the official “Live in Dublin”, and the backing singers are a bit muffled in the overall mix, but these details do not really get in the way of a rewarding listening experience with a rich, fat sound.
The concert begins with Bruce shouting “Ciao Italia!” as Greg Lizst begins a driving, infectious introduction to “Jesse James” on his banjo; indeed, several of the songs in the evening are going to be introduced by this instrument. The first stanza of “Jesse James” is sung with authority and feeling by Bruce, before the whole group joins in for the chorus; and when this happens, the whole venue seems to explode spectacularly into a full-fledged party of fiddles, guitars and horns, that will not end until the concert is over. After that first number, Springsteen addresses the audience in Italian: “Buona Sera Milano! Comme estai? E bello essere qui, di nuovo….Esta sera gi divirtiamo”. Then Charlie Giordano´s piano plays an introductory melody for “Mary Don´t You Weep”; Soozie Tyrrell´s fiddle picks up the intro while the horns make some figures in the background; Bruce shouts “One, two, three, four!” and that traditional hymn explodes into life, sounding halfway between a religious chant and a joyful ragtime. The band achieves a very dense, organic, multi-layered sound, that will be expored to full effect all through the evening.
The percussive power of Larry Eagle´s drums is felt in all its power in the introduction to “Johnny 99”, the classic from “Nebraska”, which is performed here in a very energetic arrangement, with Springsteen and his guitar very much to the forefront, the drums propelling the song onwards, and the horns punctuating all the lines from the song from the second stanza onwards. The first part of the show is clearly dominated by traditional songs coming from the “We Shall Overcome” album, some of which reach into an amazing level of rhythmic energy, leading the crowd into continual frenzy. This is evident as soon as Springsteen says, jokingly, “I know italians don´t like to sing, so I´m afraid to ask…” and then introduces “Old Dan Tucker” as “a one-hundred and fifty-year Bob Dylan song”(!!). The melody of this piece is introduced once again by Greg Lizst´s banjo, and even before Bruce comes in, the Italian audience sings the whole chorus of the song as if it was a piece that they had known and had made theirs for decades; a proof, if any were needed, of how well the “We Shall Overcome” album was received in the Springsteen fan community.
At a few strategic moments during the evening, some Springsteen classics get a renewed, folksier treatment that allows them to be enjoyed from a very different angle than their earlier incarnations (as played by the E-Street band). This happens first with a slowed-down version of “Cadillac Ranch”, and then with one of the highlights of the evening: the solemn, melancholy interpretation of “If I Should Fall Behind”, which is delicately turned into a Irish-influenced waltz by Charlie Giordano on the piano and Soozie Tyrrell on the fiddle. What is really impressive is the way in which the Italian audience turns the song into a moment of communion, by humming the melody very loudly every time that the chorus ends, and even after the song is over: at that point, and for one entire minute, the listener can feel the whole theatre dominated by the massive humming of the crowd, without any instumental accompaniment, until finally Bruce whispers “Thank you” into his mic. This is truly one of these lump-in-the-throat moments that justify the addiction to bootleg collecting.
The anti-militaristic ballad “Mrs. McGrath” (very similar in content to “John Brown”, made so popular by Bob Dylan) closes the first CD with a resonant sense of authority, The second CD opens with two more pieces fom “We Shall Overcome”: “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times” and the joyful “Jacob´s Ladder”. But it´s probably the third song of this CD which receives the most moving presentation: Bruce presents it as “la canzone de protesta politica la piú importante mai scritta”…, and immediately, in English, as “one of the most important political songs of all time…a song that is sung around the world, wherever people are struggling”; of course what follows is a delicately interpreted “We Shall Overcome”.
And then comes one of the culminating moments of the evening, as rock and roll emerges to dominate the stage again, in all its fury. This occurs with a powerhouse performance of “Open all Night”, preceded by a beautiful vocal intro from the girl singers, and driven with true rocking strength by Charlie Giordano´s piano. Most of the musicians enjoy their time in the spotlight here, including the different members of the horns section. This marathonian performance of the song reaches up to nine minutes, finishing with repeated chants of “All Right!!!” between Bruce and the audience, similar to what can be heard in the official “Live in Dublin” album. This leads directly to an eleven-minute version of “Pay Me My Money Down”, which concludes the show without in fact seeming to end definitively at all: all the musicians keep leaving the stage one after the other, until only Larry Eagle´s drums are left, to carry the audience´s chants along; in the end, only these chants are left. A beautiful closure.
But the very best is still to come since, for the encores, Bruce has some big surprises reserved. After a moving take on “My City of Ruins” comes a truly impressive version of “Ramrod”, presented as a powerful singalong. Bruce begins by strumming his guitar and asking for the help of the audience, explaining that this is the first time the band is going to try this version of “Ramrod”: “All right…first time, Milano! Maybe never again, if it stinks…If it doesn´t stink, then maybe again.” But of course it does not stink; quite the opposite indeed. He starts out directing the crowd to sing “la-la-la-la”, along a variation on the melody of “Ramrod”, then the whole band joins in and turns this classic from “The River” into something entirely new, that sounds like a mighty yet slightly chaotic cajun/zydeco party, with the fiddle and accordion taking the lead.
One can almost feel the whole Milano Datchforum tremble with the tremendous outpouring of emotion; the chanting of the crowd never ends as the song keeps accelerating its infectious rhythm, on and on, while the instruments create a dynamic wall of sound. The following number also comes from “The River”: it´s the mighty “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)”, which never fails to energise the crowds; here it´s the horn section that drives the piece onwards, with all the strength of a New Orleans big band. The band´s mixture between classic Springsteen and other classic American styles works here to absolute perfection: the horns blow powerfully and the fiddles swing while Springsteen leads himself into a screaming frenzy: if there is a musical moment that can characterise best the meaning of the word “apotheosic”, I would very much like to hear it.
The next-to-last encore is the band´s version of “When the Saints go Marching in”, which strikes me as perhaps the least satisfying of the pieces here (a slowed-down version which perhaps seems too repectful of the historical weight of the material, too solemn and rigid). But things reach for yet another climax with the beautiful “Buffalo Gals”, with which the show comes to a close, with all the members of the band making a brief solo, and making for an adequate, sweet farewell. “Grazie italia, grazie Milano”, are the last words spoken by an exhausted Springsteen, as the audience still keeps chanting the melody of “Buffalo Gals”.
Certainly Bruce Springsteen has more than earned his place as a keynbote American artist with his output over the years; with the “Seeger Sesions” band he consolidated that position by appealing to the rich tradition of American folk. This was a way in which he could address his audience differently, but without losing none of the energy and power that had always characterised his shows. This wonderful bootleg from Crystal Cat is marvellous evidence of that, and a great addition to the collection of any lover of music.