Monday, April 23, 2012

They Say It’s Like Religion

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
17 April 2012: Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, Ohio

While never fanatical, I have always appreciated Bruce Springsteen’s music. Friends have steadfastly maintained that attending a Springsteen concert on a night when he’s playing with the E Street Band and they are all “on” is something akin to religion. After witnessing what took place in Cleveland on a Tuesday night, I’m of the mind that everyone should attend a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert once in their life just to experience what rock and roll is about on a primal level.

The first tour for the E Street Band without saxophonist Clarence Clemons is noteworthy for the void left by The Big Man, but also for the way b
oth the band and fans clearly have rallied around Jake Clemons who has stepped in to fill his late uncle’s very big shoes. With the house lights up, there was little fanfare – but absolutely no mistaking what was happening – when the recently dubbed “Little Big Man” stepped forward for his Cleveland sax solo debut during the set-opening “Badlands”.

Born to Run was always huge, and Born In the U.S.A. bro
ke Springsteen on a megastar level while I was a teenager. Although I enjoy 2002’s The Rising and this year’s Wrecking Ball, with a catalog so rich and so deep I wasn’t expecting to know a lot of the songs heading into the show. That proved to be a fairly accurate prediction, but it didn’t keep me from both marveling at the faithful and finding myself caught up in the throng.

Nearly a third of the setlist was frontloaded with
Wrecking Ball cuts, including the powerful one-two punch of “We Take Care of Our Own” and the title track. These selections stood out in the live setting, alongside “Shackled and Drawn” and “Jack of All Trades”, as powerful social commentary on the state of the Union.

The thing about Springsteen is that he mixes it up from show to show – a rarity in this day and age, often playing songs that are specifically tailored to the audience. For the Northeast Ohio crowd, he brought out 1995’s “Youngstown” off of The Ghost of Tom Joad that finished with a dizzying Nils Lofgren guitar solo. Written for the movie of the
same name that was set in Cleveland, “Light of Day” made its tour debut as a show stopping, rollicking high point that mixed bits of “Land of 1,000 Dances” and “You Can’t Sit Down”.

As impressive as Lofgren’s spinning guitar work was, it paled next to Max Weinberg’s efforts behind the drum kit. Relentless with the backbeat, he
is the musical backbone of the band. It’s staggering to put into perspective these men – Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt, Lofgren, Garry Tallent, Roy Bittan, and Weinberg – are all in their 60s and put on a clinic on how to deliver a relentless three-hour rock and roll show with no breaks and indomitable energy.

(Springsteen’s wife and E Street Band vocalist Patti Scialfa was absent this night, as she was “home making sure the kids stay outta the drug stash.”)

Springsteen moved freely from the main stage to an island stage behind the pit near the center of the arena floor, and it seemed something unpredictable happened each time he ventured out there. He plucked a young fan out of the crowd to
sing along with him on The Rising’s “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day”, and then carried her to the main stage to rock out with the band. On another trip out during the Apollo medley, he chugged a couple of beers handed to him by random fans and returned to the main stage by crowd surfing through the pit.

Late set appearances by “Because the Night” and “The Rising” were welcome additions. Loosely considered the “main set closer” (there was no substantial break in the show to necessarily indicate where the show ended and an encore began), “Light of Day” segued into a small set to finish the night, containing mind-blowing versions of “Born to Run”, “Dancing in the Dark” – the night’s only appearance by a Born in the U.S.A. track – and “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”.

As expected, the obligatory but no less sincere tribute to Clemons took place during the last song when Springsteen was at the mid-floor stage and sang the line about The Big Man joining the band. The acknowledgment of Clemons’ absence was clearly cathartic for the faithful, a proper good-bye.

Along with being a dominant presence in the E Street Band, Clemons’ talent has been featured on dozens of other artists’ work through the years, including playing sax on three tracks from the Michael Stanley Band’s 1980 album, Heartland. I was fortunate enough to interview Clemons in December 2006 for my presentation at the Pop Conference in April of the following year. My paper explored the impact an artist’s hometown civic image plays in their attempt at national stardom, focusing on the Michael Stanley Band and late 1970s Cleveland. There was one phrase that Clemons used over and over in our short 20 minute phone conversation when describing why Springsteen succeeded and why Michael Stanley didn’t: “You can’t out-Bruce Bruce!”

I now understand what Clemons meant.

(All photos by Adam Besenyodi.)