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Monday, February 13, 2017

A STUDY: Bruce Springsteen Sings "You Never Can Tell"


I don't often watch "You won't believe what happens next" videos -- largely because they rarely live up to the hype, but also because I don't like encouraging clickbait. But when a post circulated showing a piece of a Bruce Springsteen concert where he improvised a song he'd never played, I did stop to look.

Heck, I'm fascinated by music. What can I say.

Now, one point. While I was absolutely delighted that the Boss and his band could pull together "You Never Can Tell" with just a few minutes of prior discussion, I totally believed it. These are performers with decades of experience, it's more popular than ever thanks to Pulp Fiction, and it has a pretty basic chord structure that any skilled musician can follow after the first playthrough.

What amazed me wasn't that they did it -- what amazed me was the showmanship of it. And that's what I want to break down for you.

First, watch the vid. All of it. It's nine minutes, but it's worth it. Don't skip anything, especially the beginning.


Back? Okay. First off, that was awesome, huh?

Now, let's talk about the layers and layers of things done right.

The very first thing Springsteen did right was accepting the song. He could have turned it back and said "This isn't one of ours." He could have done that politely, even, and gotten away with it. But he didn't. He took it, made a slight joke about it, and then just continued. No hesitation, no surprise, just "Let's get a good key."

The people who passed the link around talked about the band looking bewildered, but there wasn't much of that. Steve did make a few faces, sure, but that was more judging the choice of key as Springsteen decided that he was completely okay just smacking against the top of his vocal range.

Secondly, he kept vocal. He never went off his mic except to switch guitars. Anything he worked out, he did publicly. He didn't let the audience get bored. He let them hear everything he was doing.

And speaking of the audience, he made them complicit. Check out the bit with the horns. They had one of the tougher parts when it came to falling into step with the rest of the band. But he took time to make sure they got their part down. How? He turned it into a game, and had the audience help. With the audience engaged, this gave the horns time to get in sync without boring anyone, and it eliminated the issue of those musicians potentially being (unfairly) seen as "less quick" than the rest because the audience was too busy playing along.

Something non-musicians might not know, incidentally -- having the melody line sung to them a few times, paired with the basic knowledge of the era of the song, is enough for a skilled musician to be ready to jam along. One of the nice things about "You Never Can Tell" is it comes from an era of rock when the chord progression was pretty easy to nail.

Now, speaking of the horns -- Springsteen spent a ton of time with the audience training them, and then what does he do? Call them down for solos. So just in case there was anyone in the audience considering them slowbies, that was wiped away entirely.

End result? An amazing piece, for one thing. But also a perfect study of how to deal with something unexpected like this.

Am I surprised that Springsteen did this? Of course not. In fact, there's a big part of me that's convinced he doesn't even remotely realize all the steps he took to make things right. This was probably all second nature to him. You don't get this popular as a performer without learning this stuff, and after all this time, things like this are probably automatic and take zero thought.

And the most important thing -- the thing I've gotta learn -- even when having a curve ball thrown at him, he never acted like he'd had a curve ball thrown at him. Even surprises were under his control. It inspires a level of confidence and security.

Hard won, that. But impressive. And something to keep in mind.