FROM THE SUMMER 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE | BY BLAIR JACKSON
A uke album covering Bruce Springsteen songs was bound to happen at some point, though I would have pictured an album of the Boss’ most commercial tunes (“Hungry Heart,” “Glory Days,” “Dancing in the Dark,” etc.) rather than this much hipper idea: The complete 1975 Born to Run album, it’s eight songs performed in order, by eight different artists, about half of them new names to me. Let me get my Springsteen bona fides out of the way up top: I have been a passionate fan since 1974’s The Wild, the Innocent and E Street Shuffle, first saw him live on the Born to Run tour in ’75, didn’t miss a Northern California concert through the early ’80s. I might have listened to Born to Run over a thousand times. So I was naturally intrigued when this popped up.
As with most multi-artist “tribute” albums, the adaptations on Born to Uke range from the faithful to the unusual, and through the years I’ve learned not to get too hung up on the approach, either way—it’s gonna either work for me or it doesn’t. Sometimes a different lead singer and different instrumentation is all it takes to elevate an otherwise faithful arrangement; other times, changing the tempo and other key elements will allow a familiar song to truly become “new.” Both of those are in evidence here.
Ukulele is obviously the unifying element, and all you players will be interested to hear the multitude of colors elicited from solo and duo ukes on this collection. After all, the uke is asked to replicate lines originally played on saxophone, piano, and electric guitar, and the good news is that the little “flea” is more than up to the task, whether it’s chunky soul strumming on Will Kimbrough’s passionate version of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” the chopped Bo Diddley beat of album organizer and producer Keith Metzger’s “She’s the One,” or the steady, propulsive charge of “Born the Run,” sung so wonderfully by the Indigo Girls’ Emily Saliers. All three of those I would place in the “faithful” category. Sara Watkins also does a nice job on “Thunder Road,” perhaps adapting more of the approach of Bruce’s stripped-down solo piano version than the album original.
It’s the two least-known songs on Born to Run (if there is such a thing) that take the most successful liberties with Springsteen’s arrangements. The version of the moody “Meeting Across the River”—slow and haunted by jazz trumpet on the original—is played here by Albatross at a slightly faster and more rhythmic tempo, with a greater melodic emphasis in the lead vocal, and the lone uke mainly accompanied by evocative stand-up bass. And my surprise favorite is “Night” by Icelandic singer Svavar Knútur, which is transformed from an intense and desperate rocker into a beautiful, quietly powerful (and no less desperate) folk number driven by two ukes and featuring perfectly layered vocal harmonies. It really lets Springsteen’s words be heard in a way that his own full-band versions don’t.
Not everything works for me: The Weepies’ odd and strangely tuneless bridge in an otherwise fine “Backstreets” feels like a misstep. And Kai Welch’s highly ambitious reworking of “Jungleland,” replete with electronically altered voices in parts and other bizarre touches (some cool!), I would categorize as “Nice try, but…”
All in all, though, the album succeeds in giving the uke a fantastic playground, and no doubt it will inspire many to bring some these great tunes to the beach or their next ukulele club gathering, where there will doubtless be some folks who know all the words. And here’s more incentive to buy the album: It’s a benefit for Little Kids Rock, which brings music education into under-privileged and under-served schools.