The Bossest Bash in Town: Jeff Kushner and friends pay tribute to their favourite Springsteen songs with annual birthday celebration

When tight schedules forced Calgary music henchmen Tim Leacock and Kit Johnson to pass the proverbial torch for a traditional Ironwood gathering, the Bruce Springsteen Birthday Bash, they picked the right guy, Mister, who won’t be blinded by the light. Jeff Kushner (The Beagle Ranch, Unsightly, The Funeral Factory) even owns the same model of Tascam four-track recorder (a Portastudio 144) that Springsteen used to record his haunting, revered 1982 release, Nebraska. Springsteen, the man who captured a young generation’s restlessness with his anthemic song (and album) Born to Run in 1975, rolls the odometer up to 70 years of age on Sept. 23.

Kushner, who will be playing guitar and glockenspiel (no, he’s not an attention seeker, but more to follow on that), will be supported Calgary music staples Ross Watson (drums), Danny Patton (organ), Geoff Brock (guitar), Conan Daly (bass), Andrew Arida (piano), and yes, that Mikey, Mike Clark (sax). This cream-dream lineup will be graced by special guests Jenny Allen, Tom Phillips, Allen Baekeland, Chantal Vitalis, Kris Demeanor, and Edmonton’s Kimberley MacGregor.

Of the passing of the torch, and even glockenspiel, Kushner says: “I approached Tim Leacock a few years ago about joining in for the Springsteen tribute night. He was happy to have me join in but I noticed that they already had two extremely skilled guitar players. At one practice somebody suggested that somebody should play glockenspiel as it is featured on several of the early Springsteen tracks. I grabbed the opportunity right away mostly because I wanted to increase my contribution to the show and thought it would help secure my position for the gig.”

Kushner singles out Downbound Train, from Born in the USA, which cemented Springsteen’s place as a massive arena touring act, as a favourite. “Something I didn’t know about this record (Born in the USA) is that it was recorded almost simultaneously while he was recording his Nebraska album, pretty much the opposite of Born in the USA in every way. It was extremely sparse recorded on a hissy Tascam cassette four-track recorder. I actually own the same model and I have logged many hours on it. (Nebraska) is stark, haunting, and most of the songs feature desolate portraits of souls looking for redemption. Despite its well-recorded full-band presentation, Downbound Train has much of the heart of the Nebraska album.

“Bruce skillfully taps into the mourning for a relationship that has run its course. At his recent Calgary show, Jason Isbell recently said that maybe when we share the stories of our struggles and hard times that perhaps the hurting dissipates into the air with the acknowledgement of our shared experience. I like that idea.”

When Kushner and local songwriter Suzanne De Bussac were in Edmonton recently, they opened up for Kimberley MacGregor. “I had not heard her music before but I was so blown away with her presence, amazing singing, and super raunchy guitar work. Nerdy fact: we use the same Z. Vex Box of Rock guitar pedal,” Kushner says.

He invited MacGregor to join the tribute. MacGregor says of her participation, “I picked State Trooper because it is one of my favourite Springsteen songs. Being a touring musician, I am used to spending long hours on the road. State Trooper captures the eerie, lonely quality of being on the road, sometimes through dangerous conditions. I love the spooky quality of the song and the guttural howls at the end. It really paints a picture that I think a lot of people can relate to emotionally, especially if they spend a lot of time alone on the road.”

Jenny Allen, who has been performing at gigs in Calgary for decades and is a member of The Fates, picked Tougher Than the Rest from Tunnel of Love, a post-Born in the USA album that dressed The Boss’s heartbreak, funhouse mirror loves songs in 1980s trappings of heavy synth and drum machines. Of the song, Allen says, “This song first came to my attention when I heard Emmylou Harris do it. (It’s) beautifully written, poignant yet hopeful. To me it speaks of second chances in a world where we forget that sometimes. We don’t give ourselves second chances, so often people just give up. So, like I said, there’s hope.”

Chantal Vitalis, who is performs in The Love Bullies and has been a member of Kris Demeanor’s Crack Band and Same Difference, chose a song The Boss started but could not finish without the aid of Patti Smith, with their shared producer Jimmy Iovine as a go-between. Vitalis says, “I wanted to do that tune in particular because it’s moody, sexy, dark and dynamic. It was a great song to begin with, but then Patti Smith made it even better by making it so much her own. I also love how Bruce always seems to have embraced other people’s versions of his songs and, as a songwriter, I can’t think of a bigger compliment than having someone else cover your tune.”

And of course Calgary’s music statesman Tom Phillips will perform Racing in the Streets, from Darkness on the Edge of Town. Regulars at the Ironwood, Blues Can, Mikey’s, Schooners and so many other places will have heard him sprinkle his magic over this song — so much so that it rivals the original.

“I have loved that song since I first heard it while going to university (at the University of Alberta). It’s truly one of my very favourite songs written by anybody anywhere. To me it describes the bravado of hope followed by the decay of time but it’s still somehow celebratory. It still almost makes me cry every time I hear it. Brilliant, just flat out brilliant. I love it and I get to sing it with the true instrumentation of the recording. It blows my mind!”

The Bruce Springsteen Birthday Bash is at the Ironwood on Saturday, Sept. 14. For more information, go

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer.