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Sometime, somewhere, a more dramatic and exhilarating confluence of music with moment may have existed than Bruce Springsteen's appearance tonight at the 37th annual Jazz & Heritage Festival here. But in nearly 40 years of concert-going, I haven't witnessed one.
The first public presentation of material from his new album of folk-rooted songs, "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" had the feeling of no less than the turning of a tide, for the people of New Orleans and Louisiana, and perhaps well beyond.
It was serendipity that Springsteen happened to finish the album just enough ahead of Jazz Fest to accept an invitation to premiere his new Seeger Sessions band and the material for the occasion. But the way this project uses American folk music tradition to express and transform people's pain, loss and anger dovetailed perfectly with the festival's role eight months after Hurricane Katrina as a salve on the wounds of the region's residents.
The album had been out just nine days before today's show with this remarkably spirited 18-piece ensemble consisting of banjo, acoustic guitars, accordion, fiddles, mandolin, Dobro, steel guitar, bass, drums and a freewheeling horn section that fit right in here in the brass band capital of the nation. The massed forces, which included several backup singers, exuded an enlarged sense of the communal spirit that's long typified Springsteen shows.
The audience at the closing set of the 10-day event's first weekend empathetically jumped in without so much as a cue on sing-along choruses that it cemented the feeling of a community coming together and rising above tragedy.
This, however, was above and beyond even Springsteen's high performance standards. Moving from the rock context of the E Street Band to the shout-out jubilation of an unfettered hootenanny, the New Jersey rocker was transformed into a troubadour evangelist. One concert cannot even start to undo such monumental destruction as Katrina left, but Springsteen seemed to understand that even a moment of renewal can be a powerful thing.
Springsteen began with the spiritual "O Mary Don't You Weep," so infused with religious fervor it would have worked beautifully in the festival's gospel tent as he sang, "Brothers and sisters don't you cry/There'll be good times by and by."
Except for a few fittingly reworked numbers from his catalog, including "Johnny 99" redone as a New Orleans street parade workout, and a spare, deeply felt version of "My City of Ruins," the show stuck with the "Seeger Sessions" songs, supplemented by a couple that didn't make the final cut for the album.
One of those was "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" - a song written in 1929 at the start of the Depression, to which Springsteen added three of his own verses with Katrina in mind.
He spoke at one point of driving through mile upon mile of storm-devastated New Orleans neighborhoods, and sharing citizens' outrage at political incompetence and/or corruption that has compromised rebuilding efforts. But rather than giving in to despair, the songs he chose almost invariably sought - and found - redemption through faith and the resilience of the human spirit.
Such was the restorative power Springsteen and the band channeled that midway through their treatment of Bill and Sis Cunningham's Dust Bowl chronicle "My Oklahoma Home," it didn't seem the least bit coincidental that the gray storm clouds above parted to reveal the blue sky and shining sun behind them.
After Springsteen and his plentiful cohorts left the stage, an announcer said, "This concludes the first weekend of the resurrection of New Orleans." And for once such a comment didn't sound the least like hype.