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The 2024 American Music Honors: Ain't that America, and ain't nothin' like the real thing, baby!

Updated: Apr 28

photo by Shawn Poole

April 28, 2024

This report is posting slightly later than expected, mainly because the day after the event in question, I learned that what I thought was just a persistently clogged left ear was actually a "perforated tympanic membrane" (eardrum.) Nowhere near as serious as it sounds, and no, last Wednesday night's American Music Honors 2024 event wasn't what ruptured my eardrum. (It more than likely was caused by cabin-pressure during one of my flights to or from the first Bruce Springsteen/E Street Band 2024 Tour show in Phoenix last month.) Nevertheless, the diagnosis/treatment has slightly hampered my writing mojo in recent days.

In a way, however, this unforeseen delay also helped to crystallize some of my thoughts on this year's event a bit more. So here - for whatever they're still worth - are those thoughts now, and here's hoping that I have at least a few things to offer beyond what's been shared and re-shared on the 'net ad infinitum already.

First and foremost, I'm so glad that in this second year of what Bruce Springsteen referred to onstage last Wednesday as "our project," he was able to attend in person. At last year's inaugural event, a last-minute case of COVID-19 prevented him from doing anything more than paying tribute to two of the honorees via hastily-shot videos. Those video tributes were articulate, funny, and insightful, not surprisingly. Seeing Bruce look so strong and healthy onscreen, despite testing positive for COVID-19, also was very reassuring to all of us fans in attendance, of course. But his absence meant that not only was he unable to participate in any of the musical performances that evening; there also had to be last-minute changes in who sang what to cover Bruce's absence. In some cases, this was fortuitous; getting to witness Darlene Love sing "Soul Man" with Sam Moore was a "You-probably-will-never-get-to-see-THIS-again" treat. In other cases, such as watching poor Steve Earle gamely try his best to cover Bruce's parts during the show-closing set... not so much.

photo by Brian Samelson - used with permission

This year, however... As the immortal Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell sang, "Ain't nothin' like the real thing, baby!" Springsteen being fully present at the American Music Honors for the first time helped greatly to drive home exactly what "our project" is all about. As its Executive Director Bob Santelli reminded us yet again in one of his two relatively brief moments onstage, The Bruce Springsteen Archives & Center for American Music was named as such very purposefully. Bruce sees himself as part of a community and tradition much larger than himself and his own artistry. Therefore, having him there in person last Wednesday to sing, play, and interact with this year's honorees made it clearer than ever that "our project" isn't just about celebrating and exploring Springsteen's music. It's just as much about understanding the musical legacy that has inspired it and - we hope - will continue to inspire generations of artists to come.

What a superb idea to have an annual event where some of the greatest living figures in that musical legacy get honored while they're still with us, in which Springsteen gets a chance to perform with them. (And as writer Donna Luff, who also was in attendance on Wednesday, later commented to me, "an unexpected and deep joy for me was seeing him as a member of an audience. Watching him clap, dance, and cheer others on stage touched me.")

Not only does it make for a "hot-ticket" type of evening that can generate substantial revenue for the Archives/Center, but the potential television/video revenue for the Archives/Center is there, as well, especially with Springsteen present. With that in mind, and despite what obviously many others already have decided to do, no extensive details and certainly no cellphone-video-links are included with this report. Although unfortunately there already is an absolute plethora of such things made easily available online, in some cases by folks from whom you wouldn't normally expect that kind of thing, here's hoping that eventually all interested fans still will want to see a professionally filmed and edited version of this year's American Music Honors, in a way that helps the Archives/Center to grow in its mission and purpose.

Okay, with that noted, what I will share in a "non-spoiler" spirit is the following: In just two years' time, Little Steven's Disciples of Soul have established themselves as one of the greatest "house bands" you could have for an event like this. They perform extremely diverse styles of American music with aplomb, and everybody sounds at least a bit greater when they're backed by the Disciples. It's no wonder that Bruce has "borrowed" some of their members for his current tour. Long may the Disciples reign at the American Music Honors!

The night was not flawless by any means. There were a few flubs - in both the musical performances and the testimonials - but probably nothing that can't be fixed with some skillful post-production/editing. There's also a not-so-fine-line between totally justified local pride and downright chauvinism, with a "facts be damned" attitude. For example, having the evening's emcee purposefully claim onstage that New Jersey was at some point "the center of American music" crossed that line that just shouldn't be crossed, at least not in a nation containing New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, New York, Los Angeles, etc. It's unbecoming, unnecessary, and (I hope) unwanted in terms of the Archives/Center's desired public image. Be gracious, Garden State-based folks; you have so many actual accomplishments and attributes to be proud of indeed, so there's no need to have anyone making any further claims that simply aren't true.

The spoken tributes to the honorees, on the other hand, were outstanding. I was impressed especially by Jon Landau's speech about Jackson Browne. I've never previously read or heard anything by Landau that went into such detail about how purposefully and aggressively he pursued transitioning from music criticism to record production. And both his and Browne's accounts of The Pretender's recording sessions were riveting.

Bruce's speech about John Mellencamp was equally revelatory. Again, as with Landau, I heard from Springsteen insights I'd never heard or read before, in this case openly comparing his own songwriting style to Mellencamp's. As so often happens with such speeches by Springsteen, one gets the gift of new insights into another artist's greatness and influence.

That recognition and articulation of another artist's greatness occurred between and among the honorees themselves, as well. For example Dion's comments on Mavis Staples' enduring greatness - made via a funny joke involving himself, the other 2024 honorees, Springsteen, and Stevie Van Zandt - also articulated what surely everyone in the audience felt about Staples after we all were lucky enough to hear her sing live.

For many of us Springsteen fans, we've benefited not just from his own music, but from getting to hear him share so much about the many other great artists who've inspired and influenced his work, and in turn becoming fans of those artists' music, too. Through the years, he's done this through various interviews, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction speeches, onstage raps, his 2012 SXSW keynote speech, and the like. In many ways, it's a continuation and expansion of how bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones helped to turn on generations of listeners to artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Marvelettes, Irma Thomas, and Muddy Waters.

And now, if all goes well, Bruce will continue doing this each April somewhere in the swamps of West Long Branch, New Jersey for many more years to come. I'm looking forward to such a development, and I also hope that eventually everyone who can benefit from seeing each of these special nights of American music in their entirety will be able to do so, in person and/or via professional video/audio.


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