To be inside the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is to go to another planet entirely, and on that planet the laws of gravity are different for everyone. Someone you’ve never heard of, like Meschiya Lake & the Little Big Horns, can pull you in like a magnet; at the same time, the idea of the Beach Boys playing a set for their 50th anniversary year can be repellent. Your soul mate might love Uncle Jesse on the drums with the Beach Boys, and run right over to the Acura Stage to see them, and hey, that’s fest, it’s all good. With all those stages, the crowds tend to balance themselves out. Except on Bruce’s day.
Yesterday it was as though the festival tilted, cause it seemed like the entire population of jazzfest’s small city was planted in camps and chairs and standing all the way back to the edge of the racecourse track to be within earshot of Bruce Springsteen.
His two and a half hour show was a glorious mess. A lot of us had been there in 2006, when he was on the road with his Seeger Sessions album. “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep,” and “Pay Me My Money Down” both reprised in 2012. I have an inherent allergy to his self-anointed role as America’s social justice troubadour, except when the songs and their performance are too good for me to ignore, and the hoedown numbers’ mad energy go deeper into me than the soulful ones. His new album has songs that reach for the emotion of those other recordings. “Wrecking Ball," for example, with its lyrics about economic devastation “from the shotgun shacks to the Superdome,” reminds me as much of that album with The Grapes of Wrath references as anything else. But the less I say about the rap number, the better.
Six years ago, his post-Katrina performance won me over with “My City of Ruins,” a song rife with mawkish imagery: tens of thousands of people, their hands in the air, me too, tears on their cheeks that they didn’t know had let loose. Come on rise up, rise up. It was church. It was a Moment.
Naturally, he played it again, and obviously, the surprise was gone. The closest Bruce got to taking me to someplace spiritual again was at the end, when he folded little pieces of “When The Saints Go Marching In” into his new song, “We are Alive.” He didn’t mess around with overproducing it. He nearly whispered the words, and made them matter.
Still, “Dancing in the Dark” was better. Cause this is rock and roll, man!
When I go see Springsteen at fest, I know he wants me to think he’s a deep, soulful, complicated, WRITERmusician, the beating heart of our national body. Something in me has trouble with that. (Though, I concede, a day late, to the other debater on our patch of concert grass, that Springsteen would willingly pay higher taxes.) What’s undeniable is, I’ve rarely seen a showman like him. Springsteen earns my respect every show because he seeks to give me a good time, and he’s not ashamed of trying to, or pretending that I’m not there. That’s how he brought a house of a hundred thousand people down in a Sunday’s fading sticky-hot light. No Moment, not really, because you can't schedule those. But they're optional anyway.