From Village streets to arena stages

Soozie Tyrell

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 20, 2003) – Back in 1977, a couple of 19-year-old struggling musicians got together and decided to form a duo to busk on the streets of Greenwich Village.

“We really refused to play clubs,” said Soozie Tyrell, one-half of that early duo, in a recent phone interview from her home in New Jersey. “There were so many restrictions and the pay wasn’t that great, whereas on the street we called our own hours and we made pretty good money.”

Twenty-five years later, the duo was reunited, this time on arena and stadium stages around the world, when Bruce Springsteen invited Tyrell -- his wife Patti Scialfa’s former duo partner -- to join the E Street Band’s world tour following the release of his album, “The Rising.”

Tyrell – who brings her own band to Club Helsinki on Saturday night at 9 – looks back on the long arc of her career and sees an “incredible journey.”

“It’s still a journey,” said Tyrell. “We always hope for something great in our lives, and it’s always a struggle for musicians. It’s not an easy life, but it’s a life that we choose. To me I feel I have no other choice. There’s nothing else I wish to do.”

Working with Springsteen brought Tyrell in front of the biggest audiences of her career, but the 45-year-old singer, violinist and guitarist, who released her first album, “White Lines” (Treasure) earlier this year, wasn’t sitting around waiting for the Boss’s call all these years.

Tyrell boasts an impressive resume, having worked in bands with Shawn Colvin, Joan Osborne, Elvis Costello and David Johansen in his Buster Poindexter guise. She has appeared on albums by Sheryl Crow, Train, Carole King, Judy Collins, and John Hammond, and like Scialfa, she first came to the attention of Springsteen when she did a stint with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. She has recorded with Springsteen since his early-‘90s “Lucky Town” album, but was featured most prominently on “The Rising” album and subsequent tour.

The daughter of an American military officer, Tyrell was raised constantly on the move, giving her a leg up on the itinerant life of the touring musician. Born in Italy, she lived in Taiwan, Florida and a number of U.S. cities before moving to New York to follow her calling as a musician.

“Traveling with bands became very comfortable for me,” she said. “It was an easy transition. And I couldn’t picture myself staying in an orchestra and teaching on the side -- doing the real settled-down life. Travel is in my blood.”

Leaving home to move to New York while still in her teens was the biggest challenge she faced. “It was very scary,” she said. “I was the timid, quiet girl in the corner, but soaking everything in and learning. Knowing this is what I wanted to do, as scary as it was, you had to be bold and persevere.”

Tyrell wanted to start playing piano when she was just five and her older sister began taking lessons, but her parents made her wait until she was seven. She began studying violin when she was 10, and kept up with the piano, too.

“The first band I joined I played keyboards in and a little violin on the side,” said Tyrell. “Even though it wasn’t an instrument that was as much called for in rock, I identified with the violin so humanly. It was like another voice for me. I didn’t really become a singer until I moved to New York and decided to put my first band together.”

In the late-‘70s, New York was a good town for country music, with clubs like the Lone Star Café opening in the wake of the “Urban Cowboy” craze, and with her fiddle Tyrell was well-positioned to get gigs.

She also met a few other musicians new to town around that time, including guitarist Larry Campbell and bassist Tony Garnier. These days, those two are best known as long-time sidemen in Bob Dylan’s band, and Tyrell reunited with them to record “White Lines,” which also features guest appearances by Scialfa and Springsteen.

Scialfa said now that the E Street Band is off the road, she looks forward to playing gigs with her own band. But surprisingly, it’s not an easy adjustment.

“It’s more intimidating going from playing for sixty-thousand people to eighty,” she said.

But the thrill of walking out on stage before 60,000 Bruce Springsteen fans is not something she will soon forgot.

“When you walk up the steps of that stage and feel the incredible energy or eagerness from the fans, it’s amazing,” she said. “And the thrill of watching Bruce, watching for his directions, not knowing what song is coming up next -- as any band member will tell you, he’s very unpredictable.”

That unpredictability extends to occasional, unannounced appearances at Tyrell’s gigs. “Patti and Bruce sat in on my last gig at the Stone Pony,” she said, referring to the legendary Asbury Park nightclub. “And I did a benefit two weeks ago that Bruce showed up for.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 21, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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