Bob Seger At Madison Square Garden. Friday, December 19th, 2014, Reviewed
Bob Seger became the visual embodiment of his audience somewhere down the 2010s. At Madison Square Garden Friday night, he played to an audience of former High School Defensive Tackles where all their muscle had made the move to their pot bellies decades ago and whose diminished expectations are roundly coupled to their decaying visages. They look like they’ve given up. Seger looks like he has given up as well. He looks like he has skipped his 60s (he is 69) and gone straight to his mid-seventies. The difference between the two is one isn’t being paid millions to perform in front of the other, and Seger looks so tired you have to wonder why he chose not to make the slightest effort to lose weight, cut his hair, get lasik eye surgery, exercise so he can move and dance round the stage without his bad boxing pose on the fast numbers. Complaining about a rockers appearance may well be shallow but so is the entertainment business and if you can charge healthy prices show up looking healthy. It’s a miracle nobody dropped dead from a heart attack mid-concert, the entire place looked like a cheeseburger away from a massive coronary including Seger.
It would have made a difference if Seger was healthier (he looks like Sir Paul’s Grandpa) but a youthful Seger might also have kept his audience at a distance, and anyway while Seger looks disconcertingly like the elderly folks surrounding me (and I’m 58!) and while the wives accompanying their significant others were certainly not panting for him -rock nyc writer Bert Contestible left early because his wife was so bored, Seger still has a few things going:
1. The Silver Bullet Band are a real band -bassist Chris Campbell has been with Seger since way before they even formed the band, since the beginning in 1969, keyboardist Craig Frost has been with him since 1970, Alto Reed did the saxophone solo on “Old Time Rock And Roll”, and it shows. They are a terrific foil for Seger: tight as a motherfucker, on the dime, very controlled, they never over do it, they are extremely disciplined and precise, a well oiled machine capable of new songs, like Seger’s cover of Steve Earle’s “The Devil’s Right Hand” and Bob’s Stevie Ray Vaughn puppy blues “Hey Gypsy”, and capable of the jewels in the crown “Her Strut” and “Travellin’ Man”.
2. Seger’s best work has always been about looking, obsessively so, backwards. His best songs, “Rock And Roll Never Forgets”, “Against The Wind”, “Old Time Rock And roll” have built in nostalgia. Everything about his golden years, the mid-1970s, suggests not born to run but running as fast as you can to stay in the same place. His national success feels like a shocker, the man is such a regional phenomenal it is like rock and rolls great joke on blue collar America that the Detroit native, who in many ways feels like the way you think Detroit should feel, like working in the night shift at Ford, like Clint Eastwood snarling made in America, was built for a smaller audience. Either way it allows Seger to connect intimately in an Arena setting without really talking much to his audience. Seger comes across like that salt of the earth Quiet American of legend, on stage, his patter not much more than brief explanations and props giving though the story of Seger’s mom hearing his music in an elevator in Hawaii was a goodie.
3. Look, if you are gonna let the J. Geils Band open for you, you are looking for trouble plain and simple. The last time I saw one of the great frontmen still rocking, the timeless Peter Wolf, lead J. Geils Band through a set, they were so much better than Bon Jovi (At MetLife stadium -80,000 seater) it was embarrassing. If I was Jon I would have run for the hills. The last time I heard ” (Ain’t Nothin’ but A) House Party” Jon was performing it at a solo gig. Look, you can’t follow J. Geils Band without a permit. You look like an asshole. They covered Bobby Womack, Jackie Wilson, and still had “Love Stinks” in their pocket. Of course, SBB weren’t as good, but they weren’t Bon Jovi either.
SBB hit the stage like a smack in the face, the lighting was gorgeous, the audience singing at the top of their lungs and if Bob seemed a little too old to be wandering round the stage punching the air, “Roll Me Away” needs no excuse from me, a pounding piano builds the song to its bridge, when Seger does his normal trick and drops an octave for “Stood alone on a mountain top starin’ out at the Great Divide, I could go east I could go west it was all up to me to decide, just then I saw a young hawk flyin’ and my soul began to rise…” It’s a really good song and it is a memory song and because Seger has always been about the rasp, the rasp doesn’t hurt it at all. Seger followed “Roll Me Away” with an Otis Clay cover, a huge singalong to the terrific Stonesy “The Fire Down Below” (Wolf should cover it) off his best album Night Moves, passing through an excellent “The Devil’s Right Hand” to an excellent “Old Time Rock And roll”.
“Old time Rock And Roll”, looking for a song from 62 no doubt, is an impossible number to have recorded 35 years plus ago and now have to play. Every baby boomer sings it on their way to the long goodbye, and live Seger could have easily hand it off to the audience, they want it, it is theirs. But it is also central to Seger’s myth, it is why Seger isn’t Springsteen -the song is stupified in time, it isn’t all rock and roll to Seger, modern music (1978 to be precise) has a corrupted soul. Springsteen in 1978 saw corruption as well but he saw it elsewhere, Bruce saw the soul of corruption in “The Promised Land”. Both songs are blue collar, both are running against the wind, but Seger’s limitations can’t be clearer. Written by rock and blues journeyman George Jackson, but carefully rearranged by Seger, it proved just how far the man would go. Why unless you’re from Michigan, the man is not the legend. Friday night he took the song for his band but he shared it with his fans. It was a fine mix of nostalgia, singalong, and epithet.
From here on in, the casual fans and the diehards parted ways. I lost interest but not entirely. “Like A Rock” was a very powerful full on testament to sexual peaks none of us will relive again with Seger seated and thumping on his acoustic guitar , it was the first time he had played the song at MSG in 30 years, it is off his hits comp indeed 14 of the 21 songs performed Friday night can be found on Ultimate Hits, the 2011 compilation which is, unless you can find his earliest stuff, all you need. On Friday night the only thing missing was “Still the Same”.
Seger Isn’t fun to look at when he is dancing, but when he sits down his excitement overwhelms him and he can’t stop moving and that is fun to watch. And his singing is so terrific, he really has stamina, power and a beautiful rock and roll timbre to his voice. I mean everything you consider timbre: tone, shading. He has so much resonance that it sounds personal and anthemic. Along with his band proper it saves Seger in 2014, you never tire of it and while his excitement works against him on his bigger hits, two of his songs at the chorus” Against The Wind” and “Night Moves” feel a little rushed, in the heart of the concert it works very well.
I said earlier that Seger doesn’t really interact with his audience, he doesn’t but he does take the time to explain where the music came from, he wrote “The Fireman’s Talking” for his brother-in-law “who basically spends his time saving people” and his pleasure in the audience is obvious and so is his audiences joy in him, he is the voice of a certain strata of mid-American blue collar steel and car workers of a certain age. He is what is playing on the jukebox when the day shift ends. Springsteen is too intellectual, he can’t help himself, he over thinks and he illustrates his stories. There is always a distance with Bruce, like Tom Joad these are fictional characters even if they are fictional characters about Bruce’s roots. It isn’t true of Seger, at his most complex he is in the working place where, as Jarvis Cocker once noted, common people watch their lives slip out of view. You don’t have to guess with Seger, you don’t have to interpret, he is the poet of desperation and he is the poet laureate of the simple need to be someone. When we pull old music off the shelf it is Seger we are reaching for.
Roll Me Away
Tryin’ to Live My Life Without You
(Otis Clay cover)
The Fire Down Below
The Devil’s Right Hand
(Steve Earle cover)
Old Time Rock & Roll
The Fireman’s Talkin’
Come to Poppa
Like a Rock
All the Roads
We’ve Got Tonight
Turn the Page
(John Hiatt cover)
Against the Wind
Rock and Roll Never Forgets