Three weeks ago, my pal Orlando sits down across from me at the Union Plaza Diner and tells me that he just won tickets to see Bruce Springsteen at the Apollo Theater and that if I play my cards right, I may have a shot of going. Needless to say, I bought breakfast that morning and kept my fingers crossed.
On May 9th, it all came together and there we were in sitting in the fourth row at the ‘True Temple of Soul’. I could bore you with tales of the free drinks, free appetizers, free t-shirts or the dozens of celebrities from movies, music, and sports world that were in attendance. But this story isn’t about all that.
A reconfigured E Street Band took the stage one by one shortly after eight o’clock, rubbed the stump and took their positions. Then The Boss went to work, kicking right into a pair of songs off the new studio album, “Wrecking Ball” which retells the tale of struggle and loss that Springsteen has been telling for much of his career. For so long over the years, he seemed to be doing just that; telling the tale. On this new album, he’s living it, breathing it and feeling it.
Bruce was in and out of the crowd all night long, dancing up the aisles, running across seats, falling onto outstretched arms, even climbing out over the ledge of the mezzanine and singing a verse 25 feet over the orchestra seats. Simply put, Bruce and the band played as if their lives depended on it.
There was one man on everyone’s mind that night, the larger than life Big Man, Clarence Clemons who passed away last year. Since his death, everyone wondered how the rock that Springsteen built his sound and reputation on could be replaced. Where one man once stood, there is now a five-piece horn section in the E Street Band, anchored by Jake Clemons, Clarence’s nephew on the sax.
In a recent interview with European media on a publicity tour for Wrecking Ball, Bruce offered some of his first public comments on Clarence since his death.
“Losing Clarence is like losing something elemental,” he said. “It’s like losing the rain. That’s a part of life. The currents of life affect even the dream of popular music. There’s no escape.”
Early in the show, during My City of Ruins, Bruce introduced the band one by one. When he finished, he asked the crowd, “Are we missing anybody?” Along with Clemons, he was also talking about longtime organist Danny Federici who passed away in April of 2008. He asked the crowd again, exhorting them to make as much noise as possible.
“One thing I know is if we’re here and you’re here, then they’re here.”
That wasn’t the only moment of remembrance in the evening. The band closed the show with ‘Tenth Avenue Freezeout’, a longtime staple of the live shows going back to 1975. Telling the tale of how a scruffy kid on the boardwalk got his band together, the whole song, much like Bruce’s career, hinges on the lyric,
‘Then a change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band’.
For 37 years that line was followed by a rollicking sax line that imbued the band with its power.
On this night in the Apollo, the band stopped on cue with Springsteen once again holding the mic out to the crowd, giving them another chance to yell out for Clarence. You could read his lips as he commanded 1500 fans more than once,
“Let him hear ya!”
The cheers went on for sixty seconds, the crowd howling its love as high to the heavens as it could before the E Street Horns picked up the song and laid it back into its groove.
The Apollo show had been billed as a rehearsal as well as a tenth anniversary party for Sirius/XM radio but nothing about the performance felt different than a show that would come mid-tour in front of a paying crowd. As is usually the case at the beginning of a tour, the set list was comprised of much of the new album. Springsteen balanced the rest of the set list from throughout his career, focusing on songs that apply to the mood of struggle and escape on the Wrecking Ball album.
“When we were working on the album,” he told the crowd before Mansion on the Hill which comes from 1980’s Nebraska album, “We had a theme. It was dancing and crying.”
Springsteen is 62 years old. At a time when he could justifiably take his foot off the gas and ease into old age while relying on the success of his youth, he’s done just the opposite. Springsteen has a message and a purpose in 2012. It’s the same one he’s had in the 40 years since he’s greeted us from Asbury Park. He said as much from the stage where so many legends came before him.
“The E Street Bands mission remains the same. We’re here to bring the power hour after hour! We’re here put a whoop ass session on the recession! And we’re here to bring a smile to your face, an extra beat to your heart, and to raise your spirits high in these hard times. So let’s get started.”
*Originally appeared in Rutgers-Newark Scarlet Magazine Spring 2012
** Header photo by Sean Brady