Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello – “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

There is probably a good bromance film to be made about the relationship between male songwriters. They dynamics of a songwriting partnership mirror that of a romantic union – giddy joy at meeting a compatible soul, the steady rhythm of fruitful collaboration, independence and wanting to branch out and then either acceptance and adaptation or estrangement.

Some partnerships – like Morrissey and Johnny Marr – burn hot and bright, flaming out quickly. Others, like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, settle into marriages of convenience. Jack White is quite promiscuous as a songwriter, flitting from the White Stripes to the Raconteurs, Loretta Lynn and Dead Weather. Some songwriting partnerships turn into real marriages, like Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan or Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.

Then there are the songwriters who have flown solo: Phil Ochs, Neil Young, But even the most ardent songwriting bachelors have had a subtle and unseen hands guiding their way and providing resistance to make the song better. Rivers Como had Matt Sharp, Jeff Tweedy had Jay Bennett, Stevie Wonder had Syreeta Wright. And Bruce Springsteen had Miami Steven Van Zandt.

Van Zandt made his presence in the E Street Band known immediately. He arranged the horn line in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and contributed to the signature guitar line on “Born To Run.” For the next eight years his guitar was the muscle behind Springsteen’s songs, constantly challenging the band and its leader to keep moving and top themselves.

When Van Zandt left the E Street band in 1984, he was replaced by Nils Lofgren. Lofgren had established an outstanding reputation on the basis of his solo work and his stints with Neil Young and Crazy Horse. As a musician he was a more-than-worthy replacement for Van Zandt, but was too easygoing to musically aggravate his new boss the way Van Zandt had.

In 1995 Van Zandt returned the E Street Band and Lofgren remained. The pair has now spent more time in the band together than they did apart. But during that time, Springsteen’s concerts have turned into carnivals rather than escapades. Musicians that used to labor over albums as a unit now record their parts separately. In short, the E Street Band is less a team than an all-star squad of longtime ringers.

Although Springsteen concerts remain incredible experiences and his albums are very good for the most part, Springsteen’s songwriting lacks the urgency, grit and desperation of his early work. Since Springsteen’s early ‘90s retreat from the E Street crew, he hasn’t had a foil, poking, prodding and disturbing him.

When Tom Morello joined the E Street Band onstage in April, 2008, the long absent counterpunch returned. Although his career was considerably shorter, the guitarist had been searching for his own artistic gadfly since the break-up of Rage Against the Machine and the disappointment of Audioslave.

Both performers were familiar with the material. Springsteen wrote “The Ghost of Tom Joad” as the title song for his 1995 solo album and Rage Against the Machine released a covered it two years later. There are several elements in the live collaboration missing on either incarnation. Morello emulates Woody Guthrie in his solo guise as the Nightwatchman, but here and Springsteen add an element of longing and loneliness Guthrie would have liked.

Five guitars are played, but only two of them matter. Springsteen rips off a blistering solo with more intensity than anything he’s recorded in years – he came closest in his appearances on Warren Zevon’s farewell album “The Wind” – and Morello soars with passionate extended solo that combines Public Enemy’s Terminator X and Eddie Van Halen to end the song.

Springsteen originally wrote “Tom Joad” for the E Street 1995 reunion project, but didn’t like the band’s arrangement and set the number aside. That it took an outsider to help the group get the song right 13 years later points the direction Springsteen’s music should head. Too comfortable with the E Streeters, he needs an album-length collaboration with obvious disciples like the Hold Steady or a partnership with more-obscure-but-still-simpatico Black Keys.

Springsteen doesn’t need anyone reverential or deferential. He needs someone like Morello kicking his ass, forcing him to be better. Hopefully these eight tantalizing minutes are the first draft of an upcoming screenplay.

Keep reading:

Review: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (2008)

Review: Rage Against the Machine at Rock the Bells (2007)

Review: Springsteen’s “Dream” Needs More Work

Springsteen in the Waiting Room: Drop the Needle and Pray

Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part 1)

Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part 2)

Book Review: “Big Man” by Clarence Clemons

More Bruce Springsteen on The Daily Record


Review: Modest Mouse


(Above: The Mouse’s pre-show view of the Uptown Theater.)

By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

When Modest Mouse last played Kansas City 18 months ago it was promoting a No. 1 album on a sweltering night at one of the city’s worst outdoor venues (City Market). The band returned on a frigid Monday night to play before a full house at one of Kansas City’s best indoor venues, the Uptown Theater. With no new material to promote, Isaac Brock and his band played whatever they wanted.

The band hit the stage like they were shot out of cannon, launching into a vicious reading of “Bury Me With It” that featured a guitar part that sounded like something from Sonic Youth. With barely a pause, one of the most successful indie rock bands on the scene today tore into a ferocious “Never Ending Math” that set a high bar for the evening to follow.

They were more than up to the task. The six-piece band was on top of its game, stopping and starting and changing dynamics on a dime. Grandaddy guitarist Jim Fairchild, who is sitting in for ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr on this tour, played well off lead singer Brock’s parts, particularly on “Interstate 8” and “Dramamine.” Fairchild even kicked in some vocals on “Satellite Skin.”

Although every performance was impressive, the band was at its best when it could stretch out. Epic performances of “Dramamine,” “The View” and “Breakthrough” built layer on top of hypnotic layer until it felt like the song would explode out of the building.

As powerful as the epics were, the band knew how to bring things down, like during an almost-unplugged version of “Bukowski” in which Brock channeled his inner Bela Fleck on banjo and a lovely bowed bass and accordion solo. Earlier in the evening, “Custom Concern” was a welcome come-down after the intense marathon numbers.

The only concessions to casual fans were “Float On,” which featured a shiny ‘80s keyboard part on the chorus, and a breakneck reading of “Dashboard,” complete with trumpet. Other than that, the evening was devoted to older songs and album cuts like the trippy “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes,” which sounded like an underwater fight with the devil.

The band played too loud and fast to incorporate much audience feedback, but the crowd was more than appreciative. The opening chords to nearly every number drew big cheers of recognition, and while it was impossible to hear anyone singing along, the swaying arms and moving lips were unmistakable signs of approval.

The enthusiasm was infectious. The notoriously and self-admittedly grumpy Brock was clearly having good time. After castigating a fan for requesting older material immediately following a song from their first album, Brock settled down. He showed off the black light posters he purchased the night before in Boulder, Colo. and told an affectionately rambling story about Roger Miller’s “Kansas City Star.” Brock promised to play the song from his iPod for the crowd after the show, but ZZ Top appeared somehow instead. No one complained.

Setlist: Bury Me With It, Never Ending Math, The View, Dramamine, Wild Packs of Family Dogs,Tiny Cities Made of Ashes, Custom Concern, Float On, Bukowski, Interstate 8, All Nite Diner, Parting of the Sensory. Encore: Third Planet, Satellite Skin, Dashboard, Baby Blue Sedan, Black Cadillacs.

Keep reading: A 2007 interview with Isaac Brock.

Modest Mouse: Johnny Strikes Up the Band

Modest Mouse

The Kansas City Star 


Isaac Brock says he isn’t surprised that Modest Mouse hit the mainstream a few years ago. Maybe that’s because he doesn’t really think about it.

“I don’t ask myself why people like an album,” said Brock, who founded the band in 1993. “Thinking about those things doesn’t take up as much of my mental sphere as cleaning my floor.”

In 2004 the band went from underground status to platinum-sellers with “Good News for People Who Love Bad News.”

When it came time to work on the follow-up, “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank,” Brock didn’t worry about what anyone would expect: longtime fans, Top 40 scenesters or record executives at Sony. His lack of concern paid off. Even with two new faces in the band — former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and prodigal founding drummer Jeremiah Green (who quit in 2003) — the record has been a success.

“For me … it’s counterproductive to think about that stuff,” Brock said. “Somehow we are able to leave all of that at the studio door and start from scratch.

“People assume since Johnny’s in the band he’s changed how we did things. But there are six people in this band, and everyone contributes in their own way. We all do it.”

In other words, don’t come to the show expecting “The Queen Is Dead, Part II.”

“It’s a funny thing,” Brock said. “There will definitely be people who show up based on the premise that Johnny is in the band. But our shows are going to be a lot uglier than what the Smiths did.”

Still, Marr’s contributions influence more than the songs he worked on in the studio. Brock said Marr’s impact on the older material is noticeable.

“That’s where we’ve gotten a lot stronger,” Brock said. “I told him that on any song he didn’t have to play it as it had been played before. Make your own canvas. It would have been a waste if I didn’t let him make his own imprint.”

While Marr’s arrival to the Mouse has generated most of the publicity, Brock also welcomed founding drummer Green back after a one-album absence.

“He just needed to take a break,” Brock said, declining to elaborate on why Green left other than saying he “went out of town for a while.”

“Everyone who leaves is welcome to come back,” Brock said, “with some exceptions.”

Brock said he was surprised at the synergy Green has with Modest Mouse’s second drummer, newcomer Joe Plummer.

“We brought Joe in to play percussion, but the way he and Jeremiah have been playing together as drummers is very cool,” Brock said. “It’s much more interesting than I ever expected.”

Making music that is interesting is the only gauge Brock has for his artistic process.

“It would take a change in who I am for me to care too much,” he said. “I’m not much interested in much other than being who I am.”