Various Artists: A MusiCares Tribute to Bruce Springsteen

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Various Artists
A MusiCares Tribute to Bruce Springsteen
4 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

“I am here to pay tribute to Bruce Springsteen, because he is awesome, and I love him.” These words — uttered by The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart at the opening of an all-star tribute to The Boss — surely ring familiar to just about anyone who’s considered him or herself a fan of American music in the last 40 years. He’s on the shortlist of America’s greatest songwriters, and one of the most captivating musical storytellers of all time. Popular music, as we know it, would not look like it does today had Springsteen never chronicled the exploits of hard-luck characters doing their best to survive and, if they’re lucky, make it out of Jersey alive.

In 2013, Stewart and a long list of performers across numerous musical genres honored Springsteen — MusiCares’ Person of the Year, who is chosen annually for his or her dedication to philanthropy. That two-plus hour concert and ceremony is captured on a new, impressively produced DVD that displays just how wide a reach his music has had since he first sent an LP-sized postcard from Asbury Park.

One thing that the MusiCares tribute proves, above all else, is how strong Springsteen’s songs are — no matter who’s playing them. It’s hard to ruin one of the Boss’ tunes, and while not every artist here entirely succeeds (Ken Casey’s take on “American Land” is rote Celtic punk, natch), the best performances of the bunch — as with the best of any covers — are those in which the artists make the songs their own. For Patti Smith, that’s a gimmie — “Because the Night” is pretty much already her song, which makes her umpteenth performance of it an early highlight. Emmylou Harris’ reading of “My Hometown” is gentle and gorgeous; Jim James and Tom Morello turn up the volume on a rousing version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (which Morello performed in different fashion with Rage Against the Machine); John Legend turns “Dancing In the Dark” into a haunting and hushed ballad; and Neil Young and Crazy Horse juice up “Born In the U.S.A.” with their characteristic noise and mayhem — and two cheerleaders translating with sign language.

Of course, nobody would be more appropriate to close the show than Springsteen, himself, backed by the E Street Band. And while there’s a number of impressive covers leading up to the climactic closing set, it’s only through watching Bruce himself perform “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run” that it really hits home just how singular he is as a performer. No disrespect to Kenny Chesney or Mumford & Sons, but as air-tight as Springsteen’s songs are, nobody plays them better than he does.

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