Words by Gabriela Kerson

NY Guitar Festival Celebrates Nebraska :: 01.14.06 :: Winter Garden :: New York, NY

The opening ceremony for the NY Guitar Festival, a tribute to Bruce Springsteen's album Nebraska, was held in the Winter Garden, located in the heart of the world financial center. The Winter Garden is a large atrium with full-size palm trees scattered around the main floor, a soaring ceiling, and a full balcony, located right next to ground zero. Surrounded by that kind of wealth, listening to songs about despair drove home one of the great truths of New York City - you experience all extremes, every day.

Peter Stillmann organized the festival, which is now in its seventh year, with hope of furthering guitar awareness. He chose Nebraska for this year's opening because the album gave him a sense of connection to Springsteen. "I feel like this is what it would sound like if he stopped by and was playing in my living room." Nebraska was finished in 1982, but Springsteen started recording the seminal album 25 years ago in 1981, in his bedroom on a Tascam 144, 4-track cassette recorder.

The entourage of musicians chosen to participate in this particular project each took one song from the album and performed it in their own way. Many tried to straight-ahead imitate The Boss, some gave it a distinctive touch of their own, creating an intense collaboration of ideas and emotions.

Nebraska :: Michelle Shocked

Michelle Shocked
The first artist was Texas-born self-proclaimed punk rocker Michelle Shocked, singing the title track, accompanied by trumpet player Rich Armstrong. Her minimalist, feminine Bruce look consisted of a black leather suit-cut jacket, just-tight-enough black jeans, a black felt hat, and silver earrings that matched the silver of the tuning keys on her guitar. Her voice was flat, matter of fact, and the trumpet played around her. Armstrong used effects to bring out two or three different melodies. Shocked matched perfectly the slightly nasal, almost bored flavor of this song. Standing totally still while singing, then leaning back into the guitar as she strummed mightily, her voice filled the huge space completely, and easily. The lighting behind her was a dull red, highlighting her silhouette. It was a perfect opening, obviously a well thought out, but not over-rehearsed performance. When she was done, she bopped right off the stage only to be called back by Master of Ceremonies, John Platt from WFUV. He commented on the 3,000 miles she had flown to be there and asked about her thoughts while working on the song. Shocked admitted that originally she had wanted to sing it as a deconstructed feminist rendition but realized it worked better the way it was. She left the stage, rushing back, breathlessly laughing to thank her trumpet player - the only time during her performance that there was a little of the Michelle Shocked flavor really visible. Her Boss impression held that tight.

Atlantic City :: Jessie Harris

Jesse Harris by Bill Phelps
The next act was Jessie Harris, native New Yorker, performing "Atlantic City." Best known for his Grammy award winning writing and his work with Norah Jones, Jessie definitely likes the beautiful women. This week, he's out on tour with Tristan Prettyman, Jason Mraz's girlfriend over in Japan, but next month you can catch him on Monday nights at 10 p.m. for free, at the place where it all started for him - the Living Room on Ludlow Street in NYC. His band, made up of a guitarist, a drummer, and a pianist, did a great job of showcasing Harris's amazing voice. Wearing a slightly flashy pink shirt with his jeans and black leather jacket, he opened up the sorrow and matter-of-fact acceptance of impossibility found in this song, especially on the chorus, "Everything dies baby and that's a fact." When it was over, Harris talked about the desperate optimism found in "Atlantic City" - the false hope we get from gambling, looking for one last shot to save ourselves.

Mansion on the Hill :: The National

The National by Sonya Kolowrat
Following "Atlantic City" there was a guitar interlude featuring Festival organizer David Spellmann, and then The National, a group of five guys from Ohio who moved to Brooklyn and started a band, performed "Mansion on the Hill," the first song Springsteen wrote for this album. The National includes two sets of brothers, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, guitars and bass, Bryan (drums) and Scott (guitar, bass) Devendorf and their "older, taller, blonder friend" Matt Berninger on vocals. The band, which has a reputation for dressing in uniform, was two-thirds of a Springsteen impression - suit jackets and jeans, although one of the bass players was wearing a blue and green striped sweater that seemed a little too relaxed for his own comfort. Their performance was stunningly beautiful, the vocals clear and playful. There was something joyful about Berninger's sound, like he had a happy secret. His body was very constrained as he sang, one hand stuffed in the pocket of his black jeans, his head cocked tightly to the side, kind of like a little kid, while his voice traveled far. They ended with the sweet note of a lone violin. The imagery of children playing in the yard sticks with me still. Berninger, as the spokesperson for the band, said he felt it was written from the point of view of a child with a "Great Gatsby" vibe.

Johnny 99 :: Chocolate Genius

Chocolate Genius
On "Johnny 99" was Chocolate Genius, who felt that this song is really about the desperate things we do to raise a family. Front man Marc Anthony Thompson, another heavy hitter in the collaboration field, has played with just about everyone and just released his third album Black Yankee Rock. The lights turned purple, and then he walked out in a grey suit with a cream fedora and a blue collar, a guitar in his hands and a harmonica around his neck. He pulled out an older, slightly scratchy voice, creating historical imagery and emotion, anger, regret, dreams, hope, and despair. As the lyrics got violent, his voice became gentler, and for a moment it seemed like he might not be able to finish the song, so old and worn out is he. Then he sang hard, filling the atrium, you could feel him rolling the words in his mouth, the guitar slowly winding down as he ended, leaving dead silence behind him before the applause washed him off the stage.

Highway Patrolman :: Martha Wainwright

Martha Wainwright by Ken Schles
The stand-out performance of the night was Martha Wainwright. Wainwright, raised in Montreal and part of a well-known musical family, performed "Highway Patrolman" with Marc Ribot. She stood center-stage in a well-cut black suit coat and skirt and surprisingly girly white tights. Marc Ribot sat to her right in a camel jacket and black pants. Wainwright was the first to acknowledge the audience, saying "Hi" in an almost shy, breathy, very female voice. The lights turned a little more purple, highlighting the duo and making the massive stage seem small and intimate, like a coffeehouse affair. Wainwright's rendition of this song was breathtaking. Her voice has such a range, from low and scratchy to strong and beautiful. Even as she sang about her wife, you felt the feminine "I will survive" will of an incredibly strong woman. First I'll take care of the world, I'll be ok, some other time I'll take care of me. It is so sad, and there was so much raw emotion I wanted to climb inside of her skin. And then, the accessibility disappeared. Wainwright distanced herself from the audience. Ribot joined in on vocals, almost speaking, then long, drawn-out, and breathy, they finished together. Wainwright leaned down to check in with Ribot and then grabbed her music and went to talk to Master of Ceremonies John Platt.

When asked why she chose this song, Wainwright responded with a sense of humor, "It reminds me of my brother. Usually I'm the Frankie of the family, but this time I'm the good guy." She talked about how she listened to Nebraska a lot at 14 and 15 years old, staring at a poster of a young Bruce with her girlfriends. When Platt asked if she still thought he was hot, she responded, "Yeah, whatever," and left the stage.

They took a brief break and then began the second half of the set. Starting with Jen Chapin's lackluster performance (with her husband Stefan Crump on bass) of "Born in The USA," which was left off Nebraska, through the rest of the album, the renditions were disappointing, annoying, long, and drawn out. A young woman across the aisle from me fell asleep, and the overall awed silence that was steady during the first half broke up into coughing and shuffling, until Kevn Kinney (Drivin' n' Cryin') and Lenny Kaye brought some life back into it with Crump and Dan Zanes (who played "State Trooper") sitting in on "Reason to Believe." As their song ended, most of the evening's performers converged on the stage.

Bruce Springsteen by Kevin Mazur
Thank god there was time put aside for an ensemble piece. Maybe it will make up for the last hour of my life. I wondered how they could have set up such an amazing first set, until I realize the best artists picked the songs on the first half of the album. There is a distinct buzz among the musicians on the stage, a flash of black leather, blue jeans, a red collar, and gray hair. The well-behaved audience suddenly surged forward as we realized it's The Boss. Springsteen was in the building. Surrounded by the people who had just paid tribute to his work, Springsteen began a sing-along rendition of Woody Guthrie's "Indian Nation." It was a phenomenal experience. Some of the performers stepped right up: Jen Chapin was on the mic all through the song, Rich Armstrong had both his horn and a drum, while Thompson (Chocolate Genius) didn't even try to play. He just held high his personal video camera. Springsteen held back through the first half of the song but finally took front and center, and as he belted out across the atrium, his Rock Star Power was overwhelming. It felt like he was just a conduit to some greater power. The voice, attitude, and style that had been emulated all night were more then I could have ever imagined in real life. At the end of the song, Platt asked two questions "Were any of our interpretations wrong?"

"Yeah, most of the songs were written to get women to pull their pants down."

"Do you have any idea why this album still resonates after 25 years?"


Only the Boss could be that cool.

NebraskaMichelle Shocked
Atlantic CityJesse Harris
Mansion on the HillThe National
Johnny 99Chocolate Genius, Inc.
Highway PatrolmanMartha Wainwright with Marc Ribot
State TrooperDan Zanes with Vernon Reid
Used CarsLaura Cantrell
Open all NightOtis Taylor
My Fathers HouseMark Eitzel
Reason to BelieveKevn Kinney with Lenny Kaye

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[Published on: 1/18/06]

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