By Mark Guarino
Bruce Springsteen shows are known for three things: their marathon length, a singer who becomes a rock ‘n’ roll preacher, and “Born to Run.”
Two of the three were in play when Springsteen played the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre Tuesday. Signature Springsteen hits disappeared from the setlist in favor of styles never associated with his career: New Orleans jazz, Chicago boogie woogie, sea chanteys, gospel, Celtic ballads and songs about the Dust Bowl but with relevance today.
To the curious, this embrace of traditional American roots music reads like another superstar hopping on the “O Brother” fad and indeed Springsteen entered the stage to Allison Krauss from that Grammy winning soundtrack. But to those Boss fans sitting this out (and there were many — the pavilion had rows of empty seats and the lawn was empty) they missed a raucous hootenanny. Even in his premier E Street glory, a Springsteen show has never been this unhinged or bottom line fun.
The stage was set like a vaudeville house from an imaginary past: chandeliers, drapery, men in fedoras and newsboy caps. Filling it were 16 musicians — horns, banjo, accordion, fiddles, singers, you name it. Playing together proved blustery at times — were four guitarists really needed? Yet their bulk worked to make every song a group celebration. Springsteen was the marquee name, but this show was about teamwork. However corny and broad, their interaction was undeniably infectious.
Surprisingly, the E Street Band was not missed. Although the setlist culled from the traditional songs on and off his recent album “The Seeger Sessions” (Columbia), they were performed with the depth and drive of a rock band. Subtleties were traded in favor of solos — big and loud and often performed at the lip of the stage. Springsteen even recast comic foil Clarence Clemons with Art Baron, a bearded and stocky tuba player.
The new setting also provided Springsteen opportunity to toy with his songs, many completely transformed. “Open All Night” was now big band jazz, “Ramrod” became a ska tune peppered with mariachi horns, “Further On (Up the Road)” was traded among many vocalists and “Johnny 99” is now likely the only dance song with lyrics about death row.
Despite the constant jubilation, the show had moments of mourning. This tour kicked off at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in late April where Springsteen surveyed the city’s miles of deserted streets. “I haven’t quite seen anything like it,” he said. “So many beautiful things came out of that city. We owe the city a debt. Things happen and people move on but some things need national attention for a long, long time.”
He then transformed “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” a 1929 Depression-era lament, with updated lyrics describing bodies floating in the New Orleans streets.
Like many ancient songs that night, it glowed with timeliness. Then came “When the Saints Come Marching In,” the unofficial New Orleans anthem used to accompany parades. On this night, it became a prayer.