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Bruce Springsteen Wrote Freedom Songs

My wife and I road-tripped to Little Rock last weekend to see Waxahatchee, the Alabama-rooted/New York-based indie rock band fronted by Katie Crutchfield.

Waxahatchee’s latest album, Out in the Storm, was one of my very favorites from last year. It tightens Crutchfield’s singer-songwriter tendencies into rock-and-roll. Riffs, beats, and bass lines conspire to elevate a song-cycle about a relationship seen clearly in Crutchfield’s rear-view. It’s half-an-hour long, and nearly a year and dozens of spins later, its tricks still work.

Waxahatchee was playing a double-headliner tour with Hurray for the Riff Raff, a roostier band fronted by Bronx-raised Puerto Rican singer Alynda Segarra. I’d seen Segarra once before, but solo, in an outdoor setting with questionable sound. Waxahatchee was the pull; Hurray for the Riff Raff was a nice bonus.

As it turned out, even making the club a few minutes before 9:30, we missed the first three-or-four songs of Waxahatchee’s middle set. When Crutchfield grew annoyed at the loud talking during her quieter numbers, she pulled the plug on the show a few songs short. It was a disappointment. Hurray for the Riff Raff made it not matter.

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Segarra’s crack band blended Latin rhythms, soul cadences, folk melodies. This is an Americana I want to hear. Her music and stage presence echoed, at various times, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Debbie Harry.

They played in front of a big banner with the words WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER and played songs that fit the theme: “Rican Beach,” surveying a theft and devastation grown worse since the song was written. “Hungry Ghost,” dedicated to “all the queers.” “Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl,” about life impervious to a male gaze. “Living in the City,” a Lou Reed-meets-Woody Guthrie paean-of-sorts to city life. And the closing “Pa’Lante,” both exhortation and comfort, translating as “onward” or “forward.”

In contrast to their tourmates, Hurray for the Riff Raff played this small club in this small city like they were in the midst of a world-altering triumph, and when they bounded back onto the stage for an encore, I wondered how they’d follow themselves.

The first notes were familiar and my immediate thought was don’t be a tease, don’t be a tease.

It wasn’t. They played Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” and I’m convinced that of the thousands if not millions of songs known to humankind none would have been as perfect in this moment.

Here they are playing it at another club, on another night:

“Dancing in the Dark” is Springsteen’s most successful single, from his most successful album, 1984’s Born in the USA. And while I’ll argue with anyone that it’s also his best album, it’s not as fashionable a taste today as some of the records that came before. The keyboard riffs and booming drums suggest a specific time, a specific studio-to-radio sound. It’s harder to be romantic about that music than about Born to Run, for instance.

But Hurray for the Riff Raff didn’t play it tongue-in-cheek. They didn’t play it nostalgic. They weren’t amused with themselves. They played it as an anthem that bundled up all of the feelings of their preceding set and launched them skyward, like a shot from a confetti cannon.

“I ain’t nothing but tired/I’m just tired and bored with myself”

“You can’t start a fire/Can’t start a fire without a spark”

“There’s something happening somewhere/Baby, I just know there is”

“You say you gotta stay hungry/Hey, baby, I’m just about starving tonight”

The song is struggle as celebration. Personal as political. Dancing in the dark as an expression of defiance.

My favorite moment of 2018 is likely to remain the sight of Hurray for the Riff Raff’s keyboard player, Sarah Goldstone, bouncing along, playing these don’t-call-them-corny riffs, smiling to herself.

This was the best, most righteous, and most perfect cover I’d heard since … another Bruce Springsteen cover by another contemporary female singer at least partly representing a marginalized community.

Memphis’ Julien Baker covered Springsteen’s “Badlands,” from 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, backstage at the Newport Folk Festival a couple of years ago:

As is common with Baker, she starts tentative and grows, finding herself in the song, talking herself into it, before nearly coming undone at the end, in a final verse that grips you with both hands:

For the ones who had a notion

A notion deep inside

That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive

I wanna find one face that ain’t looking through me

I wanna find one place

I wanna spit in the face of these badlands

Springsteen has long transcended his generation. But his music is still mostly associated with straight white guys like him, like me. Segarra and Baker claim this music. Take it somewhere else.

I used to think “Rosalita” and “Thunder Road” were the best Bruce Springsteen songs. Much like the signature “Born to Run,” they are thrilling, but there’s just so much Bruce Springsteen in them. There’s so much of the moment of their creation in them.

Now I think the best Bruce Springsteen songs are “Dancing in the Dark” and “Badlands.” They are about right now. They are about tomorrow. They are the folk songs that inspired him. They belong fully to anyone who’s singing them, or anyone who’s singing along. They belong to you and to me and to Julien Baker and to Alynda Segarra.

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