Houserockers give Bruce different sound

Music isn’t just notes. Each player brings something special, something distinctive to the overall sound.

I’ve known that for a long time, but it’s nice to be reminded of it.

I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen solo. I’ve seen him with the E Street Band. I even saw a couple shows in the early ’90s with his non-E Street “Human Touch”/”Lucky Town” band.

But last Thursday was the first chance I had to see him in Pittsburgh playing with Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers.

It was the first of two shows at Soldiers and Sailors Hall, a venue about a tenth the size of the one he played with the E Street Band in Pittsburgh on April 22 or where I saw him in Columbus a week before that. They’ve played there a few times since 2010, when Springsteen and Grushecky celebrated the 15th anniversary of Grushecky’s “American Babylon” album, which Springsteen produced. Considering the size of the venue, the tickets go fast (if I hadn’t gotten a text from friend and Ticket contributor John Patrick Gatta, who was at the April 22 show where the performances were announced, I wouldn’t have known tickets were going on sale the next morning and would have been shut out once again).

Seeing him a month apart with two different bands, I was struck by how different the two shows were.

Springsteen’s tour with the E Street Band wrapped May 18, just a few days before the show. Springsteen couldn’t have had more than a couple rehearsals with the Houserockers before taking the stage around 8:45 p.m., but it was impressive how the well the players meshed on stage. While there were some sloppy moments, Grushecky and his guys adeptly handled the Springsteen material, and Springsteen took an active role on Grushecky’s songs. The banter between Springsteen and Grushecky before and during “I Still Look Good (for Sixty)” and Bruce’s “Frankie Fell in Love” were among the night’s many highlights.

And maybe it’s because there are as many as 19 people on stage at an E Street show these days (when Steve Van Zandt and Patti Scialfa are in attendance), but Springsteen’s guitar playing really stood out last week with a more stripped-down lineup. He wailed on “Adam Raised a Cain” more memorably than he did in Columbus on the same song, and there were several times he showed how he’s learned how to make that old Telecaster talk.

Still, there were little differences in the Bruce standards. The voice and the guitar were the same on “The Promised Land” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” but the songs had a different feel, a different groove because it wasn’t Max Weinberg on the drums and Garry W. Tallent on the bass. It felt a little like hearing a really good tribute band fronted by a great Springsteen clone. I left with respect for Grushecky’s band and a greater appreciation for what the E Street Band adds to Springsteen’s sound.

Springsteen always has rewarded the return concertgoer. According to the Backstreets website, Springsteen and the E Street Band played 182 different songs in the 34 concerts in 2014. He continued the trend this past week. “Leavin’ Train,” from the “Tracks” box set, was played live for the first time ever, and there were other rarities (“Two for the Road,” “Kingdom of Days,” “Savin’ Up,” “Hearts of Stone”) and oldies (“Mary Queen of Arkansas,” a gorgeous solo acoustic guitar version of “Incident on 57th Street” to end the night) last Thursday. And at least 10 songs were played Friday that weren’t played the first night.

There are no concerts currently on Springsteen’s itinerary. And there’s a lot of speculation that a long vacation (and maybe back problems, judging by how gingerly Springsteen was moving at times) could keep him off the road for the next year or longer. But whenever and wherever he returns, I’ll be there – just like the ghost of Tom Joad.

Andy Gray is the entertainment writer for the Tribune Chronicle. Write to him at