Pete Seeger BDay Concert | 05.03 | NYC

By: Ryan Dembinsky

Pete Seeger 90th Birthday Concert :: 05.03.09 :: Madison Square Garden :: New York, NY

Pete Seeger by Bruce Mondschain
courtesy Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Let’s put this in perspective: On May 3, 1919, the Model T Ford was still the king of the road, the allied powers had just hashed out the early stages of the Treaty of Versailles, and the Green Bay Packers would not form for another three months. In other words, in the ninety years since Pete Seeger‘s date of birth, a lot has changed.

Throughout his lifetime and up to this very day, Pete Seeger actively observed, participated in and rallied against period after period of social injustices, including racial inequality, civil rights inequities, environmental preservation, the reformation of international policies and of course, war. The original musical outlaw, Seeger’s impassioned career includes no shortage of anti-establishment outcries including joining the Communist Party, standing up against the Communist witch hunt of the 1950s, writing timeless anti-war/anti-corporate folk anthems, getting banned from television for over 40 years and publicly criticizing key political figures.

As an icon of the highest order, Pete Seeger’s influence on the musical landscape of the past 90 years is immeasurable, but perhaps best illustrated by the multitude of musical big guns that turned out for his 90th birthday bash at Madison Square Garden. With a lineup that rivals Bonnaroo (on paper), the celebration played host to the likes of Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Emmylou Harris, Dave Matthews, Oscar the Grouch, Dar Williams, Joan Baez, Ben Harper and dozens more.

Pete Seeger in 1944
Never one to slow down, Seeger now turns his focus to environmental advocacy, contributing the proceeds from the big birthday bash to the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a non-profit organization created to defend and restore the Hudson River. At first glance, this may seem like a bit of an obscure charity, but the actual influence of this organization reaches quite far. A sloop is actually a sailboat, one which Pete Seeger raised money to build back in the 1960s in a communal spirit, soliciting contributions from fans and fellow musicians. Today, the sloop is used to take groups of people, mainly children, out on the Hudson River to educate and inspire them to get involved, seeking to develop the next generation of environmental activists. Appropriately, the stage of Madison Square Garden was adorned simply with strands of lights made to mimic the look of the sail, faux transplanting the performers onto the sloop itself.

Pete Seeger kicked off the evening’s performances with a quiet pan flute solo backed by sparse nature effects that would have inspired John Denver and Bob Ross to flick their lighters. Directly following, the Native American Indian Cultural Alliance performed and congratulated Seeger on his celebration of 90 winters, wrapping up with a wry commentary on the state of the river: “Ever since a man named Hudson went up that river, it has gone to hell.”

Pete Seeger in 1971
Sporting a pony tail mullet, Tim Robbins then showed up to announce, “Pete wants everyone to sing,” signaling that the crowd should make themselves at home in getting their dork on and belting out the songs at will. From here on out, a mish mash crowd of youngsters, parents, elderly folks in wheelchairs and teenagers threw caution to the wind and howled out like the Garden was one big campfire.

An intermission split the four and a half hour marathon into two halves. The highlights of the first act came from Tom Morello, Patterson Hood and others collaborating on a respectable bluegrass rollick through “John Henry” and a Michael Franti and Patterson Hood collaboration on “Dear Mr. President” that kicked off with Franti exclaiming, “I’m kinda glad we’re singing this for this president not the last one.” The feat came complete with the ubiquitous Franti, “How you feelin’,” some cheeky impromptu propaganda lyrics from both artists and a mash up with Franti’s own “Yell Fire.”

Billy Bragg performed by his lonesome, telling a story of an encounter with Pete Seeger at the Vancouver Folk Festival shortly after the Tiananmen Square violence, where Seeger hoped to close down the festival with a performance of “The Internationale.” Seeger asked Bragg to join him to sing the English portion of the song, but Bragg responded to the request saying that the English lyrics were totally outdated and no longer served any relevance. Thus, Seeger called his bluff and gave him 24 hours to write some new ones. Not one to let down a legend, Bragg wrote the lyrics and is now officially credited with the alternative lyrics. Finally, with no backing, Bragg belted out his modified lyrics to raucous applause.

Musically, most performers clearly enjoyed the evening and took pleasure in paying tribute to such a good spirited role model, yet the performances definitely left something to be desired. A large portion of the artists clearly read from Teleprompters and typical of many multi-artist tribute shows, played it very close to the vest in terms of the interpretations of the material. Given that most of the Seeger catalog consists of very simple chord progression-based song structures, the majority of the renditions incorporated little more than capable strumming.

Pete Seeger by Bruce Mondschain
courtesy Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
As expected, the emphasis for the birthday celebration focused on singing, which translated into a noticeable lack of emphasis on instrumentation. The number of solos for the evening could be counted on one hand, with Warren Haynes only getting about four bars of guitar space despite a handful of appearances. Béla Fleck and Tony Trischka shook loose a bit in a stirring medley of Seeger material, which wrapped up with an instrumental take on “Happy Birthday.” But other than that, the only other solos included a brief classical solo by Morello, a nice sax solo by one of the members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and the musical high note of the show, Pete Seeger himself laying down a confident banjo solo.

Vocally, the show delivered the goods. Joan Baez and Richie Havens brought the house down, particularly for the older, nostalgic fan bases, with gorgeous, resonating serenades clearly bringing heaps of fans back to memorable (or perhaps hazily remembered) periods in their life, many who were sharing these with their children on this evening. Additionally, Kris Kristofferson and Ani DiFranco, Ani in particular, wowed new and old fans alike with their call and response, ball-breaking goof on the children’s song, “There’s a Hole in the Bucket.”

Of the more colorful interpretations of the Seeger catalog, Ben Bridwell and Tyler Ramsey of Band of Horses plugged in their guitars for an electric performance – an evening rarity – and provided a warm backdrop for surprise guest Roger McGuinn to sing the Pete Seeger original “Turn, Turn, Turn” that his band, The Byrds, made famous.

Pete Seeger by Anthony Pepitone
Dave Matthews appeared only for a one-and-done, but gave a stirring and playful performance of “Rye Whiskey,” a Tex Twitter song written in the 1930s that Dave actually debuted on April 29 at his own Atlanta show. “Rye Whiskey” fits Matthews’ repertoire well as the song reads like one of his own, essentially saying, “Leave me be, so I can go and get drunk.” Matthews also shared a fitting story of his first concert – a Pete Seeger show with his mother when he was a boy.

Eddie Vedder pulled a surprising no-show providing the only real disappointment for the evening.

Not surprisingly, Bruce Springsteen closed out the individual performances for the lengthy evening. Before an inspired “Ghost of Tom Joad” – a song Seeger himself covered two years ago – with Tom Morello backing on his classical guitar, Bruce’s dedication to Pete Seeger proved one of the real high points for the evening. Springsteen clearly devoted some thought and heartfelt effort into his preparation, telling a story about he and Pete’s experience performing for Barack Obama’s inauguration, capping it off with a crowd pleasing comment about Pete’s feelings on the new president: “He [Pete] was so happy he outlasted the bastards,” in reference to the previous administration. Springsteen then went on to talk about Pete’s appearance in a both endearing and hilarious manner, commenting, “He looks just like your granddad, only if your granddad could still kick your ass.”

The night wrapped up with a full house sing along of “This Land is Your Land,” that everybody saw coming, but left everyone smiling and singing on their way home. Overall, this night ranks up there with the corniest ever, complete with strangers in the crowd swaying with their arms around one another and signing to the heavens, but in the context of the celebration and everything Pete Seeger has accomplished and continues to accomplish, even the crankiest of codgers felt it.

While many 90-year-olds would probably go to sleep around 5:00 in the afternoon, Pete Seeger was just warming up, choosing instead to ring in his 90th with a monumental four and a half hour marathon concert. Seeger shows absolutely no signs of slowing down and looks healthier than a 60-year-old, jogging on and off the stage, and demonstrating undying passion for his causes. Pete stated during his solo performance of “Amazing Grace,” which included about 36,000 backup singers, that, “There’s no such thing as a wrong note as long as you’re singing.”

Let’s hope we get to see Pete in another ten years for his next milestone birthday party for a lot more singing.

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