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May 30, 2006

Bruce Springsteen - almost as good as Hankus Netsky!

I have never seen Bruce Springsteen, and have regularly felt deprived. Truth is, however, that I have neither the budget nor inclination to go to a large stadium to see anyone, however great. And, while Springsteen is one of the few rock and rollers I really enjoy, I don't listen to a lot of rock.

I was especially curious about his new show, however, the so-called "Pete Seeger Sessions." I am thrilled that a wonderful vein of American music is being presented to a wider audience, but somewhat put off that it is being presented in such a second-hand manner—not as Americana, but as music that one would only know from listening to Pete Seeger albums.

Still, this is the sort of music that we love, and then fate intervened to ensure that I got tickets, and it was a chance to finally see Bruuuuuuuuce. We're glad we did. It was an excellent concert. Americana, for sure.

With a full horn section and three fiddles, the band went from spirituals to "John Henry" (surely one of America's first rock songs), first sounding like a rocked up bluegrass band, and eventually coming to sound more like a New Orleans brass celebration in a timely reflection of a musical part of the country still working out a way to recover as something better than a large gentrified Preservation Hall. Springsteen has a rock voice. There are songs that he can't sing well. And his band, even with Americana instrumentation never stopped rocking—this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it's not your mother's hootenany, that's for sure. The overall effect was wonderful, and the audience, ourselves included, celebrated and enjoyed.

Watching him arrange American folk traditions for a popular audience, my wife turned to me and said, "Boy, this really makes you appreciate how good Hankus Netsky is!" And it's true. Netsky took a variety of Jewish American folk traditions and put them on stage as concert music with the Klezmer Conservatory Band—and continues to do so in a manner that makes the music come alive again. Netsky knows the music in his bones. Springsteen isn't quite that good with Americana—we listened to "We Shall Overcome," rather than sing along, and some songs just became rock music played by the amazing brass 'n' bluegrass all-stars. (Last time I saw Larry Eagle, the drummer, he was backing Alicia Svigals.) As Itzhak Perlman did for Klezmer music, however, (and similarly sympathetic, if not a perfect folk performer) Springsteen has made some marvellous music—some marvellous just for singing along and enjoying singing together (Old Dan Tucker, Buffalo Gals), some marvellous not just for the songs, but the words. And even if Springsteen doesn't know Americana any more than Perlman understood klezmer, both are beyond amazing as musicians and Springsteen did an excellent job of anchoring the music in today's news and events, from an anti-war song to some wonderful New Orleans music, some rewritten to reflect today.

Props to Springsteen for an excellent show, as we offered props to Perlman when he did the same. And a reminder that Hankus has been doing this for a living for over 25 years and puts on a show that, were it only reflecting the majority culture, would surely be better known. And as much as I loved the big Bruce Springsteen Americana band, I'll never forget Hankus' and KCB's double-klezmer drumming at the KCB Reunion Concert a couple of months ago.