Gonna Be A Long Walk Home

Bruce Springsteen and The Sessions Band

Wembley Arena, London, England

November 11, 2006

By Erik Flannigan

How should we view the Seeger Sessions tour in the context of Bruce Springsteen’s storied performance history? Incredibly, 14 years have already passed since the arrival of the album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions and the tour that followed. That’s roughly the same amount of time as between Bruce’s early 1970 Steel Mill audition for Bill Graham in San Francisco and the release of Born in the U.S.A. (Join me in an unspoken but no less mortified “Yikes!”)

Springsteen’s foray into traditional music is named in homage to legendary folk-music activist Pete Seeger, with whom he had a fond relationship. Bruce was on tour in South Africa when Seeger passed in 2014 at the age of 94. “I lost a great friend and hero last night,” Bruce told the crowd. “We’re humbled to be here tonight in the land of Mandela, a great freedom fighter. We are here tonight in his grace, because he made it possible for us to be here. Pete, back home, was a very courageous freedom fighter also.”

We Shall Overcome surveys the kind of American folk standards popularized by Seeger. The project’s musical approach is often full-on hootenanny, with Bruce backed by a large, loose ensemble of musicians playing with instinct, spontaneity, and just the right amount of reverence. The Sessions Band tour followed a similar blueprint, expanding song selections to include additional folk and roots classics, as well as Springsteen originals re-arranged in kindred styles.

Whether you love folk music or merely appreciate its importance and influence, Bruce’s live performances of that music with this band were undeniably infectious and entertaining. Part of that was down to the man himself seeming as happy as he had ever been on stage, energized by painting with a completely different palette, performing with new companions and a few friendly faces.

The Seeger Sessions album and tour happened in the midst of a fruitful period for Bruce, who released and toured behind Devils & Dust the year before, and would issue and tour in support of Magic a year later and beyond, followed quickly by the same game plan for Working on a Dream. It was an impressive flurry of activity, and because Seeger Sessions was a one-off, perhaps it hasn’t received a deserved reappreciation.

We know it remains near and dear to Bruce. Earlier this year he blessed the YouTube release of the entire New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival performance from April 2006, the first show of the Seeger Sessions tour and one Springsteen cites in this autobiography as among his most meaningful shows ever. 

Jazz Fest was also released in the Archive series, providing a fine document of the tour’s early stages. The official Live in Dublin culls highlights from three shows at the end of the tour. To those bookends we add London 11/11/06, which offers the first complete performance from the end of the Seeger run and includes a number of setlist variations to New Orleans and Dublin.

We commence with a show-opening throwback to Bruce’s first single, “Blinded By the Light.” When Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. was released in early 1973, more than a few critics characterized it as folk rock, making its inclusion here all the more fitting. That being said, while I’m no musicologist, the style in which it is performed here suggests File Under Klezmer. 

The first half of the London show offers a satisfying mix of high-spirited songs from the album (“Old Man Tucker,” “Jesse James,” “Mrs. McGrath”), some of its weightier material  (“Eyes on the Prize,” “Erie Canal,” “O Mary Don’t You Weep”) and Seegerized, story-rich Springsteen originals.

To wit: “Atlantic City” is transformed into a murder ballad rave-up; “Growin’ Up” is appealingly re-arranged with country flourishes and a bit of Dylan influence, too; and “Open All Night” gets something of a juke-joint makeover. The new arrangements cast all three in fresh light that expands our appreciation for each song. “Devils & Dust (which does not appear on the New Orleans or Dublin releases) hues closer to the original arrangement, but it draws upon the chorus of voices in the Sessions band, led by Curtis King and Soozie Tyrell, yielding a beautiful and poignant result.

Late in the show, Springsteen thanks the crowd for “taking a chance on [our] experiment here,” his characterization of the entire Seeger Sessions project. On this night he took that spirit one step further by debuting a brand new song. 

The night before his first London show, Springsteen went to see Lucinda Williams play at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, joining her on stage for two songs. Inspired by her performance of unreleased material, the next night Bruce pulls out one of his own work-in-progress originals, introduced as “Gonna Be a Long Walk Home.”

“She was brave because she played all these new songs,” Springsteen tells the Wembley audience. “Between my whoring and drinking, when I come home after that, I sit up in the hotel room occasionally and I try to write.”

The premiere of “Long Walk Home,” a one-off on the 2006 tour, features a number of lyric variations and extra lines compared to the version eventually released on Magic a year later. The final verse of this unique performance includes a sober couplet on the state of America that feels even more relevant today: “Now the water’s rising ’round the corner, there’s a fire burning out of control / There’s a hurricane on Main Street and I’ve got murder in my soul.”

That kind of risk-taking and the enthusiasm for reinterpreting one’s own work are hallmarks of the Seeger Sessions tour, as is the pure, unbridled joy of the performances.  London 11/11/06 captures those qualities marvelously.  

He Who Doesn’t Get The Whole, Doesn’t Get The Half Either

Bruce Springsteen

Hovet, Stockholm, Sweden, June 25, 2005

By Erik Flannigan

Many nations can lay claim to being Bruce Springsteen’s second home or adopted country. Italy has a strong case, given the ancestral roots of Bruce’s mother Adele (maiden name Zerilli) and a history of special shows that took place there, particularly in Milano. England is in the conversation too, with an incredible run of concerts dating back to 1975, and the passion of Spanish fans is well documented on Live in Barcelona. Australia may be a latecomer, but there’s no denying the love affair between Bruce and the land down under that played out in two major tours in 2014 and 2017.

Yet it would be hard to deny Sweden the symbolic honor of first among equals. Sverige’s history with Springsteen also dates back to 1975, when it was one of three markets Springsteen played on a brief European sojourn on the Born to Run tour. But the special relationship really starts with a pair of shows inside the very building in which this Devils & Dust performance takes place. Then called Johanneshovs Isstadion, the venue was the site of two legendary nights on the 1981 European leg of the River tour, memorialized on the famous vinyl bootlegs Follow That Dream and Teardrops on the City.

Four years later, Gothenburg cemented its place in the narrative with two dates at Springsteen’s home away from home in Sweden, Ullevi Stadium. Legend has it the passionate response of fans in Ullevi actually caused structural damage to the building in ‘85, and Springsteen has played the stadium nine times since that human rumble took its toll. Throw in the 1988 radio broadcast from Stockholms Stadion, the Tom Joad tour at Cirkus, and many other celebrated gigs, and the case is quite compelling. The country’s passion for Springsteen never wanes. Case in point: He sold out three stadium shows in Gothenburg alone in 2016, where it would appear he is as popular now as he was in 1985.

You can hear the special bond with Bruce’s Swedish fans on Stockholm 2005. Jon Altschiller’s mix showcases the audience-artist dynamic and the interplay between the two that makes live performance so special and so missed in these times of social isolation.

One element that made the Devils & Dust tour so bewitching was ever-changing setlists. At nearly every stop, Bruce dusted off a few songs that had been sitting on the shelf awhile and added them to a common core. In Stockholm, he opens with the tour debut of “Downbound Train,” hearkening back to those Ullevi ’85 shows. Boldly, the second song of the night is one of the highlights of that common core, “Reason to Believe.” Springsteen completely reimagined the song on this tour, transforming “Reason to Believe” into a Delta blues stomper with his inventive use of the bullet microphone.

Bullet mics are designed for harmonicas, with intentionally limited frequency range (usually cutting anything above 5,000 khz) and distortion. For his new take on “Reason to Believe,” Bruce played harmonica and sang his vocals through the bullet mic, distorting his voice and crunching down the sound to an eerily narrow slice.

The result sounds like an otherworldly transmission from the Crossroads or a lost Bluebird 78 RPM record spinning in the past. Rearranging his own songs is something Springsteen has excelled at going all the way back to “E Street Shuffle,” but this radical and riveting “Reason to Believe” is one of his most memorable and a standout every night of the Devils & Dust tour.

https://youtu.be/o2GxcTjeu58

“Empty Sky” from The Rising had a second act on the tour as well, making close to two dozen appearances. The mournful tale rides Springsteen’s percussive acoustic guitar and focused vocals. Two guitar songs follow, the heartfelt parental reflection “Long Time Comin’,” which gains poignancy when Springsteen sings off-microphone, and the least-played track from Devils & Dust, “Black Cowboys,” which made 16 setlists in 2005.

Bruce moves to the keys for a rare outing of “The Promise,” in its first ever performance in Sweden. What a moment that must have been for diehard fans, five years before it became the title of the Darkness on the Edge of Town box set. We go down to “The River” on piano as well, with a striking prelude that starts with a single note, builds, swells and then settles solemnly before Bruce sings the evocative first lines.

Though it had been a standard feature on the Tunnel of Love Express tour, Bruce’s entertaining evolution tale, “Part Man, Part Monkey,” had its own second life on the Devils & Dust tour, a narrative befitting the candor Bruce was expressing about human behavior in story and song during the shows, sometimes in deeply contrasting ways. Several Link Wray guitar turns only add to the appeal.

“All I’m Thinking About” is an underrated charmer. Sung in a faltering falsetto, it’s a series of sweet, real-life snapshots (little boys carrying fishing poles, little girls picking huckleberries) set to a simple chorus of devotion (or obsession?). Two songs later in “Reno,” fishing poles and blueberries give way to a price list of front and back door sexual access. Damn.

Snuck in between (no pun intended) is “Across the Border,” played for the first time since the Joad tour, augmented with a rich, accordion-like harmonica. You’d never know Springsteen hadn’t played it in so long, his reading is faultless.

Over to the irresistible eclectic piano we go for “Point Blank,” sounding more haunting and knowing than ever, then a true gift, “Walk Like a Man,” making its second archive appearance this year. Springsteen starts it on electric piano (not unlike the arrangement of “Tunnel of Love” from the previously released Grand Rapids 2005 show) and it unfolds warmly. It’s interesting to note that when he last played the song in 1988, he had no children of his own. Singing it here, Bruce is son and father. The song’s gravitas rises for the final verse as Bruce switches to full piano and the arrangement grows richer and more confident. What a gift to have two incredible live versions in our hands now.

That theme of fatherhood is enhanced with the piano pairing of “Walk Like a Man” with “My Hometown” in a powerful, straight-ahead reading where every line rings true. With that, the first half of the show concludes and we move back to guitar for “The Rising” and an intense take of “Lucky Town,” with Bruce strumming his acoustic with physicality and conviction like “Darkness on the Edge of Town” at the 1990 Christic Institute performances.

The back nine of the show rides his conviction to excellent performances of a trio of story songs, “This Hard Land,” “The Hitter,” and “Matamoros Banks.” One might go so far as to call “The Hitter” the closest thing to an unpublished screenplay Springsteen has penned since “Highway Patrolman” and until Western Stars, where it could have slotted in nicely. As character studies go, it is one of his finest.

As he does so masterfully, Springsteen rounds the bend and lightens the mood with a storming, Seeger-ized “Ramrod,” Dylan-ized “Bobby Jean” and a true-blue “Blinded By the Light,” making its Scandinavian premiere 32 years after its release.

The show wraps with the soul-stirring Devils & Dust tour pairing of “The Promised Land” and a cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream,” both offered in meditative, at times mantra-like arrangements. In “Dream Baby Dream,” the words “keep on dreaming” and “I just want to see you smile” sink into our subconscious, floating on dark-cloud organ notes that brighten as they turn towards heaven. Given the genuine dark clouds that so many of us are weathering, the spiritual power of the “Dream Baby Dream” mantra may provide genuine solace.