This review was written good friend, Matt Straus, who is a longtime Bruce fan, and a helluva trombone player. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It was a night I had been waiting on for close to four years now. That is how long it had been since I had last seen my lifelong idol Bruce Springsteen and his legendary E Street Band. I knew going in however, that it would not be the same. The last time I saw Bad Scooter was in Kansas City in 2008 on the Magic tour, and the E Street Band had already suffered a loss earlier in that year, that being organist/accordionist “Phantom” Danny Federici. While no one could ever replace his presence, longevity, and his comradery within the E Street Band, his sound could be replaced, which it was by long time session musician Charles Giordano. Charlie has done a bang up job since replacing Danny in 2008 when he left for melanoma treatment, but even with the quietest member of the band gone, a void was still there. However going into tonight, there was a much bigger void. Flashback to June 2011 when the Big Kahuna, the Duke of Paducah, The King of All the Known Universe (including Hoboken, New Jersey), The Big Man himself, saxophonist Clarence Clemons passed away at 69 due to a stroke. At that point, many wondered, would we ever see the legendary E Street Band again? If so, who has the feet big enough to fill the Big Man’s shoes? Could it be done? Well, in short, no and yes, but more on that later.
Move up to last fall when I started to hear rumors of a possible new album and tour. I was as excited as ever, but what would it be without what NBC’s Brian Williams called “the soulful brass secret weapon?” A few months passed, and in January word finally dropped about his new album, Wrecking Ball, his 16th LP (not including live releases, rarity, or special edition albums). Along with news of the album came the announcement of a European tour for the summer of 2012. With this news, I was thinking maybe he would do what he did for his ’99 Reunion Tour, where he opened the tour in Europe to warm it up, and then bring it stateside. Nope. Just a week later, along with the first single of the album, “We Take Care of Our Own”, came the announcement of a brief spring tour in the U.S., hitting is most popular spots. I looked over the tour list for one specific city, Kansas City, and did not see it. However, a different city did pop out at me: Greensboro, North Carolina, which is in my old stomping grounds. The date of the concert couldn’t have been any better either. It was over spring break. After seeing this, I immediately got in contact with a longtime friend from the high school days who lives in the area, and had never seen Bruce, and made going to this thing happen. In the weeks leading up to the show, Bruce had played at the Grammy Awards to give everyone a taste of what was to come and then a warm up show for the tour at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater. After seeing footage of these performances, I knew that they were going to do their best to fill the large void.
Move ahead to the night of the show. We got pretty good seats in the upper deck on stage right, which was Clarence’s old corner. The time on the ticket said 7:30pm, and when that time rolled around the arena was maybe a quarter full. The parking lot on the walk in was in great spirits. Tailgaters were everywhere and a different Bruce song every 20 feet. I enjoy getting in there early however, so I can find my seat, get a shirt (got the last one in my size too), and watch the roadies set up shop and tune the axes. Up in Clarence’s old corner was just a mic. and assorted percussion instruments. I was hoping they would put his king’s throne that he sat in when not playing on the last two tours due to his aching knees on stage as a tribute, but it was absent. In the back however, behind Max Weinberg’s drum kit, was a row of horns. Five horns at that: 2 trumpets, a trombone, and 2 saxes. Yes, it does take 5 people to even begin to attempt to fill the Big Man’s shoes. The newly dubbed “E Street horn section” included seasoned vets Clark Gayton, Jr. on trombone, Curt Ramm and Barry Danielian on the trumpet, and Asbury Juke Eddie Manion on sax. But there was one star of the section, that being Clarence Clemons’ own nephew Jake Clemons to fill his void of the solos. At 8:12pm, the arena went dark, the fans started “Bruuuuuuuuucing” loudly, and the band quietly took the stage while The Boss stepped up to his front and center mic. and started strumming his iconic Fender Telecaster body/Esquire neck hybrid guitar that graced the cover of Born to Run. With his strumming, he started to give his own introduction, similar to the one he received just a week and a half earlier at the Apollo Theater; Bruce’s own “Star Time” intro if you will. He started belting out line after line about himself with a chromatic chord change a half step up after each one along with a crash by the band. “Ladies and Gentlemen, the hardest working New Jerseyan in show business, the Jersey Devil himself, the proud owner of the Billboard #1 record for the last FOUR DAYS! He’s sexy AND he knows it… Bruce Springsteen and the legendary E Street Band!” he bellowed. With that, the band had modulated up to the opening chords to the first single off the new album, “We Take Care of Our Own,” and Bruce’s 2 hour and 45 minute marathon was instantly underway.
The crowd was immediately treated to a double punch of singles off of the new album, the previously mentioned one, and the title track “Wrecking Ball.” The crowd was instantly amped, and I was impressed by the new sound that included this monster of a horn section. But the moment everyone had really been waiting for came with his next selection. As “Wrecking Ball’s” last chord was being drawn out, Bruce called out his familiar “One Two Three Four” and with that came the iconic drum intro to concert warhorse, “Badlands.” With that the crowd erupted, pumped their fists, and sang along, but halfway through the song, the moment of truth came: the first sax solo of the night. As the guitar solo winded down, Jake Clemons stepped forward and belted out a spot-on perfect rendition of anything his uncle had done. The kid played like a man possessed, and the crowd immediately let him know how appreciated he was by the E Street nation. As he finished that solo, he held his horn up, kissed his hand, and pointed a finger to the heavens for his uncle, who is surely jamming away with Gabriel every night. With the crowd now fully into it, he finished “Badlands” with the usual live coda and followed it up with another new song, “Death to My Hometown,” an Irish sounding song with soulful horns blaring out the riff of the tune with Bruce dancing a jig when not singing.
After a powerful, anthemic four song start, Bruce decided it was time to slow it down with “My City of Ruins” off of 2002’s The Rising, which was a song many assumed was about New York City after Sept 11th, but was actually written ten years prior about the downfall and hard times that had fallen on Bruce’s adopted home city of Asbury Park, NJ. The album version of the song sounds like a gospel hymn, but the new live version complete with horns and soul singers made it sound like gospel time at the Apollo. After the first two verses of the song, Bruce started talking to the crowd about the E Street mission to bring the joyous power of music into your heart, to make sure that you “leave with feet hurting, hands hurting, no voice, and with sexual organs tingling.” Following that, he gave a surprisingly early “band roll call” that is usually saved for the encore. After shouting out each band member on stages name, each of which gave a short solo, he asked if he forgot anyone. The crowd started yelling “Clarence” and pointing to the stage right corner, the corner which also had Danny Federici behind the Big Man. It was then that the stage dimmed and spotlights were cast over Clarence’s spot and Danny’s organ, and Bruce exclaimed “if I’m still here, and your all still here, then they are most certainly still here.” Following that, Bruce then talked about playing in the same arena in 1988, and pointed to a seat in the crowd and said “little Jakey sat right there. He was 8 years old. That was way back, but now we’re gonna take it all the way back” and the opening horn tuning of “E Street Shuffle” started. The song took off like a raucous party that included a percussion solo traded off between the Mighty Max and new addition auxiliary man Everett Bradley, and the song concluded with all the horn players at the front of the stage.
Up next was “Jack of All Trades,” a slow somber number about the recession, which Bruce pointed out that he wrote in 2009 and was not inspired by the Occupy movement. This song is quite slow, and it was at this time that many of the upper deck fans around me decided it was either time for a bathroom break, or at least to sit down. I did neither, just to be clear. I did get a good look around me though at the crowd and noticed a boy that was maybe 8 and his father near me. All I could think was, “Wow, I wish I could’ve gone to see Bruce when I was 8. What a lucky kid.” The break for the fans didn’t last long however, as after the slow number, Bruce brought out “Seeds,” a song that has only been released on his Live 1975-85 box set. This was another song that really benefited from the addition of a beefy horn section, but still kept all the fire of what its former self was with a fiery guitar solo by Nils Lofgren. Following this song, Bruce used what I thought was a great tactic to keep the crowd into it by alternating his new songs (which he played 9 out of 13 of from the new album) with long time favorites. After “Seeds” was “Easy Money,” another new one that featured the entire horn section dropping their horns and picking up marching militia-esque tenor drums and hammered away the heavy beat. Following that up was “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day,” another Rising favorite, and this included a guest vocalist, a young boy picked from the crowd to help sing the chorus. It also included a long knee slide by Bruce across the stage, a move that many thought that the latest AARP cover man had put to bed. The crowd was brought to life again with that, but then the icing on the cake was the first appearance of Bruce’s harmonica on “The Promised Land,” from Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Bruce and the band added some new material next by bringing back their Apollo Medley from a couple weeks ago, which included The Temptations‘ “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and Wilson Pickett’s “634-5789.” He also dedicated this medley to his daughter Jess, who is a student at a local university, who was there with some friends. It was also during this number that Bruce ran to the middle of the floor where the divider from the front section to the back section is, tight-roped along the rail to a table, sang from the middle of the floor, and then proceeded to have the fans crowd surf him back to the stage (which they graciously did). The place was alive and rocking at this point, and Bruce used it as an opportunity to bring out some more new material with “Shackled and Drawn,” another drum heavy staple off the new album. After that, he pulled out a “new oldie” if you will by playing “Because the Night,” which he had been playing since 1978, but appeared on 2010’s release of The Promise, which is all songs that went unused during the Darkness recording sessions. Night included another fiery Lofgren guitar solo that got the crowd going wild again. Bruce then started to wind the set down with “The Rising,” the title track off that album, then the ending track (not including bonus tracks) off of Wrecking Ball, “We Are Alive,” a quiet song at the beginning, just featuring Bruce on acoustic guitar, but gets big and soulful at the end with the horns. The stage then went dark, with spotlights on “Professor” Roy Bittan on the piano, and Bruce with his telecaster and a harmonica, and the opening lick of “Thunder Road” kicked off to which the crowd erupted. The song kicked off into full gear after the intro, and Bruce held the microphone out over the crowd and let everyone sing along. This was my first time in 3 shows that he did “Thunder Road,” so I was pretty damn excited. The song went along, and Jake took the ending solo, followed by the entire horns playing the ending theme. Just like that, the song ended, and the band all stepped forward for a company bow. All I could think of was “is that really all?”
No, it wasn’t. The band didn’t even retreat back stage. They just jumped right back into what could be perceived as one long giant set, but this was really the start of the encore. For the next tune, Bruce brought out guest vocalist/rapper Michelle Moore to do her part on the new song “Rocky Ground,” which includes of all things, a rap in the middle of it. The second song of the encore was a new soulful rendition of “Land of Hope and Dreams,” which started making rounds on the ’99 Reunion Tour, but was recorded in a studio and put on Wrecking Ball. This is also known for being Clarence Clemons last recorded sax solo. That song really speaks a message to everyone out there, that we all have hope as “this train carries saints and sinners, losers and winners, whores and gamblers, everyone all aboard! You don’t need no ticket, just get on board, and thank the Lord…” The “thank the Lord” line was a recent addition to the new soulful version, which also includes an intro vocal duet between Bruce and soul singer Curtis King.
As this song was concluding, it was another “One Two Three Four,” and just like that, the house lights were on, and “Born to Run” had kicked off. This was one of the songs I was hoping would still be played after the passing of Clarence. I can understand a retirement of “Jungleland,” with an exception being at a tribute concert or something of that nature, but “Born to Run” gives everyone in the house the feeling that for those 5 minutes, everything is right with the world. It also featured another fantastic solo by Jake who continued to point heaven’s way after every solo. The encore from that point on was staple after staple after staple with “Dancing in the Dark,” which was the only appearance of a song from the 1980’s or 90’s record and also greatly benefited from the horns, playing the familiar cheesy synth riff. Bruce also recreated the music video during the sax solo, plucking out a young girl of maybe 10 from the crowd and doing the Courteney Cox dance with her. After Dancing, the lights dimmed again, and Bruce called for “Rosalita” to come out and play. It included plenty of fun banter between band members and solos all around. The horns were all up front at the end of it, and I was thinking, okay, maybe it can end now. But no, Bruce shouted “don’t leave, we’re not done yet” with a smile on his face. Max then kicked off “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” which had an elongated piano intro that included Bruce dancing around on Roy’s white grand Steinway, waving his arms up and down to get the crowd loud. The song then got started with the horns blaring the intro riff followed by the lyrics, which included Jake covering Clarence’s vocal part. When the band got to the famous part, “Now they made that change uptown, and the Big Man joined the band!”, the band instantly stopped, in tribute to Clarence. Bruce yelled out “laugh, cry, clap, cheer… do whatever! It’s a rock n’ roll moment of silence!” After a minute, the horns kicked back in, and the song finished out. The entire band came to the front again, took a company bow, and Bruce thanked the audience saying “the band needed you.” And with that, it was over.
“The band needed you” was a line that really stuck with me after the show. It goes to show that getting back on that stage was just as therapeutic for the band as it was for everyone there. We all knew it wasn’t going to be the same. So did they, but they went out there and did the best damn tribute to Clarence “Big Man” Clemons that they could possibly put out. They did one hell of a job. I kind of see this as a wake tour for Clarence, a way for everyone to get out and celebrate not only his life, but their own. I know I did, with all of the pent up emotion of knowing I’d never hear his distinct soulful tone live ever again, along with just the hustle and grind of everyday life. Everyone there escaped from all the problems in the world for three hours and partied, and I really hope everyone that left the Greensboro Coliseum that night left with the same grin that I did after seeing what we all had just seen. As for the topic of were the Big Man’s shoes filled? No, and yes. Yes, as the parts were there and he was living on through the soul of his nephew Jake, who channeled his playing perfectly. But it’s not just about the playing. It took 5 players to fill that void. It’s also the void of the Big Man’s stage presence when he wasn’t playing. Clarence was Springsteen’s longtime comic foil on stage, having such roles as picking him up off the stage after spending too much energy, playing around, dancing, singing in his comically low baritone voice… none of that was there, and is something that will never be replaced. Bruce really summed up everything about him in his eulogy to Clarence, which can be found in the liner notes of Wrecking Ball:
“Together, we told an older, richer story about the possibilities of friendship that transcended those I’d written in my songs and in my music. Clarence carried it in his heart. It was a story where the Scooter and the Big Man not only busted the city in half, but we kicked ass and remade the city, shaping it into the kind of place where our friendship would not be such an anomaly. And that… that’s what I’m gonna miss. The chance to renew that vow and double down on that story on a nightly basis, because that is something, that is the thing that we did together… the two of us. Clarence was big, and he made me feel, and think, and love, and dream big. How big was the Big Man? Too fucking big to die. And that’s just the facts. You can put it on his grave stone, you can tattoo it over your heart. Accept it… it’s the New World.
Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we die.”
As long as the band is still together, still touring, still making music, still making people happy, and still making themselves happy, the Big Man and the Phantom will live on.