Bruce Springsteen Bassist Garry Tallent, April 22, 2017: Shows I’ll Never Forget

At Shank Hall, Milwaukee: When I got into the neighborhood of the club where Garry Tallent, bassist in the Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band was playing, I could tell by the availability of street parking that the show would not be especially crowded. I walked in as the opening performer was playing his final tunes. I hate to miss part of a set, but in this case – because of a packed Record Store Day scheduled – it couldn’t be helped.

The young man’s name was Shun Ng, a solo act who played a hotly miked Ovation acoustic guitar. As I sat down, he was concluding an instrumental piece, after which he told a story of being influenced by the radio and convincing his father that he had written “Hey Jude.” Even seeing a small slice of his set, I could tell that this was an engaging performer — one I would go see again. Shun Ng closed by playing a solo version of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I give him credit for trying something this distinctive (and risky) but after couple of minutes, the novelty wore off. I took the opportunity to walk around the hall and look at the merchandise table and the sound board.

I knew that Milwaukee was only the second night of Tallent’s eight-week tour, his first ever as a solo performer. I asked a manager-type figure how opening night had gone. “Oh fine!” he said. We talked briefly and he thanked me for “coming out to the show.” Nice. Appreciative of the audience: That’s an increasingly rare attitude, or so I have found. A woman was setting up a display of Garry Tallent CDs at the table. This too is a first, as Tallent has only now released a solo album, called Break Time. I guess this tour was, in theory, a promotional outing for the project but, more than this, I think Tallent just wanted to get out on the road for a while with his own band.

Shun Ng had finished his Queen tribute, collecting a warm reception from this smallish crowd of about 50. In fact, when I had entered the Shank Hall mid-set, I sat near the back. But walking around during the break I saw several empty tables near the stage, so I moved closer. The bandstand was being reset for Tallent’s six-piece backing group, which consisted of keyboards, drums, a guitarist, a female vocalist, and a utility man who played fiddle, mandolin, a small accordion, tenor banjo, and pretty much anything else that a song called for. The lead guitarist is Eddie Angel, and the group’s bassist is Mark Winchester, who insists that what he plays is the upright acoustic “slap bass.” This strikes me as a position in the band that takes some guts to fill, since Garry Tallent’s name recognition comes from being Bruce Springsteen’s longtime bassist. But in his own band Tallent plays no bass, preferring to provide rhythm on several of his vintage guitars.

It was Tallent’s switching between these instruments that caused some of the night’s impromptu reshuffling. Becoming tangled in guitar chords and shoulder straps, Garry Tallent quipped, “I’m a spoiled brat, traveling without my roadie.” While the group’s vocalist Kristi Rose helped untangle Tallent, he reflected: “This is like the good old …,” but then he stopped to correct himself, saying: “Well, it takes you back; that’s for sure.” He was not going to pretend that he disliked the first-rate treatment he received when touring with the E Street Band. This honesty came through during the entire performance. Garry Tallent was playing whatever songs he wanted and performing as he pleased, and he knew that his lengthy tenure with Springsteen had made this freedom possible.

And how did this famous side man use his freedom? By playing music in various styles. The set opened with some hard driving rockabilly on “Bayou Love” and continued into Cajun country with “Ants in Her Pants,” followed by a Zydeco feel on “Ooh, La La,” from Break Time. “Tell ‘Em I’m Broke” was pure New Orleans’ swamp rock, with Tallent playing chords for the lead lines. From “Pink Pedal Pushers” to the “Hillbilly Train” to a flat out “Rampage,” the band was comfortable repeatedly switching styles during this American music tour. One of the set’s song titles may well have summed up Tallent’s feeling for these different genes: “I Love ‘Em All.”

The backing musicians were featured often, including a tenor banjo showcase for Fats Catlin on a song called “Today’s the Day,” and a boogie-woogie piano solo by Kevin McKendree on “Gone Awry.” Before tackling “Stay Away,” Garry Tallent joked about how he struggled with songs that had “too many words in them.” He never mentioned Bruce Springsteen by name, but made the audience feel as if they were being included on a well intentioned “in joke.”

The band’s sound was upbeat for most of the set, but their performance of “If Love Would Change Your Mind” demonstrated that these musicians were also convincing on ballads. Near the end of the evening, Tallent acknowledged the recent loss of Chuck Berry, and played “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” followed by an inventive arrangement of “You Never Can Tell.” The set ended with “Charlene,” which invoked the Bo Diddley beat of “Who Do You Love?” Catlin played a fiddle solo over the audience’s rhythmic clapping, and the song ended with the crowd on its feet; the band took their bows.

Returning to the stage for an encore after a cursory departure, Garry Tallent again thanked the Shank Hall audience for coming out. There had been no cries for Springsteen song titles during the set, as this newly christened group leader had feared. There was one facetious call for Tallent to play his tuba, to which he laughed and said: “That’s just not going to happen tonight.” But otherwise, there were no overt references from the audience about Tallent’s “other band.”

Concluding the 90-minute set, however, he still seemed a bit tentative of his audience’s expectations. “I know that there must be at least a couple of people out there who were thinking they would hear Bruce Springsteen songs tonight,” he said. But this receptive crowd obviously knew this would not be the case. They did not cheer at this remark; they listened. Garry Tallent continued, “I hope you were not disappointed with what we played.” At this, the crowd became loud with appreciation. He continued, “But we are going to do one of Bruce’s songs.”

Tallent indicated that this would be their last number, and that this “was not going to be any four-hour concert.” He laughed, “I only know one person crazy enough for that!” He then introduced one of Bruce Springsteen’s deeper catalog numbers, “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come).” It is a 1979 composition that first appeared on the bonus disk of The Essential Bruce Springsteen. The song is more recently found on The River box set. Even so, it is not a well-known Bruce number but was a most appropriate one, for it has a great rockabilly feel that captured the essence of much of the night’s music.

The last song of the encore was Buddy Holly’s “Cryin’, Waitin’, Hopin’.” Garry Tallent indicated that he would be signing items at the merchandise table in a few minutes, if anybody wanted to talk with him. I wasn’t sure I needed to speak with the man, but I did want a copy of the set list of songs performed — several of which were on the stage. There had been a muscular security man stationed at the curtain that cordoned off the club’s dressing rooms. To pluck something from the stage seemed like a bad idea, so I planned to wait until keyboardist Kevin McKendree returned to break down his equipment. I would ask if I could have his list. So, I waited. And then waited some more. Nobody returned to the stage, and the audience has dispersed. The muscle was now eyeing me, so I feverishly pretended to be doing something important with my phone.

Finally, someone emerged — not onto the stage, but through the curtains. I was surprised to see it was the group leader. “Mr. Tallent,” I began. He smiled and told me that he would be happy to talk with me at the merchandise table, and he pointed to the far end of the room. I persisted, “I just wanted a set list from the stage; may I grab this one?” I pointed to the floor beneath the keyboard rack. He stopped cold and said, “That one belongs to Kevin. But tell you what, just grab mine.” He pointed to center stage and headed to the already forming line of people who wanted a minute with him. Nice guy, I thought. But there was no set list on the floor by his microphone!

I scanned the stage and spotted one on the drum riser of Jimmy Lester, but to get it I would need to walk across the stage. There was still nobody there I could ask to grab it for me, and I didn’t know if the security guy had heard our exchange. But I wanted the list, so I stepped carefully over foot pedals and walked by the rack of beautiful (and tremendously expensive) guitars. I had one eye on the security guard, who had two eyes on me. As I walked, I said to him: “Mr. Tallent said I could have this; I was told it was OK to get this.” I repeated this aloud like a mantra as I grabbed the list of songs and gingerly made my way back off the stage. The muscle just watched. Somebody came over and asked me if they could take a picture of the list. Relieved that this was the only interaction I encountered over this piece of paper, I said “sure.”

As I walked to the other end of the hall, I happened to see Kristi Rose, the band’s harmony vocalist who also sang an impressive lead on “Rock Boppin’ Baby.” She was standing by herself, so I said to her, “Second night of the tour.” She said, “Right.” I asked, “How are things going?” Rose told me, “Fine; I’m always glad to get that first show of a tour behind me.” I told her that the performance here at Shank Hall seemed to have gone well. She smiled and indicated that there had been a couple of missteps. I told her that the only things I saw were the guitar strap tangles, and that it seemed like the band was uncertain who would be taking the solo on one of the last tunes. Rose smiled again and said, “If that’s the only mix-up you saw, then I’m glad.”

I took the opportunity to ask if the set list were absolutely inflexible, or if Garry Tallent was calling up tunes from the stage. She thought for a moment about how much to share, so I specifically asked about the two instrumentals played near the end: “Apache” and the Ventures’ “Walk, Don’t Run.” She immediately said, “No — we didn’t do either of those last night. I had no idea they had them worked up.” Then she backed-up her response: “I mean, of course these guys can play anything Garry wants to call up, but no — we hadn’t rehearsed either of those songs.” And true, neither title appears on the evening’s set list; I have tangible proof. If Rose was covering herself about commenting to me, a stranger, on the natural ability of her touring colleagues, she was also undoubtedly taking pride in one specific member of the band—multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplan, who is her husband.

So, the decision had to be made: Do I leave or do I get into line to speak with Mr. Garry W. Tallent, the bass player for Bruce Springsteen? Not a hard decision. I spoke with a married couple who were right in front of me as we waited. They were talking about the opening act, and I said that I had missed much of that set because I was at a matinee Record Store Day gig at the Cactus Club. They were all over it” “Oh, then you saw the Living Statues!” “I did,” I told them, “and they were great. But the leader announced that it was their last show for a while.” The news hit this couple hard. I was almost sorry I had mentioned it, but we were in agreement that the Statues were a fine group. The husband was holding a copy of The River, and I wondered if Tallent would have any problem signing a Bruce Springsteen album. Tallent is playing bass on the record, after all. Not a problem, it seemed. I also thought, other than his own sole solo project, what else could Garry Tallent be asked to sign? Well … a set list, for one thing.

The couple in front of me had been complaining about how much time others were taking with Tallent, but they themselves were now in no rush to end their moment with the star. The woman who I had noticed earlier setting up the CD display was standing by Tallent as he sat at a round table and spoke with fans. I took the opportunity to speak with her: “Mr. Tallent doesn’t need to be doing this — sitting here and talking to us.” “I think he does,” she said in a somewhat reflective tone. “He likes to do it.”

Then … the uncontrollable fan part of my brain took over, and I couldn’t stop myself from telling this woman: “I know that everybody in this line would say the same thing, but I’m a real fan. I mean, I …” And finding that I could not articulate what I felt needed to be conveyed, I just said: “This music means a lot to me.” She thanked me for coming to the show, and told me to “take as much time with Garry as you want.” I assume this was Mrs. Tallent I was speaking with, but I don’t know for sure. Very nice. She too did not need to be doing this.

The other couple walked away, and it was my turn to speak with Garry Tallent. I thanked him for allowing me to grab the night’s set list and asked if he would mind signing it. Happy to. I didn’t really have a lot to say, of course. If I had thought about it, I would have asked him what type of tuba he played, on those very rare occasions when he did play one with Bruce — a double B flat or an E? But I didn’t. Even though I used to play the tuba, the key of his horn didn’t really matter to me. I did tell him that I enjoyed the two instrumentals near the end of his set, and that Albert Lee had talked about the importance of the Shadows’ guitarist Hank B. Marvin when he had been in town with Peter Asher. This seemed to surprise Tallent: “Albert Lee was in town recently?” I said yes and, ever the city supporter, told him that Milwaukee really was a good place for live music. Which it is. I told Tallent that Albert Lee and Peter Asher had also performed the Shadows’ instrumental, “Apache.”

Warming to my topic, I told this captive audience of one that I also liked the way his band did the Buddy Holly song, “Cryin’, Waitin’, Hopin’.” I said that the Beatles did a version of it, but it was sort of a mystery where they first heard it. Garry Tallent didn’t really say anything, so I continued, “I forget if the Beatles’ version is on one of the BBC Radio releases or if it’s still a bootleg.” Tallent immediately said, “It’s on the first BBC release.” OK! A guy who is still into music knows stuff that a fan would know.

Then I remembered reading that Garry Tallent has a very impressive record collection. And that fact reminded me of when my Texas friend Tony Davidson spotted Tallent at a record shop in Austin. It was 1988, and Tallent was in the Texas capital because Bruce Springsteen was in the midst of his Tunnel of Love tour. Tallent was spending the afternoon shopping for records, unrecognized. But Tony saw him and immediately knew who he was. Tony said that Tallent was very nice, and they spoke with for a few minutes about Texas music. Tony was always proud of the fact that, on his nights off in Texas that week, Garry Tallent had gone to two of the same clubs that Tony had been at to hear music. Tony laughed when also recalling that Tallent stepped back just a bit when he told the bassist that he had seen the E Street Band’s concerts that week in Houston and in Dallas — and was looking forward to that night’s Austin show. Yeah, old Tony didn’t do things half way.

As I was speaking with Tallent, I kept thinking of that line from the song “For the Roses,” by Joni Mitchell, where she complains about being bugged by her fans: “Young girls who just have to tell you that they saw you somewhere.” Nonetheless, I forged ahead. I told Tallent that I saw him with Bruce and the E Street Band in St. Paul in October of 1980 — on the night that The River album was released, about two weeks into the tour. I said, “The audience was really receptive to all of those new songs, even though nobody knew them.” As if on cue, Garry Tallent immediately said, “Including the band.” Cracked me up. I thanked him again and then let the next people in line have their moment. I also thanked the woman selling his albums, and left the hall.

But half way to my car, I thought, “Hey; I should have given her my card — the one that promotes my Sound Bites book.” So I walked back, fully expecting to be turned away from re-entry. But nope — I glided back in, where the diminishing line was still in place. I gave the woman my Muleshoe Press card, briefly telling her it consisted of a lot of music reviews that I had written. She took the card and started to write something on the back, all the while saying: “Great. I’ll make sure Garry gets this. Music is the only thing he reads about any more. He’ll like this.” Couldn’t ask for more than that, I thought, as I floated out the door.

Leaving for the second time, I noticed the hall’s marquee and thought back to what Garry Tallent had told the audience early in his set. He said that he had always enjoyed coming to Milwaukee, but he knew this was going to be a good night when he saw that his name was spelled correctly on the Shank Hall marquee. The audience loved it.

What amuses me about my encounter with Bruce’s bassist is how flat-out star struck I became. There I was, waiting in line, excited to tell him that “I had seen him somewhere.” But he couldn’t have been nicer. As I’ve recounted elsewhere, when my kids became old enough to understand what a record collection entailed, I showed my daughter Cindy some of my Bruce Springsteen singles. I pointed out many songs that were available nowhere else but on the B-side of these small records. I told her that “I used to be a fan” of Bruce’s. Since that day, I am regularly and laughingly reminded that I “used to be a fan.” Cindy will sometimes refer to me a Springsteen’s “former fan,” usually when I am talking to her about something to do with Bruce.

Which is fairly often.

Tom Wilmeth is the author of ‘Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,’ which has earned raves from the likes of Gary Burton and Hal Holbrook. It’s available now from Muleshoe Press via Amazon.


Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth, an English faculty member at Concordia University-Wisconsin since 1991, has given presentations and published widely on the topics of literature and music. Author of 'Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,' he earned a Ph.D. at Texas A&M in College Station. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Tom Wilmeth