Towards the end of last night’s Bruce Springsteen tribute concert at Carnegie Hall, seventy-seven-year-old folk legend Odetta was wheeled onstage, only to launch into Bruce Springsteen’s single worst song ever: “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On).” Accompanied only by a piano player she delivered a rendition that was part spoken-word and part Woody Guthrie talking blues. It was hypnotic. Immediately afterwards, Brooklyn indie rockers the Hold Steady took the stage and played the most joyous version of “Atlantic City” I’ve ever seen. Dancing around like Talking Heads-era David Byrne on speed, frontman Craig Finn delivered the sorrowful tale of a desperate man like it was “Joy to the World.” If not for the show’s finale, it would have been the greatest performance of the night.
The show — a benefit concert for the children’s charity Music For Youth — began with Steve Earle’s stark solo acoustic take on the title track from Nebraska. Soon after, last-minute addition Patti Smith (who replaced Jewel on the evening’s all-star bill) sang a stripped-down “Because the Night” accompanied only by a pianist. “This song has followed me through my days,” an emotional Smith said of the tune she co-wrote with Bruce in 1978. “At times it’s even rescued me.” Other highlights included the Elysian Field’s slowed-down, sensual version of “Streets of Fire,” Marah’s amped up take on “The Rising” and Badly Drawn Boy a.k.a. Damon Gough’s ebullient run-through of “Thunder Road.” The Jersey Guys (an elderly vocal group featuring Frankie Valli’s brother Bobby) did a doo-wop “Jersey Girl.” It was unclear whether or not they realized it was actually a Tom Waits song.
After the Hold Steady finished, there was an odd moment of stillness on the stage. And then the evening’s announcer said, “What if I were a genie in the bottle and could grant you one wish?” Everybody the hall jumped to their feet and yelled “BRUUUUUCE,” as the man of the evening (unbilled but widely rumored to appear) ran on stage with an acoustic guitar and harmonica rack. He gave a brief speech about how he felt like a ghost hovering above his own funeral all night before playing a slowed-down version of “The Promised Land,” followed by a rare solo acoustic “Rosalita.” He paused in the middle to give an update on the song’s protagonist — who in later years “broke up the band and wrote happy songs that nobody liked.” He then called all the night’s performers back onstage for a full-band rendition of “Rosalita.” Finn, Gough and Jesse Malin all took verses as Bruce played guitar, sang harmony and grinned from ear to ear.