The First Time I Saw Springsteen

Before today I hadn’t mentioned the words Bruce or Springsteen anywhere on this blog. But you know, this article about The Boss probably won’t be my last. That’s because I’m a big fan of Bruce’s. I’m not one of his fanatical followers, not one of the myriad folks who own every recording he has ever issued and have attended Springsteen concerts in the dozens and above. But big enough. I consider Springsteen to be a huge talent. For decades he has been a superb singer, songwriter and guitarist, and an in-concert performer blessed with off-the-charts charisma and energy. On January 16, he and The E Street Band will be hitting the road for the umpteenth time. When I read recently about their upcoming tour, my mind wandered back to the first time I saw Bruce on stage.

Springsteen got his start in the late 1960s. By 1973 he had developed a fairly big fan base in a few locales, such as the New Jersey Shore communities and the greater Philadelphia area. Part of this was due to his relentless gigging around the USA. Back then if you toured enough you were bound to catch on somewhere, especially if some radio stations played your tunes. But overall he and his E Street Band still were little known. For the most part he played in small venues until finally breaking through nationally in 1975. Global superstardom would follow some years later.

I moved to Philadelphia in February 1974 and soon started hearing Bruce on WMMR, the city’s premier rock station at that time. They played tracks from his first two albums, both of which came out in 1973: Greetings From Asbury Park followed by The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle. It didn’t take me long to become a Bruce devotee. I bought both albums and especially liked what was on The Wild. Who wouldn’t have? The songs, every one Bruce-penned, are fabulous. They are literate and intriguing stories put to wonderful melodies. Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), Incident On 57th Street, Kittie’s Back . . . man, the seven songs on the record sound as good today as they did all those years ago. There was no question in my mind that Springsteen carried the goods. I wanted to see him in person.

The Bottom Line (photo by Peter Cunningham)
The Bottom Line (Photo by Peter Cunningham)

In July 1974, Bruce and The E Street Band played six shows in Manhattan at The Bottom Line. Three nights of music, two shows per night. Long gone, The Bottom Line was a magnificent small club in Greenwich Village, magnificent not because of its décor but because of its wide-ranging musical menu. I was there with my brother Richard at one of the early shows. Richie wasn’t as ardent a rock lover as I was, but somehow I had convinced him to come along. I suppose I’d known about Bruce’s Bottom Line gigs via announcements on WMMR. I can’t imagine how else I’d have heard.

Springsteen a few months before I saw him (Photo by Burton Wilson)
Springsteen a few months before I saw him (Photo by Burton Wilson)

How much of the show do I remember? Well, to put things in perspective, I’m probably exaggerating on the high side when I say that I recall about 0.0001% of my adult life. Pathetic and depressing, but true. And yet I  do have some memories of that summer evening nearly 42 years ago. I can picture Richie and me seated at a table. We were 20 or 30 feet from the stage. I remember the start of the show. The house and stage lights went dark, and then one spotlight illuminated a small section of stage. Springsteen stood in that focused light, a big floppy hat tilted on his head. And he began to sing Incident On 57th Street. Quietly.

Spanish Johnny drove in from the underworld last night/With bruised arms and broken rhythm and a beat up old Buick, but dressed just like dynamite/He tried sellin’ his heart to the hard girls over on Easy Street/But they said “Johnny, it falls apart so easily, and you know hearts these days are cheap.”

The E Street Band whispered behind Bruce. And as the vocals gradually intensified, the band followed Bruce’s lead nimbly and powerfully. For this song, The Bottom Line, just like that, was transformed into a tough part of town where sorrow and longing prevailed. The reports that I’d heard in Philadelphia were true — that Springsteen, on stage, enveloped a song like few others, tapped into a cache of emotions that were invisible to most vocalists, and that The E Street Band was scarily good. I knew that I was at what would be the best concert I’d ever attended.

Bruce and the boys danced through maybe 10 or 11 more songs before leaving the stage, and they never let go of the audience’s gut. The concert was an exhilarating and spellbinding ride, a trip to rock and roll heaven. The only other tune that I specifically recall being played is Rosalita. It was rollicking and wild. Delirious. Amazing. There was nothing that Bruce, Clarence Clemons, David Sancious, Garry Tallent and the other E Streeters couldn’t do.

Richie was as stunned as I was. I don’t think he’d had any idea what the night held in store for him. To this day I rank Bruce and band at The Bottom Line as one of the ultimate shots of live music in my life. It gave me shivers. It made me shake my head in disbelief. It sent me out into the streets with a buzz that still echoes.

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One More Stop On The Road For Donna The Buffalo

My wife Sandy and I recently saw in concert an electric and eclectic band from upstate New York amusingly named Donna The Buffalo, and afterward I wanted to write about the show. Before sitting down to compose my magnum opus though, I mulled over my approach to the subject matter. The main question I posed to yours truly was: What should the subject matter comprise? Naturally, Donna The Buffalo needed to be a big part of the focus. But you know what? I knew little about DTB pre-gig, and possess only a cursory knowledge about the band now. We went to see them on little more than a whim. I’d heard of them, knew that their history was lengthy, and decided that taking a chance on them would be fun. When my mulling concluded, I was of the opinion that the path that brought me to this show also should be part of the story.

I think of myself as a music lover. I listen to a wide variety of genres and have been to well over 1,000 concerts during my earthly tenure. Yet, these days I feel like a tyro when I listen to radio stations or read music-related websites, magazines and newspapers. I mean, more often than not, I am unfamiliar with the musicians. To me, it is just incredible how many solo performers and bands are out there playing the game. In the USA alone, there must be 50,000 professional musical acts, maybe more. In my younger days I thought that I had a handle on a fair percentage of music makers. No longer, not now in the Internet Age when anybody and everybody can make his or her presence felt.

And so, ten or more years ago I largely gave up on trying to keep up with the avalanches of musicians plying their trade. It was just too much work, too exhausting. Better, I think, to stay in tune to a lesser extent, and also to take gambles and hope for the best. As with Donna The Buffalo.

New Hope Winery, one half hour before showtime.
New Hope Winery, one half hour before showtime.

Donna The Buffalo appeared at New Hope Winery, a venue in the Philadelphia suburbs that Sandy and I discovered last year and have become very fond of. The joint was packed with 200 or more souls when DTB took the stage. A front-and-center area, where tables normally would be placed, had been cleared to create space for dancers. I looked over the crowd. At some previous visits to the Winery I’d seen demographics heavily tilted to the 50 and above bracket. Not this night. DTB had tipped the age scales downward substantially. Twentysomethings and thirtysomethings abounded. There even were a few very young children in the room.

Donna The Buffalo in action at New Hope Winery.
Donna The Buffalo in action at New Hope Winery.

What a band. Not having known what to expect, song number one told me that I had chosen wisely by attending this concert. A quintet, DTB was tremendously tight and intuitive all night long, and possessed a large catalog of songs to choose from. They held the stage for two hours and 10 minutes, filling their long set with 22 songs and little between-tune chatter. I was standing just behind the dance section, which was crowded with bobbers and weavers. After two or three songs, I too began to go with the flow. And kept going. But I was bouncing alone — Sandy stayed at the extremely stage right table to which we had been assigned. Her view of the musicians from there was lousy, but in the dance area she wouldn’t have had a chance seeing over anyone’s head. Mea culpa.

DTB has blended a bunch of musical styles into their sound: rock, country, zydeco, reggae. Rock being the dominant force. On some songs (What Money Cannot Buy; Love and Gasoline) the power was relentless, Stonesy, irresistible. On others (The Ones You Love; Conscious Evolution) the groove expanded, contracted, widened once again, giving no mercy to the audience. All you had to do on those expansive numbers, Grateful Dead-ish and Allmans-ish as they were, was close your eyes to be transported to a higher and mind-opening plane. Yes, Donna The Buffalo was that good.

DTB began its journey in the late 1980s, picking up steam in the mid 90s, and in the current century has become a decently successful and popular unit. They tour like crazy and have amassed a loyal national fan base known as The Herd, a mini version of the Deadheads. Two original band members (Tara Nevins and Jeb Puryear) remain. Tara and Jeb compose most of the group’s songs, usually individually. At the Winery, each took the lead vocal spotlight on his or her compositions. Jeb opted for the laidback Jerry Garcia approach to singing and handled electric guitar sizzlingly. He’s a guitar hero unknown to 99% of Americans. Tara’s sweet and gentle mountain drawl pleased me much. And she was the band’s multi-instrumentalist. Fiddle, acoustic guitar, accordion, tambourine and scrubboard (for the zydeco numbers) were her arsenal.

A bunch of musicians have played alongside Tara and Jeb since DTB’s inception. The three current guys have been around for several years. Mark Raudabaugh killed on the drums. Kyle Sparks was all over his electric bass’ strings, drawing out lines that percolated and sang. And organist David McCracken was immense. So many times in so many bands, especially the poppier or atmospheric ones, the keyboard player is on the lame side, somehow fooling the audience with pretty chords and simplistic runs. Not McCracken. He can play. He jabbed, moved fast, reached for the skies, whatever it took.

So, how many acts that I’ve never heard of or barely heard of, and that I’d find to be great, are on the circuit? The question is a puzzle, the answer unknowable. Which makes music and, similarly, much else of life, delightful.

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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Mason Porter And The Chris Kasper Band Take On The Grateful Dead

1970 was a very good year for the Grateful Dead and a fairly good one for me. I was one year out of college, no long-term success plans in place, working here and there to earn a few dollars. But I was happy enough, I’m pretty sure. Unlike me, The Dead mined gold in 1970, recording and releasing that year what many agree are their two best studio albums: Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. These albums were a big change from Aoxomoxoa, their pretty darn trippy effort from the previous year. The 1970 albums presented tightly arranged songs, many of them quiet and lovely ballads, straight out of the folk, blues and mountain music traditions. The 18 songs on these records shine with a timeless aura and are nothing but grand. The quality of the material probably took the Dead, and most everyone else, by surprise.

During a vagabond-like tour of the USA in summer 1970 I found myself in San Francisco for two or three weeks. I knew about the Dead (who didn’t?), but I don’t think I had any of their albums in my collection at that time. I wasn’t yet a fan. But in San Francisco, the Dead’s home base and where they had become emblematic of hippie culture,  I was smart enough to realize that I should go and see them if I had the chance. The chance arose, as they were booked for three nights in mid-August at the Fillmore West. I went to one of those shows. Workingman’s Dead had come out two months earlier, and the guys were already hard at work on American Beauty. It was a rich period. Sadly, for me the concert has almost disappeared into the fog. Well, I do recall a few things, such as standing in the middle of the Fillmore’s crowded open auditorium gazing at the stage. I also vaguely still can hear the band playing Casey Jones, the tune that brings Workingman’s Dead to its end. And I remember thinking that the concert was good but not great, an opinion that would have left Deadheads shaking their noggins in bewilderment. But memories about the show other than those  . . .  man, I could fill fifty books with all the things I’ve forgotten in my life, if the details magically could be jolted back into place.

Which brings us to April 29, 2015 at the Ardmore Music Hall in suburban Philadelphia. That evening I went with friends to watch two locally-based bands, musicians who had had the superb idea to play the Dead’s 1970 albums in their entirety, track by track. I’m writing this not long after seeing the concert, so my brain hasn’t had a chance yet to get fuzzy about the experience. And the experience was great. I enjoyed the concert in Ardmore more than I did the one in San Francisco 45 years ago.

The Ardmore Music Hall is in the midst of presenting five shows that celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s founding. The centerpiece show for me easily is the one I attended. Handling Workingman’s Dead was Mason Porter, which is a band not a person. The American Beauty duties fell to The Chris Kasper Band, a quintet that grew bigger on some songs with guest musicians. Both units lovingly approached the landmark albums, but didn’t try to duplicate the Dead’s sound. Each was pure rockier than the Dead, and each possessed something the Dead didn’t: a fiddler.  Three hundred or more folks packed the Ardmore, ages 20 to 70 all heavily represented and swaying and hippie-dancing to the tantalizing beats.

Mason Porter at Ardmore Music Hall
Mason Porter at Ardmore Music Hall

The five-person Mason Porter had me going from note number one of song number one, Uncle John’s Band. The group built the tune in stages, reaching heady heights with lead guitarist Paul Wilkinson’s soaring Eight Miles High-ish solo. And they nailed the seven songs that followed. Lead singer Joe D’Amico had an easy and calm delivery, very much in the Jerry Garcia vein. Sarah Larsen’s Appalachian fiddling infused the band with a whole lot of grit. The crowd erupted in applause after her long solo on Dire Wolf. She was overwhelmed by this outpouring and smiled the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on a musician’s face. It stretched out of the hall and halfway to the next town.

The Chris Kasper Band at Ardmore Music Hall (CK is second from left)
The Chris Kasper Band at Ardmore Music Hall (CK is second from left)

For some reason I was delayed getting into The Chris Kasper Band. But they hooked me with Candyman five songs into the set and didn’t let go after that. Keyboardist David Streim brought strong and broad chordal waves to Candyman and the song took flight with Chris’s electric guitar work and fiddler Kiley Ryan’s sweet solo turn. Quite a night for female fiddlers, and not usual to find two at the same concert. On some songs Ryan exchanged the fiddle for an acoustic guitar.

Chris Kasper’s lead vocals were crisp and mellow all set. Like Joe D’Amico and many others, he’s partly from the Garcia school of singing. He alternated between acoustic and electric guitar and used the latter to drive Till The Morning Comes, snapping off white hot riffs like Keith Richards. Matt Muir’s firecracker drumming bounced that song outrageously, pop pop pop. Tremendous.

Truckin’ brought the band’s American Beauty homage to a close. But the night wasn’t over. Mason Porter and a few guests joined the Kasper outfit on stage and a four song Grateful Dead encore ensued. The energy in the Ardmore Music Hall grew to dangerous levels as the huge ensemble ripped through Goin Down The Road Feeling Bad, Bertha, Franklin’s Tower and Mr. Charlie. The music was ferocious, the audience insatiable. At 11:30 PM the last notes rang out.