“The Boss.” It’s the nickname that followed musician Matt Ryan through his high school years. That name, one associated with the beloved rock legend Bruce Springsteen, was earned because Ryan, in his late teens, bore a striking resemblance to the star. That likeness showed through in his music as well. “I hated it,” Ryan said. “I’ve been singing and recording my whole life, and no matter what I did it came out sounding and looking like Bruce. It was my curse.” Ryan set upon making a musical career for himself as an individual, and was working on several musical projects – producing, recording, songwriting and teaching – when a call came from Legends In Concert that would make him reconsider the haunting moniker.
Legends In Concert, a Las Vegas-based show featuring musicians performing as popular acts, from Elvis to Lady Gaga, was looking for a Bruce Springsteen impersonator and heard that Ryan could fit the bill.
“They kept calling, and offered me a year contract,” Ryan said. “I thought, ‘well, maybe I’ll try it out and go to Vegas for a year.'” He joined Legends in Concert in 2000.
What he thought would be a short stint as Springsteen has evolved into a career that has allowed Ryan to tour the world and perform with accomplished musicians as part of Bruce in the USA, a show that will come to the State Theatre Saturday.
The Bruce in the USA show began in 2003 when a Vegas casino expressed interest in taking Ryan’s Springsteen act from Legends In Concert and building a full production out of it – with a complete E Street Band to match the one Springsteen tours with.
He already had a guitarist, Matthew Sullivan, who bore some resemblance to E Street guitarist Steven Van Zandt, but was tasked with finding a full seven-piece band that could match Springsteen’s group – if not in look, in musical ability.
“If we could find ourselves a Clarence, we could do this,” Ryan said, recalling the search for a saxophone player to match Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons in style and stature. Washington, D.C. native Dave McLaurin now plays the part.
The E Street facsimile, which goes by the name American Dream, features musicians with experience working for such acts as Queen, Aretha Franklin, and Hall and Oates. According to Ryan, getting the chance to perform Springsteen’s catalog was a draw for the American Dream players.
“The music of Bruce Springsteen allows a lot of expression for great musicians to sit in and never get bored,” Ryan said.
The act has gotten some important seals of approval. One is from Clemons himself, who invited the Bruce in the USA musicians to perform with him at a private event soon after they put up their show.
“He had been very kind to our show, and very supportive,” Ryan said of Clemons, who died this summer. Ryan says that Springsteen has sent along kind words, but that the two have never met.
The group has also gotten the go-ahead from fans, who Ryan says can be highly suspicious and critical of a tribute band devoted to performing as their beloved act.
“They realize it’s OK to like this,” Ryan said, adding that delivering the show as music-driven performance art – and not taking themselves so seriously as Bruce and the band reincarnated – are key to success. With Springsteen himself set to embark upon an international tour in May, Ryan hopes to give fans “just a fix of Bruce” in the interim.
• For more information about Bruce in the USA, visit bruceintheusa.com.