“From Chicago to New Orleans
From the muscle to the bone
From the shotgun shack to the Superdome
We yelled “help” but the cavalry stayed home
There ain’t no-one hearing the bugle blown
We take care of our own…”
–Bruce Springsteen, “We Take Care of Our Own” (2012)–
As Vice President Joe Biden might say, the upcoming New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival “is a big f**king deal.” Although I know from talking to friends and musicians in the Crescent City, the two big weekends of music are met with mixed emotions. It has become less about New Orleans’ indigenous music and more prone to corporate sponsorship. And while locals snap up brass passes and brave the heat and/or spring rains to be there, many consider April’s French Quarter Fest to be the real celebration of local music and the City’s musicians. But no one would have complained of such excess in the spring of 2006.
April/May 2006. A few months after Katrina. Mardi Gras limped on, but early on many assumed Jazz Fest would not take place. Yet it did; it was a success. And things have grown to the point where few think back to those painful and uncertain times. Forget Mardi Gras. Forget Jazz Fest. Many were still wondering whether New Orleans itself would make it.
But the musicians came: Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Dave Matthews, Jimmy Buffett, Paul Simon, Lionel Ritchie and scores of local musicians. They all came back to the fairgrounds. Even Fats Domino, the reclusive native son, whom many feared had perished in his home in the Lower Ninth, made an appearance. And then there was Bruce.
Although just six years ago, it seems like a distant memory, but music critic Keith Spera recalls the appearance in a brilliant column in the Times-Picayune. It was a time of uncertainty, but it seemed made for America’s troubadour for the dispossessed and down-trodden. And the stars seemed aligned because he was touring with his Seeger Sessions Band. Again, a nod to protest in a time of want and social upheaval.
Bruce and the eclectic band of roots/folk/jazz musicians played old tunes that seemed eerily current. They recounted times of war, times of trial, but most spoke of overcoming adversity or, at least, laughing in its face. And Spera recalled:
In his most overtly political statement, Springsteen recalled his visit the previous afternoon to the 9th Ward. “I saw some sights I never thought I’d see in an American city, ” he said. “The criminal ineptitude makes you furious.” In response, he adapted Blind Alfred Reed’s “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” with new lyrics dedicated to “President Bystander”: “My old school pals had some high times there/What happened to you folks is too bad, ” he sang, mocking President Bush’s comments in the early days after Hurricane Katrina.
The set’s watershed moment, literally, was “My City of Ruins.” Originally written for his adopted hometown of Asbury Park, N.J., on Sunday he dedicated it to New Orleans. To a hushed audience, Springsteen closed his eyes and began: “There’s a blood red circle on the cold dark ground, and the rain is falling down/The church door’s blown open, I can hear the organ’s sound, but the congregation’s gone . . . the boarded-up windows, the hustlers and the thieves, while my brother’s down on his knees . . . now tell me how do I began again? My city of ruins. . .” And then the refrain: “Come on, rise up! Rise up!” Thousands lifted their hands to the sky. I wept, my wife wept. And we were not alone.
Bruce returns to Jazz Fest once again this weekend, this time with his E Street Band (albeit without Clarence Clemons). I saw them a few weeks ago in New York and they were magnificent. Probably the best concert I have ever experienced. They will be returning to the same venue in a City still beset by problems, but it is a long way from those uncertain days of 2006. There will be biting songs from his new and very political album, “Wrecking Ball,” as well as some old favorites. It may even include some of those old protest songs from the concert six years ago. It will be a great three hours of music and Jazz Fest will undoubtedly be well-sponsored and a success.
But I don’t think that it could ever have the impact of that performance in the wake of the flood.