I went to see Bob Seger in concert last week. This came as something of a surprise to a few of my friends, who don’t share my appreciation for Bob. Apparently, Seger has become uncool. I’ve been listening to his music and enjoying it for over 20 years, and it never occurred to me to question why, but after that conversation, I started thinking about it. Of course, there are lots of reasons why somebody likes a particular flavor of music, and many of them are hard to define, but for me, a big factor is always the songwriting. So I want to go to bat for Bob Seger as a songwriter.
The way I see it, Seger has three themes that he handles particularly well:
- Being a lost soul
- Feeling trapped and aching for freedom
- Wistful nostalgia
He’s got another big theme too, which is “sex and/or comical relationship mishaps”, but it’s those first three that really touch me. In fact, throw in “covers” and you’ve got a taxonomy that encompasses around 80% of Seger’s output. Listening to the concert, I started to break it down in my head:
Being a lost soul: Hollywood Nights, Still The Same, Beautiful Loser, Wreck This Heart
Aching for freedom: Roll Me Away, Feel Like A Number, Katmandu, Face The Promise
Nostalgia: Mainstreet, Fine Memory, Like A Rock
Sex and/or relationship wreckage: The Fire Down Below, Sunspot Baby, Betty Lou’s Gettin’ Out Tonight
Covers: Old Time Rock And Roll, Tryin’ To Live My Life Without You, the entire Smokin’ O.P.’s album
Then there are the combinations:
Lost soul + freedom: Turn The Page
Lost soul + nostalgia: Jody Girl, Against The Wind
Lost soul + sex: We’ve Got Tonight
Freedom + nostalgia: Travelin’ Man, Rock & Roll Never Forgets
Nostalgia + sex: Night Moves, Brave Strangers
So yeah, he pretty much keeps returning to the same topics over and over again, but he is able to capture these feelings really effectively, at least to my ears. Maybe it’s because he gets lots of practice at capturing them. There are also some great one-off songs that don’t fit these categories, like “Get Out Of Denver”, a rocking tune about a brush with the law, and “The Famous Final Scene”, a killer breakup song.
As for the concert itself, it was lots of fun, though it would have been a lot more fun if the obnoxious drunk next to me had left earlier. Seger doesn’t look anything like a rock star nowadays — at 61, he could easily pass for somebody’s grandfather. He’s got a mop of gray hair held at bay with a headband, and a goofy, lopsided smile that’s miles away from the polished-albeit-weathered good looks of a Roger Daltrey or a Robert Plant. He’s a fine showman, though. This was my first time seeing him, so I’m unable to compare his performance with what he achieved in his prime, but I could see why he was considered legendary live performer in those days. The band was impressive, too, 14 (!) talented musicians who dropped naturally into tight grooves with each other. Seger’s voice, too, was remarkable. He sounds absolutely ageless — the exact same timbre as he had at 22 years old. He dodged a few more of the high notes, but mustered the passion and conviction to flawlessly sell songs from more than 30 years ago. I guess rock and roll really never does forget.