The Nebraska Project

Our 2006 festival kicked off with a free concert celebrating the 25th anniversary of the classic Bruce Springsteen album, “Nebraska.” An amazing roster of artists (including a very special guest for the encore) joined us at the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden, to interpret the songs from The Boss’ sixth album. 



The New York Times
January 13, 2006
Murders, broken families, lost jobs, last chances and long, late-night drives down dark, lonely Interstates - Bruce Springsteen's album "Nebraska" has something for everyone to feel bad about.
lWhile Mr. Springsteen and his fans have spent the last few months celebrating the 30th-anniversary rerelease of his anthemic 1975 breakthrough, "Born to Run," the New York Guitar Festival has chosen to open its three-week calendar with a tribute to his 1982 cycle of spare, existential folk songs.
In a free concert tomorrow night at the World Financial Center Winter Garden, musicians including Michelle Shocked, the National, Meshell Ndegeocello and Mark Eitzel will perform the entire album, in sequence.
"The first Springsteen record I ever bought was 'Nebraska,' " said David Spelman, the director of the festival, which he founded in 1999. "I was in one part flummoxed by it and in another part fascinated, and really attracted to it."
The New York Guitar Festival includes more than two dozen concerts, seminars and other events at sites around the city. Most will spotlight guitar titans past and present. But while the show tomorrow night will include accompaniment and instrumental interludes from six-string luminaries like Marc Ribot, Vernon Reid and Gary Lucas, the focus will be on Mr. Springsteen's unvarnished album.
"It's probably better for a night like this that it isn't one of the more famous records," said the singer-songwriter Jesse Harris, who will perform the song "Atlantic City." "Because of the nature of the record, it lends itself to interpretation."
The songs on "Nebraska," recorded as four-track demos, feature just Mr. Springsteen's guitar, harmonica and voice. The title track crawls inside the head of an unrepentant killer (inspired by Charles Starkweather, who murdered 11 people in the late 1950's), and the album rarely strikes a sunnier note. It limns one troubled life after another before concluding with a song that observes dryly, "At the end of every hard-earned day, people find some reason to believe." In the wake of what precedes it, the line sounds more ironic than hopeful.
In interviews, some of the participants promised a range of musical settings. Mr. Harris is bringing a band. Ms. Shocked will add horns to "Nebraska." Mr. Lucas promises a "psychedelic electronic" recasting of "State Trooper," inspired by what he called the song's "stark, doom-laden riff." The country-folk singer Laura Cantrell will sing "Used Cars," backed only by guitar and mandolin.
"I'm very curious who will find what and draw what out of these songs," Ms. Cantrell said. "By spreading the songs across very disparate performers, the songs might still retain the dark quality, but it's not going to be unrelentingly bleak."
As a prelude, the Winter Garden is presenting a free miniconcert of songs from the album at 12:30 this afternoon, featuring six local acts chosen from a "Nebraska" battle of the bands at the Bitter End last month.
Mr. Spelman, 39, who organizes and produces music and arts events around the country, said he started the festival to reconnect with the instrument he had played and studied for years - he is a graduate of the New England Conservatory - but then put aside. Inspired by the eclecticism of John Schaefer's radio show "New Sounds" (heard on WNYC, 93.9 FM, nightly at 11), he said, he wanted to showcase the full range of guitar music. With Mr. Schaefer's encouragement and support from sponsors including D'Addario, which manufactures instrument strings, he put together a jubilee that this year has grown to include 65 guitarists.
"It's kind of ballooned into quite an extravaganza," Mr. Spelman said. Proceeds from the festival, which is nonprofit, go to musical outreach programs in New York City schools.
Besides the "Nebraska" tribute, the opening weekend features an eight-hour "Guitar Marathon" on Sunday at the 92nd Street Y, celebrating 450 years of Spanish guitar. Other highlights include tributes to Delta blues legends, live film soundtrack performances and concerts by Bill Frisell, Daniel Lanois and the classical guitarist Stephen Aron.
"Nebraska" is the second album to get the tribute treatment at the festival, following a 2004 salute to Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks." Over the years it has become an entry point into Mr. Springsteen's catalog for people - from folk purists to indie-rockers - who otherwise might consider Mr. Springsteen "too popular to be worth listening to," as Mr. Spelman put it. He allows that he was one of them, until he moved to New Jersey seven years ago, and a friend urged him to give the state bard a chance.
At a rehearsal Monday in the Winter Garden's backstage area, Mr. Spelman and about half the performers in the concert felt their way through a handful of Woody Guthrie verses that will serve as a group finale. Mr. Lucas and Mr. Reid traded licks, while Ms. Cantrell shared lines with Jen Chapin, Dan Zanes and Kevn Kinney. Mr. Spelman told the assembled group that he had contacted Mr. Springsteen's management but did not know if Mr. Springsteen would attend the concert. (A spokeswoman for Mr. Springsteen said he was not available for comment.) By closing with a Guthrie song, Mr. Spelman said, the evening will connect "Nebraska" with the Dust Bowl songs that are its most obvious antecedent.
Mr. Reid, the guitarist for Living Colour, said he thought "Nebraska" was Mr. Springsteen's attempt "to look at another side of the American dream."
"The thing about that record is that it's the America we all try to deny," Mr. Reid said. "I wish other artists of his stature took on what he laid down - a solid, unmitigatable statement."
Ocean Grove's David Spelman salutes Springsteen album at guitar fest
Asbury Park Press
When he inducted U2 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last March, Bruce Springsteen talked at length about the Irish rock band's participation in an iPod TV commercial.
It just so happens that Apple's handy, high-tech music player had a small role in the planning of The Nebraska Project, a celebration of Springsteen's "Nebraska'' album taking place this weekend in Manhattan. The show also will serve as the opening event of this year's New York Guitar Festival.
While jogging from his Ocean Grove home to Asbury Park one day last summer, festival co-founder and artistic director David Spelman was listening to "Nebraska'' on his iPod.
"To put out a record that was really just an acoustic demo in the wake of this mega-hit that was "The River' was really a bold move,'' said Spelman, 39.
When he returned home, Spelman realized that the 25th anniversary of the album's release was approaching. Inspired in part by The Blood on the Tracks Project, a June 2004 show he presented featuring various artists performing the songs from Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks,'' Spelman called a few artists about the idea of reinterpreting "Nebraska'' in concert. After receiving positive feedback, he put the project into motion.
Radio personalities Rita Houston of WFUV-FM (90.7) in New York and Jeff Raspe of WBJB-FM (90.5) in Middletown, whom Spelman contacted about helping to promote The Nebraska Project, suggested artists for him to consider. One of Spelman's picks was former Del Fuegos singer/guitarist Dan Zanes, who will perform "State Trooper'' with guitarist Vernon Reid, a New York Guitar Festival veteran best known for his work with the band Living Colour.
"I can't believe nobody else had claimed it already,'' said Zanes of the song he picked. "I'm really looking forward to the show. It's nice to hang out with other musicians, and of course, I love Bruce Springsteen, so everything about it sounds like fun.''
Reid's view of the "Nebraska'' album is similar to that of Spelman's.
"From a careerist point of view, it was a very risky, lo-fi recording … basically a four-track cassette recording,'' said Reid. "It was an amazing thing to do.''__Saturday's performance of "State Trooper'' will mark the first time Zanes and Reid have played together in public.
"It could go a number of different ways,'' Reid said. "The song is open enough where it could be interpreted in a very traditional way, or it could be radicalized.''
Although "Nebraska'' was released in 1982, holding a 25th birthday celebration this year was "close enough for rock 'n' roll,'' said Spelman. He's already thinking about a national radio broadcast of Saturday's show sometime in the future, and by the time that happens, said Spelman, "Nebraska'' will be 25.
Since 1999, the New York Guitar Festival, co-founded by Spelman and WNYC-FM (93.9) host John Schaefer, has presented a wide range of guitar-focused concerts and raised funds for educational programs.
Salute to Springsteen at the Garden — the Winter Garden, that is
By Nicole Davis
January 13, 2006
Six years ago, the director of New York’s Guitar Festival, David Spelman, bought a home in New Jersey, only to find out it lacked one essential feature: an album by the Garden State’s legendary native son.
“I thought there might be a local ordinance that I own a Springsteen album,” says the 39-year-old guitar impresario. In addition to curating the four-week-long series of concerts devoted to the six-stringed instrument, Spelman also organized the Nebraska Project, the festival’s inaugural event. The free concert this Saturday night at the Winter Garden will feature more than 20 musicians performing songs from Springsteen’s legendary acoustic album, “Nebraska”—the same one Spelman bought as his entry point to The Boss’s catalogue.
photo: nebraska1.jpg“I had read an article that it was his favorite album,” he said, echoing the sentiment of hundreds of fans—not necessarily of Springsteen, but certainly of this early eighties recording. In fact, artists enamored with “Nebraska” have already honored it once before: Sub Pop records released a tribute CD in 2000 that featured singers like Johnny Cash and Aimee Mann covering the album’s 10 songs. The lo-fi opus remains popular in part because it sounds so different from Springsteen’s stadium-sized songs.
“It sounds the way recordings were made decades ago, like some early field recording in a shack in North Carolina,” Spelman says, referring to the way R&B and blues legends like Little Richard and Robert Johnson produced their albums, in one take.
“Nebraska” came about similarly. Recorded on a four-track machine at his home in 1981, Springsteen intended the album to be a demo, then changed his mind and released the spare songs as is. It was everything his anthemic hits on “Born to Run” and “The River” were not—stripped down, mostly acoustic ballads about gritty characters and people on the edge.
“There’s so little there, other than the melodies and the text,” Spelman says. “It’s almost like a tabula rosa.”
Which is exactly what makes these raw recordings ripe for embellishment.
Spelman says he got the idea for this kind of tribute a few years ago at a Central Park concert featuring well-known singers reinterpreting the music of Joni Mitchell. Inspired, he organized an homage to Bob Dylan’s album, “Blood on the Tracks,” in honor of its 30th anniversary last year.
“I realized that formula, paying homage and reinterpreting start to finish an album that means so much to so many people, was a neat idea.”
He revisited it again this year while jogging near his home in Ocean Grove, NJ, a stone’s throw from the Stone Pony, the legendary rock club in Asbury Park where Springsteen played regularly. It hit him that the anniversary for the recording of “Nebraska” was coming upon 25 years, so he started making calls.
“I just got a huge reaction from people, both Springsteen fans, and not. Everyone thought it was such a brave recording.”
Spelman curated the show with an ear toward the musicians’ diversity — a cinch considering the premise of this festival.
“I can’t think of one instrument that is played by so many different people,” says Spelman, who, along with WNYC host John Scaffer, co-founded the guitar festival in 1999. The conservatory-trained classical guitarist once owned a PR firm in the city for music industry clients like PolyGram and RCA/BMG. Now he works as a freelance concert curator.
“There just doesn’t seem to be a corner of the globe that the guitar hasn’t woven its way into.”
Nearly all of the artists he selected for the Nebraska Project were born in the USA, but they encompass almost every genre imaginable: R&B, jazz, punk, rock, country, folk.
Many artists, however, bear some connection to The Boss. Folk singer Michelle Shocked’s first album was recorded on a Sony Walkman, and resembles the “kitchen table style of recording” in ‘Nebraska,’ says Spelman. He also chose The National, one of his favorite bands and Springsteen’s, who uses them as his “walk-in music” at concerts. Spelman wanted to include Chris Whitley, a local New York artist in his 40s who died of cancer this past November. “Over a few days with a single microphone, Whitley made a record named ‘Dirt Floor’ in a shed in Vermont.
“It was so powerful and so immediate that it really relaunched his career,” Spelman said. “Somewhere a couple layers down I’ll be aware that Chris Whitley won’t be a part of this,” he added.
There are plenty of equally talented artists who will, like Mark Eitzel of American Music Club, Chocolate Genius, Lenny Kaye, Me’Shell Ndegéocello, and Martha Wainwright, brother of the more famous Rufus.
“I picked ‘Highway Patrolman,’ she said via cell phone, on her way to a concert in Montreal earlier this week. “I liked the sibling aspect of it very much. And I was touched by the chorus: ‘Nothin’ feels better than blood on blood.’ I guess I was thinking of my brother at the time.”
Wainwright calls herself a huge Springsteen fan. “I remember ‘Nebraska’ really well as a teenager, it was certainly one of my favorite albums. It had these moods to it, and it was not what everyone thought Springsteen was, so it felt special to come across that.”
Country chanteuse Laura Cantrell chose “Used Cars.” At a rehearsal for the show this past Monday, she stood in the cramped dressing room at the Winter Garden while fellow country singer Jen Chapin led a group of guitarists in a twangy, rousing rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Hills.” As she sang, Chapin bounced her four-month old son Maceo on her shoulder and her husband Stephen Crump thumped a stand-up bass beside her. The song will most likely be performed as an encore on Saturday.
The soft-spoken Cantrell, a Nashville native who now lives in Jackson Heights, continued over the sound of the musicians playing in the tiny room, including experimental guitarist Gary Lucas, members of The National, and folk singer Dan Zanes, who strummed the sole mandolin.
“I picked it because I thought there would be less fights over that song. It also had a really great blend of pathos and defiance in it, and being more country oriented, I thought that we could play with that element of it as well.”
Cantrell says she was an 80s Springsteen fan (a la “Born in the U.S.A.”) who didn’t discover “Nebraska” until she started becoming aware of older country music. “I could very easily see that kind of spare, haunted side of country music, like Hank Williams alone with his guitar and harmonica, coming out in what [Springsteen] was doing with that album. It’s always one that I’ve thought of as unique to the rest of his work, so I was thrilled to get asked to join this.”
At the end of the song, while the musicians idly picked their guitars, David Spelman announced that guests should arrive by 7:30 the night of the show. Any later, and there might not be a seat for them in the Winter Garden, which accommodates nearly 2000 people. The only other times the space has been filled to capacity include a New Year’s Eve event in the late 90s, and a concert called “21 Pianos” in 2003.
“We’re expecting an insane amount of people,” said Spelman, clearly delighted that his brainchild was getting so much buzz. As the artists moved from the dressing room to the steps inside the Winter Garden for a photo op, guitar great and Living Color member Vernon Reid explained his connection to “Nebraska.”
“To me, this album was the most nervy thing he’s done. He’d played with the E Street Band, come out with ‘Born to Run,’ but ‘Nebraska’ was totally atypical. It’s truly a lo-fi affair. I wish Prince would do an album like that. I wish Stevie would do an album like that, just him with a piano. Or just him with synthesizers, but just him alone.”
Not everyone has such a deep connection to the album, however. “I think I owned ‘Nebraska’ once, but it was one of those things I lost during a breakup with a girlfriend,” says Marc Ribot, who’ll be performing with Wainwright. Still, Ribot, who had the privilege of sharing studio time with Springsteen while working on his wife Patti Scalfia’s album, “23rd Street Lullaby,” says he admires the man responsible for it.
“Bruce is quite a formidable guitar player,” he says.
As of press time, it was still unclear if The Boss would actually make an appearance at his own tribute. When guitarist Bryce Dessner of The National inquired if Springsteen would show, Spelman sounded slightly optimistic.
“Well, I talked to his management and they said, ‘We think this is beautiful what you’re doing, and we wish you the best of luck.’”
Vernon Reid laughed. “When they wish you luck, they’re not coming.”
Still, the musicians agreed to save a verse of “Oklahoma Hills” for Springsteen just in case he does.
Here are some links to other articles and reviews of the concert:
photo: nebraska1.jpg photo: nebraska2.jpg photo: nebraska3.jpg photo: nebraska4.jpg photo: nebraska5.jpg
photo: nebraska6.jpg
Six hours of soundchecks began around
photo: nebraska7.jpg
David Spelman + festival General
Manager, AJ Benson, try their best to
keep it a secret that The Boss is on
his way to the show.
photo: nebraska8.jpg
Michelle Shocked—“Nebraska”
photo: nebraska9.jpg
Jesse Harris—“Atlantic City”
photo: nebraska10.jpg
Kerryn Tolhurst (dobro) and David
Spelman (guitar) performing an
instrumental interlude.
photo: nebraska11.jpg
Matt Berninger + Aaron Dessner of
The National, performing “Mansion
on the Hill”
photo: nebraska12.jpg
Marc Anthony Thompson (a.k.a.
Chocolate Genius Inc.)—“Johnny 99”
photo: nebraska13.jpg
Harry Manx plays the mohan veena.
photo: nebraska14.jpg
Marc Ribot + Martha Wainwright—
“Highway Patrolman”
photo: nebraska15.jpg
Jen Chapin + Stephan Crump, perform
“Born in the USA
photo: nebraska16.jpg
Harry Manx doing “I’m on Fire” on a
cigar box guitar
photo: nebraska17.jpg
Vernon Reid + Dan Zanes doing
“State Trooper”
photo: nebraska18.jpg
Laura Cantrell—“Used Cars”
photo: nebraska19.jpg
Gary Lucas
photo: nebraska20.jpg
The American Music Club’s Mark Eitzel
—“My Father’s House.”
photo: nebraska21.jpg
Kevn Kinney (Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’) & Lenny
Kaye (Patti Smith Band)—“Reason to Believe”
photo: nebraska22.jpg
An unexpected guest joins the band
for Woody Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Hills”
photo: nebraska23.jpg photo: nebraska24.jpg photo: nebraska25.jpg photo: nebraska26.jpg photo: nebraska27.jpg
photo: nebraska28.jpg
WFUV’s John Platt interviews our
unexpected guest.
photo: nebraska30.jpg photo: nebraska31.jpg photo: nebraska32.jpg photo: nebraska33.jpg
Photos 8 - 21, 25 and 26 by Jim McCarthy ( All others by Glyn Emmerson.
Here are some links to more photos from the show, taken by fans:
...and even some amateur video:
The Boss & Maceo Crump (Jen Chapin
and Stephan Crump’s baby boy) share
a moment.
Bookmark and Share