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Aoife O'Donovan and Friends Offer Fresh Take on Springsteen's Nebraska

Any night you find yourself standing 15 feet from a harmony-singing Emmylou Harris is a good night.

The show was Aoife O’Donovan at the Basement East in Nashville, singing Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” song for song. I’ve always loved the album, and Mary was game enough. I’d heard of O’Donovan – her first name is pronounced “EE-fuh” – and associated her with lovely harmonies, which was intriguing given the bleak texture of “Nebraska.”

It turns out it was a Covid thing – an album O’Donovan always loved that she decided to perform and live-stream from home during the pandemic. Such was the response that a vinyl version was cut, a tour was planned, and there we stood Sunday night.

Springsteen’s sixth album was released in 1982, after “The River” and before he exploded from stardom to global super-stardom with “Born in the U.S.A” in 1984. It was recorded by Bruce himself, at home on a four-track machine, meant to be a demo for the E Street Band to learn the songs. They worked on it. And the "Electric Nebraska" sessions are now a coveted bootleg in the Springsteen underground. But Bruce decided to release the demo as is - literally taking a cassette tape he'd been carrying around in his pocket without a case and turning it over to the engineers. Count me among the many who consider it a masterpiece.

As we now know from many interviews and his rightfully acclaimed memoir, “Born to Run,” Springsteen was tortured by his own relationship with his depressed and emotionally distant father, and by his guilt at avoiding the Vietnam war while so many of his contemporaries served and suffered. You can hear these themes throughout his early recordings, especially “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “The River.” They hit you over the head in “Nebraska,” a 10-song catalogue of dark characters in dark settings looking for redemption and forgiveness.

I was a little worried that O’Donovan would put more of an emphasis on “making the album her own,” as artists often do, with mixed results. Her opening act, The Westerlies, didn’t assuage this fear. They are a brilliant, artsy, brass quartet and did a great set. But it wasn’t exactly the set-up you expect for “Nebraska.” Westerlies trombonist Willem de Koch admitted as much, describing a heckler from an earlier show in Chicago who, as a beautiful final brass chord hung in the air, could be heard to say: “I didn’t pay to hear this shit.” (Let the record show the Westerlies were great. Just not what we expected.)

But O’Donovan soon emerged with a guitar over her shoulder onto a stage that contained one microphone and one stool. So it looked like she would at least honor the sparseness of the original recording. She talked briefly about her love for “Nebraska,” which was recorded the year she was born.

“I first heard it sitting in the back seat of my dad’s car and I was terrified,” she told the crowd. “I was terrified of the New Jersey Turnpike!”

Then she told us to “buckle up,” and strummed her way into the ominous lyrics of the first song.

I saw her standing on her front lawn just a twirlin’ her baton

Me and her went for a ride, and 10 innocent people died

The eponymous first track on the album is based on the true story of 19-year-old spree killer Charles Starkweather, and his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. Bruce sets the tone for much of the album with the last line of the song, in the voice of Starkweather.

They wanted to know why I did what I did

Well, sir, I guess there's just a meanness in this world

What I liked was that O’Donovan didn’t just try to imitate Bruce, nor did she try too hard to differentiate her versions. She simply performed the songs with passion and commitment, in a beautiful, strong voice. It brought them to life.

One highlight was “Highway Patrolman,” which she said she considers the centerpiece of the album. It tells the story of two brothers, one a troubled Vietnam veteran and the other a police officer who avoided the draft because of a farm deferment. It ends with one brother running from the other after a deadly bar fight. The "good" brother finally pulls over his police car and watches the taillights disappear. You could say, as O'Donovan did, that it's about "the power of family." But it's really about atonement, and the pain of scrubbing away at a guilty stain that won't come out.

One of my favorite songs on the album is “Used Cars,” the retelling of a child’s shame at his family’s poverty. O’Donovan brought out her friend Sarah Jarosz - also one of her partners in the band I'm With Her - to sing it with her.

Now, my ma, she fingers her wedding band

And watches the salesman stare at my old man’s hands

He's tellin’ us all about the break he’d give us

If he could but he just can’t

Well if I could, I swear I know just what I’d do

Well mister the day the lottery I win

I ain’t never gonna ride in no used car again

O'Donovan and Jarosz are a beautiful combination. You should check out their other work.

The real highlight, though, was when O’Donovan brought out Emmylou. It's not the first show we've been to where Harris, who lives in Nashville, has been called out for a song. O’Donovan called her version of “My Father’s House” her favorite of the many covers of Nebraska songs, and the crowd gasped, then erupted when she walked out.

“Only in Nashville,” I heard a woman say behind me.

The song first retells a dream of struggling through thick brush to reach “my father’s house,” and falling into his arms. The narrator then wakes and visits the real house, only to be told “no one by that name lives here anymore."

Harris’ deep harmony anchored the somber final verse.

My father’s house shines hard and bright

It stands like a beacon calling me in the night

Calling and calling, so cold and alone

Shining across the dark highway, where our sins lie unatoned

It's a bleak song, but thankfully not the last on the album. And O'Donovan brought back Jarosz as well as the Westerlies for an uplifting rendition of "Reason to Believe." Not to be confused with Rod Stewart's version, it seems to be Springsteen wondering, with a wry smile, how people are hopeful after all the things he's just been singing about.

Struck me kind a funny

Funny, yeah, indeed

How at the end of every hard-earned day

People find some reason to believe

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