Saturday night’s Hoosier Springsteen — a tribute to Springsteen’s music paid by Indiana artists — proved to be an inspired effort not only by the musicians, but also by the crowd, who hung in and responded throughout the three-plus hour show. It was the first edition of the event, put together by Indiana songwriter Tim Grimm, following on the Grimm-organized Hoosier Dylan tribute show.
Unlike doing a similar show for nearly any other artist, those on stage had to meet the challenge of doing more than simply singing Bruce’s songs. To be truly effective in capturing the essence of Springsteen, they had to hit on at least two of the three skills that make Springsteen legendary. They did.
It’s hard to miss on the songs. With few exceptions, Springsteen’s catalogue of songs is exquisite, with more tunes to choose from than could be played in one night.
Secondly, there’s the performance. While albums like “Nebraska” or “The Ghost of Tom Joad” are unarguably lo-fi affairs, picking a song from a record like “Born to Run”, “Darkness on the Edge of Town” or even “Born in the USA” means taking on the iconic music too. It’s either replicate or reinvent if you take a shot at those records.
And the third challenge is finding a way to add a little homage to Springsteen’s live show. The best live performer of his generation, the Hoosier Springsteen gang needed to bring the power, the touches of gospel and the push that comes with his live performance for the night to be a complete success.
Turning a rundown Crump Theatre in Columbus, Indiana into the perfect venue for a debut of a the Grimm-led series, the singer and actor took a break from performing in a stage play in Chicago to trek back to Southern Indiana and treat the 150 or so in attendance to a night that made us glad we were there.
Among the performers included Grimm, John Prine guitarist Jason Wilber, guitarist and songwriter Gordon Bonham, Bloomington-based singer and songwriter Bobbie Lancaster and hillbilly bluegrass band White Lightning Boys, plus a terrific backing band, highlighted by the spectacularly tasteful Troye Kinnett, from John Mellencamp’s band, on keys.
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Leaning heavily on “Nebraska” and “Born In the USA” material – 14 of the night’s 31 (!) songs were from those two early and mid 80’s records – the musicians found “Nebraska” perfect for a night of Americana songwriters playing Bruce music. Yet it was individual performances that elevated the evening’s best moments, when performers strayed slightly from the records.
Columbus singer Dale Sechrest opened each of the two sets solo, “Cover Me” appropriately starting the show, followed by the obscure “Jesus Was an Only Son” to a hushed crowd. Wilber, a hell of a guitar player, introduced the band with a rollicking “Hungry Heart” and the first magical moment of the night, teaming with Bonham and Kinnett for an angry “State Trooper”. Lancaster provided the first glimpse at her engaging stage persona and “aw shucks, ain’t I a killer singer?” voice with a bluegrass-inflected “All I’m Thinking About is You” from the “Devils and Dust” album.
Grimm joined for Lancaster for a smoldering duet of “I’m on Fire,” the band’s restrained playing and Kinnett’s mid-80’s keyboard touch gluing the song together, making it new and classic at once. Perfect.
Bonham’s first turn at vocals came with Nebraska’s” “Reason to Believe”, morphed into a country shuffle, complete with Lancaster and two friends dancing behind the band. The band stayed with the 1982 album for “Open All Night”, creating a jubilant rock song that had the audience moving up front to dance and Jason and Gordon trading searing leads. Another keeper.
Poet Matthew Jackson provided a breather with his first of three appearances, reading original poetry, before the White Lightning Boys turned in an Avett Brothers-like performance of “I’m Goin’ Down”, followed by the economic hardship song “Youngstown” from The Ghost of Tom Joad.
Grimm and his wife Jan dueted beautifully on the sad story song “Highway Patrolman”, before the group hit on a set of tunes that became the best segment of the night. “Devils and Dust” started the momentum with a great vocal from Tim, and a more uptempo performance than on the record, followed by “Johnny 99,” featuring stinging leads from Bonham’s Fender Telecaster.
But it was the Wilber/Bonham duet on “Born in the USA” – just two guys, two Telecasters and a bit of a crowd singalong too – that told the crowd why they came. Wicked guitar playing and Wilber emanating a comfortable yet forceful energy on stage perfect for the song and the night. That song led into the full band’s rousing and fun “Glory Days.”
Lancaster grabbed “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” off the Seeger Sessions” record, released in 2006, with Kinnett’s accordian playing and Lancaster’s southern lilt working together. “My Hometown” wrapped the first set up, and it clicked along nicely, in part because she changed the lyrics to reflect a daughter instead of a son in the song.
A more ragged second set began with a trio of songs from the bluegrass White Lightning Boys, on stage for “Old Dan Tucker”, “Nebraska” and “Mrs. McGrath”, followed by Grimm and Wilber for the title cut from “The Ghost of Tom Joad”. Sechrest came back for Seeger Session’s obscure “Eye on the Prize”.
Give the band extra kudos for next tackling one of the legendary anthems of Springsteen canon. “Racing in the Street” is long, beautiful, and iconic. Not the easist to pull off, but they did. “Used Cars”, and a pair from the 1995 “Greatest Hits” album followed, with Tom Clark contributing a lovely sax solo during “Secret Garden,” replete with Wilber playing along, eyes closed, fully in the moment.
Grimm led “Blood Brothers” with son Conner onstage playing bass, and they stayed for a joyous “Thunder Road”. Bonham burned in a rendition of “Atlantic City”, using a fiery Bruce concert arrangement.
An unexpected “Meeting Across the River” off “Born to Run” from Jason led to a finale of the title cut from that 1975 record, putting a fitting cap on a Springteen length live show.
For a Bruce fan, it was special to watch some of the best from our little state tackle Jersey’s chosen son. And give the crowd credit for making the night fun and helping make the first shot at performing this show a winner. Worth a trip to Danville to see the next outing on June 20.