Who's the next Bruce Springsteen?
We go looking for the next Boss before Sunday's show at the Bradley Center
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. This time we ask in advance of Bruce Springsteen’s show Sunday at the Bradley Center: Who is the next Boss?
Let’s dispense with an obvious disclaimer: There will never be another Springsteen, just as there will never be another Bob Dylan, Beatles, Zeppelin, insert your favorite classic rock band here. Furthermore, younger artists don’t need to be validated by being compared to a baby boomer favorite. Today’s musical heroes are just as valid as the legends of yesteryear. Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way: I think the person most deserving of Springsteen’s mantle is Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers. True, Hood and his band haven’t come close to reaching Springsteen’s level of fame. And it’s unlikely that the mid-40ish Hood will become a major-league rock star at this point. But Hood has the Springsteen-esque goods where it counts: He’s simply the best rock ‘n’ roll storyteller to emerge in the past 10 years. Just as Springsteen specializes in packing three-minute ass-kickers with more details than most Hollywood screenplays, Hood is a master at crafting evocative story-songs that play in your head like mini movies. Just take a listen to “Daddy Needs A Drink” off of last year’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark.
In just under four minutes, Hood paints a stark portrait of a family falling apart. He doesn’t come out and tell you as such, but it’s all there in the details: A father who drinks “to calm down his badness,” the overworked mother “with the cleaning outfit on,” the three babies screaming and the radio with nothing on. Like it or not, but Hood puts you in that room with his characters. Hood’s stylish tales of small-town noir—populated by colorful characters with broken hearts and cracked moral compasses—owe an obvious debt to Springsteen, who similarly brings bombastic drama to the mundane trials of everyday life. (If Darkness On The Edge Of Town hadn’t already been taken as an album title, it would have fit Drive-By Truckers’ 2004 masterpiece The Dirty South perfectly.) If Springsteen ever does retire, he’d definitely have a lot of fun following DBT around on tour.
You won't catch me arguing that Craig Finn of The Hold Steady is the next Springsteen. I'm not sure the climate is right to create a new Springsteen. But apart from the vocal inspiration Finn takes from Springsteen, he's learned some other tricks as well. Like Springsteen, he's obsessed with the strivers and losers of a particular place, in Finn's case the Twin Cities. Drawing on the particular details of his chosen milieu, he finds universal themes in local elements. Springsteen had the gearhead dreamers of Asbury Park; Finn has the hoodrats of Penetration Park. (Still, Finn's characters have an even greater tendency to end up dead or broken than Springsteen's; there's no "Born To Run" in the Hold Steady catalog yet, but plenty of drugged-out variations on "The River.") Finn's got some of the stage presence of Springsteen, too, talking directly to the crowd and making his concerts feel like inclusive experiences. With Finn it still sounds a little too rehearsed but give him time.
Springsteen isn't the only musician that New Jersey's The Gaslight Anthem alludes to in their songs; they've made direct references to Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Joe Strummer, Bob Seger, Otis Redding and more. But The Boss has been a looming presence since the band's 2007 debut album Sink Or Swim, in part because of the Jersey connection and in part because frontman Brian Fallon applies a very Bruce-y rasp to The Gaslight Anthem's songs of hopeful young lovers. Apparently, the love affair is not unrequited. Springsteen's kids introduced him to The Gaslight Anthem after their instant-classic 2008 album The '59 Sound came out, and he introduced himself to them after a concert in Jersey earlier this year, asking the band to join him for some summer European festival dates. At Glastonbury, Springsteen joined The Gaslight Anthem on stage for their performance of "The '59 Sound," and Fallon returned the favor by helping Bruce sing "No Surrender." And thus a torch gets passed.
I'm not sure anyone could ever take Springsteen's crown, though he obviously won't be able do that thing he does forever—dash; the dude is 60. So if I had to pick an heir, it'd be Lucero's Ben Nichols. Here's the thing: I'm a massive wimp in both body and spirit, so pretty much any badassery in my life comes vicariously through people far cooler than me. The Boss has always been my guiding light. His songs make me wistful for a version of me I'd like to be if only I owned a leather jacket and wasn't afraid of the open road, Cadillacs, and women named Mary. I'm late to the Lucero party, having started with 1372 Overton Park and now working backwards, but when Ben Nichols growls about bolting into the streets hoping to get out alive, my mental transformation from couch-jockeying hermit to asphalt-chewing hardass is no less complete than when I blast Born To Run in my, um, Jetta. That said, for as much as Nichols' anthems like "Smoke" and "The Last Song" get my fists pumping, it's his introspective moments that most recall the heartbreaking gut-punch of my favorite Springsteen record, Nebraska. And for a non-musical cosmetic point, Nichols looks how I wish I looked in a jean jacket: tough enough to not give a fuck what anybody thinks about his jean jacket.
Forgive me if my choice seems a bit obvious, but Ghostface Killah is surely the next Springsteen. Ghost may not be filling arenas (in fact, he couldn’t even fill the Barrymore Theatre in Madison last week), but there aren’t many artists that can match Springsteen’s penchant for storytelling the way Tony Starks can. Just like The Boss, Ghostface reps the East Coast (Staten Island, N.Y.) and spits out detailed memoirs of love, betrayal, and murder. Essentially, these same themes comprised most of Springsteen’s 1982 masterpiece, Nebraska. Additionally, both artists have fallen into and subsequently escaped the trenches of modernization. For Springsteen, 1987’s Tunnel Of Love was violated by corny new-romantic synthesizers, while Ghost’s 2004 effort, The Pretty Toney Album, had an out of place, sexed-up cameo from Missy Elliot. Just as Springsteen’s appeal stretches miles beyond blues and Americana dorks, Ghostface—a respected hip-hop legend in his own time--has gained plenty of crossover from suburbanite white kids who couldn’t give a shit about the history of hip-hop (see his contribution to DangerDoom).