Bob Dylan. Nick Cave. Leonard Cohen. What have they all got in common, apart from the obvious? The obvious being, of course, I’ve been involved in organising tribute nights to all of them. And now, it’s Bruce Springsteen’s turn to be inducted into the Fergusonian Hall of Rock and Roll Fame: mark Saturday, 25th November in your diary, because that’s when you can hear four of Edinburgh’s finest bands pay tribute to the Boss.
However, this night’s very far from being about me. For a start, I think it was legendary guitarist Kenny Mackay who first suggested it, and despite being involved in other bands, he’s been drawn back into Isaac Brutal for the night to add his own unique axe-troubling style to our set.
Secondly, though, this wasn’t exactly the hardest sell in the world to other musicians. Leith Depot’s a great wee venue – the Brutals had a great time, and arguably gave one of our best performances there, back in March, when we supported Véloniños along with Elvera and the Arcatis. And Bruce’s songs – well…
I remember, back when I was a student, reading a review of a Nils Lofgren album, that said something like, ‘If you think all Springsteen songs are about, girls, speed and night, listen to Nils Lofgren.’ Back in the early 80s, it was perhaps easy to categorise a lot of Springsteen songs that way, and I grew up listening to those classic early albums Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and The River.
In many ways he made much more sense as a hero for me than Dylan, whose own first imperial phase coincided with my drooling a lot, throwing food, and generally being a toddler. Born to Run, on the other hand, hit the record shops (as they were known then) in 1975, when I was 13; Darkness on the Edge of Town when I was 16, that year of rebellion and ridiculously hard maths exams. Complicating things at the time were bands like the Stranglers proclaiming that there were no such things as heroes (No More Heroes being released a year later, in 1977). It was interesting to read more recently that Springsteen was acutely aware of punk’s rise, and was painstaking in his song choice for Darkness (still one of my favourite albums) to reflect the rock n’ roll toughness that he tuned into, coming from the likes of the Ramones.
As I think I’ve said before, I’ve never quite forgiven two of my Uni pals for going off and queuing for tickets to see Springsteen at the Playhouse when he toured The River. To be fair, I suppose, mobile phones hadn’t been invented then, so getting me down there too would’ve involved one of them chancing his place in the queue to run to the phone box on Greenside Place, remembering my number out of his own head, phoning the payphone on my floor in student halls, and hoping someone would pick up that wasn’t too drunk or too stoned to pass the message on. Not surprising really, then, that I missed what was to be my last chance to see The Boss outside of a stadium gig.
Those are just my few reflections on his early work. However, you’ll all have memories of the vast Springsteen canon, and how it first touched you: the huge, gated drums and synth intro of Born in the USA, for example, misappropriated by the Reagan campaign, much to Bruce’s Democrat-voting chagrin; the more downbeat, reflective early 90s albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town; or the haunting, Steinbeck-inspired Ghost of Tom Joad. Springsteen’s work perhaps doesn’t have the sprawling span of some of the other greats, but it’s certainly harder to categorise than being all girls, speed and night.
And of course he’s still working: his latest album, High Hopes, came out in 2014, and besides a well-received autobiography he’s currently performing an 8-week run of his songs interspersed with the stories behind them on Broadway – coincidentally, ending the day after our tribute night.
In the lead up to Bruce Almighty I hope to bring you some interviews with members of the bands that are providing your night’s entertainment on Saturday 25th. In the meantime, feel free to share your own comments and thoughts on the Boss, his music, and anything else you feel like, really!
Bruce Springsteen and the Isaac Brutal Band
In the lead up to Bruce Almighty, I hope to interview some of the guys n’ gals bringing you the noise on the night. We start with not one, not two, but three members of the band that backs the man we call The Boss, Isaac Brutal (pictured above): Graham Crawford, the band’s resident lead guitarist, producer and player of any instrument you throw at him; lead singer Emma Emz Gow; and on bass, the legend that is Murray Ramone…
How did you first meet Bruce Springsteen – what song, or album, was your first encounter with him?
Graham: Norman Rodger introduced me to Bruce Springsteen in 1980. He was a big fan and I was a fan of Norman’s band TV21. (Norman will also be performing on the night, with his band The Normans – Ed)
Murray: Born to Run in the 70’s, thanks to an older brother.
Emma: 1993/94, when I first saw the movie Philadelphia, the title track for which was written and performed by Bruce. Great movie, great soundtrack. I was just hitting my teens and finding my own taste in music at that point.
(Mr Ramone in action, at Jeffest5 this summer. Photo: Vikki McCraw)
You’re a band known for its own, unique, original material. What attracted you to doing a Springsteen tribute?
Graham: We will play any gig we are offered. I can’t remember the last time we said no.
Murray: We were asked. Personally I hate doing covers, but as I’m not the main writer in the band it’s always someone else’s song I’m adding bass to. I treat it the same way, think about what I’m going to do, not what the demo or in this case the original does.
Emma: We were invited to do it, but it was also an opportunity I jumped at, a) because the material is so different to what we as a band would normally do, and b) because I love a challenge and the idea of being The Boss for an evening appealed to me.
(The band in full flow at Henry’s Cellar Bar. Photo: Kenny Mackay)
Unfortunately, the E Street Band were unavailable on the 25th. Tell us a little about your band. Do the Springsteen songs fit your sound, or have you changed your usual sound (instrument wise or otherwise) to fit what you imagined for the songs?
Graham: There’s a lot of us in this band and we like to layer up the sound of the band in a similar way to the E Street Band. Playing other bands’ music gives us a chance to explore what we are all doing. When we first start on a project like this it sounds chaotic until we all work out how our own instruments fit in with the overall sound. Working out the details in someone else’s song is fun and keeps us interested. When we go back to our own songs we can add in what we have learned.
Murray: Any good song will work in any style.
Emma: Isaac Brutal are very much a country punk band with a penchant for bile black humour and great story telling. I guess great story telling is something we have in common with the Boss. We didn’t really change anything to fit the style of the songs though. We were lucky to have Kenny involved to help us pick, and play lead guitar for our set as he is a massive fan. But have we changed anything? No, not really. It’s just been an exercise in versatility for us.
(Mr Crawford, also rocking out at JF5. Photo: Vikki McCraw)
Any songs that didn’t make the cut? Any you wish you could do, but feel you can’t?
Graham: Kenny and Mark choose the songs. I am a hired hand just like members of the E Street Band.
Murray: I’d tackle something off Born in the USA. The songs would be much improved without the terrible bombastic production.
Emma: Kenny and Mark picked the set. I genuinely hadn’t heard any of these songs until a few months ago, but I have grown to love them. I wanted to do Thunder Road and was overruled. Probably a good thing in the end as we’ve had to work hard enough on the songs we did wind up going with and they are simpler. (Plus the harmonica solo’s tougher than you’d think – Ed.)
(Emma: Jeffest5 again. Photo: Vikki McCraw)
Finally, any news about your band you’d like to share with us – any albums/tours/interesting merch available on the night?
Graham: Not 1 but 2 albums in the can waiting to be released. Both are sounding very good and it is a fight to see which will be released first.
Emma: Our album The Falcon Has Landed is coming soon, the release of which will undoubtedly coincide with an album launch show early next year at some point (but don’t quote me on that). Also, Prostitutes, Junkies and Bums, an acoustic side project mostly by Mark and Andrew but featuring some work by myself, Graham and Stuart Munro is just about ready to go too. We may or may not have CDs available at the merch table….?