When word got out that Springsteen's next release would be covers from the songbook of folksinger Pete Seeger, most envisioned another round of Earnest, Serious Bruce with Acoustic Guitar (The Ghost of Tom Joad, Devils & Dust). However, The Seeger Sessions just might be the shocker of the season. It's a rambunctious, joyous, charmingly ramshackle affair that not only brings to mind Dylan's Basement Tapes and the skid-row circus music of Tom Waits, but finds the Boss at his loosest since The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.
While ostensibly a Springsteen solo disc, his assembled band (13 ace singer/musicians) is the backbone of this porch party, with electric guitars replaced by banjo, accordion, trombone and fiddles. With everything from outlaw ballads ("Jesse James") and character studies ("Old Dan Tucker") to social issues ("Eyes on the Prize") and elementary school standards ("Erie Canal," "John Henry"), it's a surprisingly raucous disc. Even Bill Gates gets a shout-out on the lively "Pay Me My Money Down." Recorded quickly in three one-day sessions at Springsteen's small farmhouse (with the horn players relegated to the hallway), Springsteen calls it the most "live" live record he's ever done -- music made, not played.
The two standout tracks are "O Mary Don't You Weep," a catchy-as-hell gospel track in which Bruce brings to full manifestation his Elmer Gantry/tent revival preacher bit; and "Mrs. McGrath," a nearly 200-year-old Irish jig sung from the point of view of a mother waiting for her wounded son to return from the battlefield. And given his public comments about the war in Iraq, don't think a song with the lines "All foreign wars I do proclaim / Live on blood and a mother's pain" showed up here by accident.
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The record ends not with the sober-minded civil rights anthem title track (which inadvertently fathered the whole project when Springsteen recorded it for a 1997 Seeger tribute record) but with the novelty number "Froggie Went A Courtin'. It may sound trite, but by the end of it you want an invite to the wedding supper with Miss Mousie and Uncle Rat because they -- like the whole cast of The Seeger Sessions -- are having one hell of a party. Note: The CD's dual disc format also includes a DVD documentary on the making of the record with commentary, live performances and two bonus tracks.