When he emerged more than a half century ago as an ambitious young musician, Bob Seger was among several acts, including The Stooges and The MC5, who typified the nascent hard-rock sound emanating from Detroit. But he soon stood out, thanks to constant touring and, most of all, a seemingly endless supply of gritty songs filled with blue-collar themes, catchy riffs and driving beats. He also had a knack for memorable ballads.
Within a decade, Seger had become a working-class hero to a generation of Americans who heard their perennially youthful dreams and frustrations in the lyrics of his song. And it was those life-affirming moments that thousands had a chance to enjoy once again when Seger played an overflowing PNC Arts Center in Holmdel on June 1, as part of his retirement tour.
Backed by his aptly named Silver Bullet Band, Seger didn’t disappoint. Sounding full-throated and displaying genuine enthusiasm for an adoring crowd, he turned out hit after hit during a show that covered a few of his earliest fan favorites to songs that have entered the pantheon of popular American culture.
From the opening notes of “Shakedown,” a straight-ahead rocker, to the plaintive aching for an out-of-reach woman memorialized in “Main Street,” Seger pushed all the right buttons. He veered from fast tunes, where he prowled the stage and strutted among the band members, to slow, soothing numbers, some of which found him strumming an acoustic guitar or playing the piano. He also avoided his lesser-known songs, smartly building momentum as if shoving quarters into a jukebox.
The audience ate it up. They were on their feet most of the night. They roared in appreciation when he offered up anecdotes. And they often sang along — not just belting out choruses, but sometimes full verses — on numerous songs, including “The Fire Down Below,” “You’ll Accompany Me” and “Turn the Page.” Their collective voices were particularly poignant as Seger sang “Beautiful Loser,” a song about questioning the wisdom in trying to have it all.
Of course, no one can have it all and, despite the warm rush of nostalgia, the message reverberated. Like his fans, Seger is older now. He’s 74, and the flowing dark brown hair that raced album covers decades ago is long gone and nearly all white. He wears wire-rim glasses — at least he does onstage — and leaves the electric guitar playing to his band. But other than a couple of moments where he had to work a little harder to reach a note, his presence itself reinforced the realistic lessons in his songs that life is to be lived.
This was especially true as he performed one of his most popular hits, “Against the Wind,” an extremely catchy and wistful song about lost youth and the passage of time. It was as if, for a few brief minutes, an entire amphitheater full of people were able to reach back in time, recall distant hopes and recognize the need to adjust.
Such moments were balanced, though, by a plethora of good time rockers that otherwise made the night feel like a party – “Old Time Rock and Roll,” “Travelin’ Man” and “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” were highlights. (Unfortunately, he did not play a few other chestnuts of a similar vein: ‘Heavy Music,’ which in 1967 was his first hit, “Katmandu” or “Get Out of Denver.”)
For the most part, the songs were identical to those played on other shows of this tour, which Seger has said will be his last. However, he did veer from the usual set list to play “Downtown Train,” a Tom Waits classic that Seger recorded 20 years ago. He offered this a gesture for the New Jersey and New York audience, since we have a lot of trains in our area. Seger also gave a nod to New Jersey, specifically, by dedicating the song to two high-profile residents — Brian Williams and Bruce Springsteen — who were in attendance, although Springsteen remained offstage.
Of course, no review of a Seger concert is complete without mentioning the musicians and singers who created the invigorating nighttime sounds.
The Silver Bullet Band includes, most prominently, long-time saxophonist Alto Reed (Thomas Cartmell) plus four other horn players; a wonderful rhythm section in bassist Chris Campbell and drummer Greg Morrow; and three guitarists (Rob McNelley, Jim Brown and Mark Chatfield). On keyboards was Craig Frost, who was a member of another Detroit band, Grand Funk Railroad. And let’s not forget the back-up singers: Shaun Murphy (formerly of Little Feat), Laura Creamer, Barbara Payton.
At times, the effect was like listening to an old time rock ‘n’ soul revue.
Not surprisingly, the evening ended with two of Seger’s most popular and enduring songs: “Night Moves,” a radio staple that is still another ode to the past, and “Rock and Roll Never Forgets,” which gave the crowd one last chance to assert their belief that what drove them in their youth can continue to live on.
Sweet 16 may have turned 61, but for at least one night, Seger delivered on that promise: Rock ‘n’ roll just doesn’t forget.
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