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Bruce Springsteen and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest have a love fest going on. His first appearance at the annual music event in 2006 — and the first-ever performance by his Seeger Sessions Band– came eight months after Hurricane Katrina, while the Big Easy was still desperately trying to rebuild.
His commitment to the city brought in tourist dollars and the show felt like much more than a concert; it felt like a healing blessing and a benediction that New Orleans was once again open for business.
Springsteen returned again in 2012, as a late addition, with the E Street Band. This year, he announced his 2014 appearance before he released any other dates for his tour, allowing the non-profit festival to get the maximum benefit from his inclusion.
Springsteen’s shows over the last few years have been exuberant, loose-limbed affairs. He often takes song requests from fans holding up elaborate, detailed signs, calls audibles to the ever-growing E Street Band to switch up the set list on a whim, preaches about taking the audience to the church of rock ‘n’ roll with the sexual healing and salvation that all can find there…He even stage dives.
There was little of that during Saturday’s packed concert (though he did run through the crowd a number of times to a small stage in the field). Instead, the tens of thousands of fans got a show that was certainly joyous (Springsteen had a mile-wide grin on his face for most of it), but also purposeful and tight as a drum.
Perhaps because his late-afternoon set was only two and a half hours, as opposed to his usual three hour-plus marathons, Springsteen kept the chatter to a minimum (he didn’t even introduce the band) and the message upfront. Every song, even ones that weren’t written with New Orleans in mind (which would be pretty much all of them), seemed to be delivered as part of a bigger-picture performance that pointedly focused on providing strength, solace and defiance to the broken and downtrodden (“No Surrender,” “The Promised Land”), castigating the haves who continue to steal from the have-nots (“Death to My Hometown,” “Shackled and Drawn”), and, of course, offering redemption to the Crescent City (“The Rising,” “Land of Hope and Dreams”), in a show that, at times, echoed his 2006 set.
Springsteen opened with “High Hopes,” the title track from his current album. It has a certain horn-driven, percussive flair on the record, but like many of the songs he performed here, the slightest of changes easily gave the tune a New Orleans second-line sass. On a rollicking “Johnny 99,” the horn section stepped to the front of the stage in an extended version that swung as hard as any Dixieland band.
With Steven van Zandt on a break from the band, Tom Morello continued to fill in on guitar, as he and Springsteen performed their by-now familiar, but no less jaw-dropping, guitar-slinging version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” while Nils Lofgren played the role of Springsteen’s singing buddy, temporarily vacated by van Zandt, standing on tip-toes when Springsteen would summon him to share the mic on such songs as “Badlands” and “No Surrender.”
About halfway through the set, Springsteen noted that one of the great highlights of his professional life was appearing at Jazz Fest in 2006. With that, he went into a glorious version of the Negro spiritual “O Mary Don’t You Weep,” the same song from We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions with which he opened his 2006 concert. As part of his encore, he replicated the prayer-like, meditative rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” that he also performed in 2006, complete with obscure verses sung by different band members.
Rickie Lee Jones joined the band for several songs, singing backing vocals alongside Patti Scialfa. John Fogerty, who performed his own set at Jazz Fest on May 4, came out for a crisp two-fer of a swampy “Green River” and a robust “Proud Mary,” with, of course, Springsteen’s delivery of the line “Pumped a lot of ‘tane down in New Orleans” getting a rousing cheer.
Springsteen closed with an elegiac, acoustic version of “Thunder Road,” accompanied primarily by pianist Roy Bittan, sending the tired, sweaty, hot fest-goers out into the night. While the festival setting didn’t allow for Springsteen to stretch out as he usually does, and in that regard, may have been a bit of a disappointment to the hardcore fans, Springsteen definitely maintained his reputation as one of Jazz Fest’s (and the music world’s) most reliable and legendary performers intact.
How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live
Death to My Hometown
The Promised Land
O Mary Don’t You Weep
Shackled and Drawn
The Ghost of Tom Joad
Land of Hope and Dreams
Green River(with John Fogerty)
Proud Mary (with John Fogerty)
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
When the Saints Go Marching In
Pay Me My Money Down
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