The Springsteen session: When the Boss helped New Orleans heal
The concept may have sounded quaint — Bruce Springsteen, one of the most powerful names in rock, performing songs associated with the folk-music icon Pete Seeger — but as soon as The Boss strode onstage, followed by the 19-member Seeger Sessions Band, and tore into “O Mary, Don’t You Weep No More,” it was clear that this set, which marked Springsteen’s Jazz Fest debut, was to be no feel-good hootenanny. The vigorous musicians, who worked in bits of Dixieland jazz and Texas swing, performed Seeger-related songs, to be sure, but selections in this category such as “My Oklahoma Home Is Blown Away” and “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” were piercingly relevant for tens of thousands of people at the Acura Stage who were struggling to put their lives back together after the monster storm called Katrina and the devastating flood. The emotional peak of the 2 ½-hour set came when Springsteen sang “My City of Ruins”: Spectators, many of whom were sobbing, raised their hands into the air and sang along in the late afternoon.
Springsteen has returned twice to Jazz Fest, in 2012 and 2014, and each performance was epic, running more than two hours at full throttle. Neither was the same as his 2006 appearance, but neither had to be. In 2006, when blue tarps covered many roofs on the streets leading to the Fair Grounds infield, Springsteen was playing to an emotionally shattered audience, and he showed that he understood the anguish, frustration and determination to rebuild. For the thousands who filled the infield around the Acura Stage, the set provided a blessed, much-needed catharsis.
- In his autobiography, “Born to Run,” Springsteen said his 2006 Jazz Fest gig “stood out as not only one of the finest but one of the most meaningful of my work life.”
- When Springsteen performed Blind Alfred Reed’s “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?,” he added lyrics that mocked President George W. Bush’s inadequate response to Katrina. He referred to the chief executive as President Bystander.
- The storm and the sluggish response to it clearly had an effect on Springsteen. In his 2012 song “We Take Care of Our Own,” he wrote: “From the shotgun shack to the Superdome/There ain’t no help, the cavalry stayed home.”
- Springsteen’s commitment to New Orleans went beyond his performance. In addition to closing out the festival’s first weekend, he visited the site of the Industrial Canal levee breach, met with representatives of several volunteer groups and gave money to them, including $80,000 to the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic.
- The Seeger Sessions Band was the latest iteration of a group called the Sessions Band that Springsteen had formed in 1997 to play songs for an album honoring Seeger. The group backed up Springsteen on “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” which contains many of the songs performed at Jazz Fest in 2006. In 2007, the album won a Grammy as Best Traditional Folk Album.
Among Jazz Fest veterans, Springsteen’s 2006 Jazz Fest appearance is still something they talk about as a landmark moment in the festival’s history, arguably the greatest live-music performance many have ever seen. In assessing the impact of this concert, Randy Lewis of The Los Angeles Times said much of the magic was due to the important mixture of the man, the music and the moment: “Sometime, somewhere, a more dramatic and exhilarating confluence of music with moment may have existed. But in nearly 40 years of concert-going, I haven’t witnessed one,” he wrote. In a 2006 interview, Quint Davis, the festival’s producer, called it “one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen, and in 37 years of Jazz Fest, I’ve seen thousands of shows. Reverend Springsteen held church and ministered to a flock.”