Aoife O’Donovan (Photo by Omar Cruz)
As an artist, Aoife O’Donovan told the audience during her most recent show at The Birchmere, she is “always chasing the concept of the album as a complete story,” where all the stories told by the individual songs come together in a cohesive narrative. Bruce Springsteen’s dark, brooding classic record Nebraska, she said, is a “perfect example.”
The Birchmere was Aoife’s first stop on her current USA tour, playing Nebraska in its entirety. It was also her first time doing this on American soil since performing it in New York in 2011. During the pandemic, she livestreamed a performance of the album for her fans, and she now has released it as a limited edition LP.
Nebraska naturally lends itself to a solo acoustic performance like Aoife’s performance at The Birchmere on March 15. Released in 1982, the album was recorded almost entirely on a 4-track Tascam tape recorder by Springsteen, working mostly by himself. These tapes were originally intended to be the demos for a full-band album, but Springsteen realized that, because of its somber mood, the album was best served by this format. And somber it is: These are stories not just of rebels but of outright psychopaths and murderers, tales of corrupt law enforcement officers who abuse their power.
As critic and musician (songwriter and vocalist for The Paranoid Style) Elizabeth Nelson, a sometime resident of the DMV, has noted, the integration of the songs on the album is exceptional. Lines reappear from song to song, but rather than being bothersome repetition, it serves to enforce the sense of the record as a unified piece of art.
O’Donovan performed the record in its running order, beginning with the title track. Before she began, she warned the audience, “If you don’t like Bruce Springsteen, now’s your chance to leave.” “Nebraska” is sung from the point-of-view of serial killer Charles Starkweather, who murdered 11 people on a killing spree in Nebraska and Wyoming between December 1957 and January 1958. Asked to explain his actions, Starkweather says, “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.” “Nebraska” also references Terrence Malick’s classic film Badlands, which tells the story of Starkweather (played by a young Martin Sheen in a disturbing performance).
Watch Aoife O’Donvan perform “Nebraska” by Bruce Springsteen at Brooklyn Recording via YouTube:
The second track, “Atlantic City,” recounts the assassination of the Philadelphia mob boss Phil “The Chicken Man” Testa, who died after after a nail bomb planted in his home blew up. The song takes the point of a young couple who are visiting Atlantic City; the man is pondering involvement in organized crime to pay off his debts. An interesting fact about this song: Springsteen’s chorus, “everything that dies, someday comes back” uses the same meter as a line from H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu:” “that which is dead can eternal lie.” I don’t know there’s a connection between the two; it is just as likely that Springsteen is channelling one of the natural meters that occurs when writing in the English language.
Introducing the third song, “Mansion On a Hill,” Aoife talked about the meta experience of driving down the New Jersey turnpike and seeing all the landmarks cited in this and other Springsteen songs and albums — the mansion, the oil refinery, even the Wawa convenience store (I only learned of Wawa when I moved to College Park in 2006 for grad school, and, sadly, the chain has not extended to northern Virginia, which is dominated by 7-Eleven). O’Donovan also mentioned she had been fortunate not to encounter traffic on her drive, which she waved off as a bit of a “humble brag.”
The level of detail and veracity in these songs raises the question of where fact ends and where fiction begins. After “Johnny 99,” Aoife asked, “Is the Tip-Top Club,” mentioned in the song, “an actual place?” Whether it is or it isn’t, what matters is that Springsteen’s songwriting makes it feel like a real place.
The next two songs, “Highway Patrolman” and “State Trooper,” are the songs I mentioned about corrupt law enforcement officers abusing their power. When one considers the influence of this album, one can see that a song like Jason Isbell’s “Speed Trap Town” is cut from the same cloth. Steve Earle, a Springsteen superfan, covered “State Trooper” for a live record made from a Guitar Town-era show.
While O’Donovan played the set, for the most part, alone, she did have a few special guests to spice up the evening. Yasmin Williams, a stunning acoustic guitar virtuoso who opened for O’Donovan last year at the Kennedy Center, joined her for “Used Car.” The narrative arc shifted as O’Donovan sanged the more upbeat “Open All Night” and the reflective “My Father’s House,” ending with the hopeful “Reason To Believe,” on which she was joined by instrumental string band Hawktail.
Watch Aoife O’Donovan sing “Open All Night” by Bruce Springsteen live from FreshGrass on YouTube:
Hawktail includes fiddler Brittany Haas, who played with O’Donovan in her first major band, the “chamber grass” group Crooked Still. When the band joined Aoife for a few songs after she finished Nebraska, she recalled a show at The Birchmere in 2008 with the Infamous Stringdusters and Chatham County Line. In those days, Aoife said, “We were leading a less healthy lifestyle.” (She is a committed runner now.) The first song they played together, “Galahad,” was inspired by the British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. “From Shakespeare to Tennyson,” she said. Hawktail then took a turn with “Pomegranate in the Oak Tree,” from last year’s album, Place of Growth. The evening finished with the Scottish ballad “Drover” and Aoife’s “Oh, Mama,” which had the crowd singing along on the chorus.
Before Aoife took the stage to play Nebraska, Hawktail played an opening set that featured the first several songs from their latest LP, last year’s Place of Growth, a Scottish fiddle tune, and the title track of their first album, Unless. They finished with “El Camino, Part II.” Instrumental bands can be challenging for audiences who come to hear a more conventional performance with lyrics, but Hawktail are really excellent at what they do, and they won they crowd over with their gorgeous medleys and virtuosic playing.
I’m not normally a big fan of cover or tribute shows, but Nebraska holds a special place in my heart. It’s also interesting to watch these songs come from a female performer. Perhaps the best trick Springsteen pulls is that, while his songs are incredibly specific in their detail, they are also incredibly flexible in that they can be performed by almost anyone, regardless of who they are — they are both universal and specific.