Volume 18 • Issue 35 | January 13 - 19, 2006

Salute to Springsteen at the Garden — the Winter Garden, that is

<<Photo by David Hires
David Spelman, co-founder of the New York Guitar Festival and Nebraska Project curator

By Nicole Davis

Six years ago, the director of New York’s Guitar Festival, David Spelman, bought a home in New Jersey, only to find out it lacked one essential feature: an album by the Garden State’s legendary native son.

“I thought there might be a local ordinance that I own a Springsteen album,” says the 39-year-old guitar impresario. In addition to curating the four-week-long series of concerts devoted to the six-stringed instrument, Spelman also organized the Nebraska Project, the festival’s inaugural event. The free concert this Saturday night at the Winter Garden will feature more than 20 musicians performing songs from Springsteen’s legendary acoustic album, “Nebraska”—the same one Spelman bought as his entry point to The Boss’s catalogue.

“I had read an article that it was his favorite album,” he said, echoing the sentiment of hundreds of fans—not necessarily of Springsteen, but certainly of this early eighties recording. In fact, artists enamored with “Nebraska” have already honored it once before: Sub Pop records released a tribute CD in 2000 that featured singers like Johnny Cash and Aimee Mann covering the album’s 10 songs. The lo-fi opus remains popular in part because it sounds so different from Springsteen’s stadium-sized songs.

“It sounds the way recordings were made decades ago, like some early field recording in a shack in North Carolina,” Spelman says, referring to the way R&B and blues legends like Little Richard and Robert Johnson produced their albums, in one take.

“Nebraska” came about similarly. Recorded on a four-track machine at his home in 1981, Springsteen intended the album to be a demo, then changed his mind and released the spare songs as is. It was everything his anthemic hits on “Born to Run” and “The River” were not—stripped down, mostly acoustic ballads about gritty characters and people on the edge.

“There’s so little there, other than the melodies and the text,” Spelman says. “It’s almost like a tabula rosa.”

Which is exactly what makes these raw recordings ripe for embellishment.

Spelman says he got the idea for this kind of tribute a few years ago at a Central Park concert featuring well-known singers reinterpreting the music of Joni Mitchell. Inspired, he organized an homage to Bob Dylan’s album, “Blood on the Tracks,” in honor of its 30th anniversary last year.

“I realized that formula, paying homage and reinterpreting start to finish an album that means so much to so many people, was a neat idea.”

He revisited it again this year while jogging near his home in Ocean Grove, NJ, a stone’s throw from the Stone Pony, the legendary rock club in Asbury Park where Springsteen played regularly. It hit him that the anniversary for the recording of “Nebraska” was coming upon 25 years, so he started making calls.

“I just got a huge reaction from people, both Springsteen fans, and not. Everyone thought it was such a brave recording.”

Spelman curated the show with an ear toward the musicians’ diversity — a cinch considering the premise of this festival.

“I can’t think of one instrument that is played by so many different people,” says Spelman, who, along with WNYC host John Scaffer, co-founded the guitar festival in 1999. The conservatory-trained classical guitarist once owned a PR firm in the city for music industry clients like PolyGram and RCA/BMG. Now he works as a freelance concert curator.

“There just doesn’t seem to be a corner of the globe that the guitar hasn’t woven its way into.”

Nearly all of the artists he selected for the Nebraska Project were born in the USA, but they encompass almost every genre imaginable: R&B, jazz, punk, rock, country, folk.

Many artists, however, bear some connection to The Boss. Folk singer Michelle Shocked’s first album was recorded on a Sony Walkman, and resembles the “kitchen table style of recording” in ‘Nebraska,’ says Spelman. He also chose The National, one of his favorite bands and Springsteen’s, who uses them as his “walk-in music” at concerts. Spelman wanted to include Chris Whitley, a local New York artist in his 40s who died of cancer this past November. “Over a few days with a single microphone, Whitley made a record named ‘Dirt Floor’ in a shed in Vermont.

“It was so powerful and so immediate that it really relaunched his career,” Spelman said. “Somewhere a couple layers down I’ll be aware that Chris Whitley won’t be a part of this,” he added.

There are plenty of equally talented artists who will, like Mark Eitzel of American Music Club, Chocolate Genius, Lenny Kaye, Me’Shell NdegéOcello, and Martha Wainwright, brother of the more famous Rufus.

“I picked ‘Highway Patrolman,’ she said via cell phone, on her way to a concert in Montreal earlier this week. “I liked the sibling aspect of it very much. And I was touched by the chorus: ‘Nothin’ feels better than blood on blood.’ I guess I was thinking of my brother at the time.”

Wainwright calls herself a huge Springsteen fan. “I remember ‘Nebraska’ really well as a teenager, it was certainly one of my favorite albums. It had these moods to it, and it was not what everyone thought Springsteen was, so it felt special to come across that.”

Country chanteuse Laura Cantrell chose “Used Cars.” At a rehearsal for the show this past Monday, she stood in the cramped dressing room at the Winter Garden while fellow country singer Jen Chapin led a group of guitarists in a twangy, rousing rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Hills.” As she sang, Chapin bounced her four-month old son Maceo on her shoulder and her husband Stephen Crump thumped a stand-up bass beside her. The song will most likely be performed as an encore on Saturday.

The soft-spoken Cantrell, a Nashville native who now lives in Jackson Heights, continued over the sound of the musicians playing in the tiny room, including experimental guitarist Gary Lucas, members of The National, and folk singer Dan Zanes, who strummed the sole mandolin.

“I picked it because I thought there would be less fights over that song. It also had a really great blend of pathos and defiance in it, and being more country oriented, I thought that we could play with that element of it as well.”

Cantrell says she was an 80s Springsteen fan (a la “Born in the U.S.A.”) who didn’t discover “Nebraska” until she started becoming aware of older country music. “I could very easily see that kind of spare, haunted side of country music, like Hank Williams alone with his guitar and harmonica, coming out in what [Springsteen] was doing with that album. It’s always one that I’ve thought of as unique to the rest of his work, so I was thrilled to get asked to join this.”

At the end of the song, while the musicians idly picked their guitars, David Spelman announced that guests should arrive by 7:30 the night of the show. Any later, and there might not be a seat for them in the Winter Garden, which accommodates nearly 2000 people. The only other times the space has been filled to capacity include a New Year’s Eve event in the late 90s, and a concert called “21 Pianos” in 2003.

“We’re expecting an insane amount of people,” said Spelman, clearly delighted that his brainchild was getting so much buzz. As the artists moved from the dressing room to the steps inside the Winter Garden for a photo op, guitar great and Living Color member Vernon Reid explained his connection to “Nebraska.”

“To me, this album was the most nervy thing he’s done. He’d played with the E Street Band, come out with ‘Born to Run,’ but ‘Nebraska’ was totally atypical. It’s truly a lo-fi affair. I wish Prince would do an album like that. I wish Stevie would do an album like that, just him with a piano. Or just him with synthesizers, but just him alone.”

Not everyone has such a deep connection to the album, however. “I think I owned ‘Nebraska’ once, but it was one of those things I lost during a breakup with a girlfriend,” says Marc Ribot, who’ll be performing with Wainwright. Still, Ribot, who had the privilege of sharing studio time with Springsteen while working on his wife Patti Scalfia’s album, “23rd Street Lullaby,” says he admires the man responsible for it.

“Bruce is quite a formidable guitar player,” he says.

As of press time, it was still unclear if The Boss would actually make an appearance at his own tribute. When guitarist Bryce Deffner of The National inquired if Springsteen would show, Spelman sounded slightly optimistic.

“Well, I talked to his management and they said, ‘We think this is beautiful what you’re doing, and we wish you the best of luck.’”

Vernon Reid laughed. “When they wish you luck, they’re not coming.”

Still, the musicians agreed to save a verse of “Oklahoma Hills” for Springsteen just in case he does.

The World Financial Center Winter Garden (worldfinancialcenter.com) is located at 220 Vesey Street. Arrive well in advance of 7:30 to be guaranteed a seat for the 8 o’clock show.



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