Last Friday evening, Bruce Springsteen and the newly-enlarged E Street Band brought a little – no, A LOT – of magic to the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Or, as Bruce joked, “the least luxurious place in Southern California”. And damn if that isn’t exactly the kind of setting in which you’d want to spend a night living it up and worshipping at the Church of Bruce.

The Boss – He’s Still Got It

It’s no secret that the Boss has always been a powerful showman whose concerts are nothing short of legendary. I could expound for hours (and many have) on the experience that is an E Street show and the miracle that is Bruce’s on-stage energy. The man busts out of the gate with his incredible magnetism and quite literally never stops. Even at 62, he continues to do his trademark knee slides across the entire length of a stage, crowd surf, jump on top of pianos, windmill his guitar, run around the perimeter of the General Admission audience, and even climb up into the balcony and over the railing.

The man is more than twice my age and he still has, at minimum, twice as much stamina as I do (or ever did). You know that expression, “leave it all on the field”? Well this is a real life example of a performer who does does exactly that and nothing less. Jon Stewart called it,  “[emptying] the tank”.  You can you insert your own metaphor here, but you get it. Whatever Bruce has, he gives it all on that stage. It is for that reason that a Springsteen show is a master class in performing. And it is a sight to see.

Remembering Clarence

This tour is the first following the death of legendary saxophonist and E Street Band member Clarence Clemons. His loss was certainly felt on Friday, but it also meant – and I do not mean this lightly – that fans were introduced to the newly re-tooled band. Longtime E Street members Stevie Van Zandt, Patti Scialfa, Nils Lofgren, Max Weinberg, Roy Bittan, and Garry Tallent are all still here and each are in fine form. But with the passing of Bruce’s musical kindred spirit, changes had to be made to help deal with the elemental loss of the Big Man and his sax.

It goes without saying that Clarence cannot and will never be replaced: that truth is further underscored by the fact that his death left a hole in the E Street universe so big that it took an entire horn section just to try to patch it back up. Jake Clemons, Clarence’s nephew, has been brought in to tackle the legendary sax solos which have become so integral to the E Street sound. And to his credit, Jake does an admirable job in trying to fill such large and sacred shoes. Nicely done, Jake!

Also joining the band on the Wrecking Ball tour are Soozie Tyrell, Charles Giordano, church singer Michelle Moore, and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine (for selected songs). It’s a melting pot of different musicians with various musical backgrounds, but man does it work to create an incredibly rich sound.

Pre-Show Surprise

The show on Friday capped off at just over three hours (so yeah, you could say I got my money’s worth…and then some), but that time also comes with a glorious asterisk because early arrivals were blessed with a special treat. About an hour before the band entered the arena and launched into the night’s opening number, Bruce was taking some photos with members of his extended family up on the stage. He then strapped on his guitar and surprised the early birds (me! I was there!) with an acoustic solo version of “For You”.  This kind of surprise pre-show song may have happened before, but I had never been a witness to such a thing. And I don’t think many others there that night had either, as the crowd lost. their. freaking. minds. No joke. Check it out:

Bruce Springsteen, “For You” (Acoustic solo)

The Concert

Later came the blow-your-pants-off real show. Now, I have attended  many concerts in my time – including several Springsteen ones – and I can tell you that Friday evening’s show had one of the most inspired set lists I have ever witnessed. And I’m not simply talking about the choice of songs that were played. I am also talking about the order in which they were rolled out. You see, Bruce seems to approach creating a set list for his live shows much in the same thoughtful way that he chooses what songs make it onto an album and in what order. Because a concert, like an album, is meant to be taken in as a complete experience with its own specific emotional journey. It was no accident that the intense rallying cry of “Badlands” got you ready for the rousing and topical “Death to My Hometown”, which then prepared you for the somber and reflective “My City of Ruins”, where next you were pulled up out of the emotional abyss with the whimsical “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?”.  Even during Springsteen’s last tour when he started taking “stump the band” song requests, the request section had a very specific place in the show and served a specific role. Sure, an audible may occasionally be called, swapping out one song for another, but none of it is random. And this is because each concert tells a story and Bruce is the architect of that tale.

So what was Friday’s tale? It was one about loss as expressed through the hard-bitten words of those who have struggled immensely and who feel they are seemingly at odds with the American Dream they once believed in so steadfastly. But that is not to say that this was a story of failure or of losers, because the characters in these songs were not people who had given up  or who were impenetrable by hope. After all, the night began with a resolute voice reminding us:

We made a promise we swore we’d always remember
No retreat, baby, no surrender

The evening was quite somber at times, but certainly not one lacking in spirit. Because even in periods of darkness – as Springsteen puts forth one of his angriest albums to date and deals with the death of a bandmate – Bruce and the E Street Band live is still the purest expression of joy that I have ever found.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention some of the killer solos we were treated to that evening: Nils Lofgren blew the roof off the place during “Youngstown”; Bruce himself tore it up on the guitar during “Prove It All Night”; Roy Bittan’s spotlighted piano work during “Racing in the Street” was heartbreaking; and jaws quite simply had to be picked up off the floor at the end of Tom Morello’s guitar solo during “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (among others, where Morello was equally stunning).

But perhaps one of the most touching moments of the evening came during “My City of Ruins”. The story of what Bruce did during this number has already made the rounds on the Internet, but it was such a moving addendum to an already gorgeous song that I’m going to reiterate it here.

Midway through the song, Bruce paused the lyrics to do a “roll call” of the band. With the melody still offering up a score to his words, he introduced the E Street Band members and then turned to the audience and asked, “Are we missing anybody?”. Yes. Yes we were: the most recent loss was of course, Clarence Clemons, but in 2008 Danny Federici passed after a battle with melanoma. And as our musical shepherd for the evening asked that question, two spotlights illuminated the places that Clemons and Federici once held up on that stage next to Bruce. That alone would have been a subtle and moving tribute. But there was more. Bruce went on and sang in his best “rock ‘n’ roll preacher” voice:

All I know
All I know
All I know
All I know
Is if you’re here
And we’re here
Then they’re here now
If you’re here
And we’re here
Then they’re here tonight

In that moment, it didn’t matter if you were a long-time fan, new to the Springsteen party, familiar with the history of the band, or just there to smugly make fun of the diehards next to you: you couldn’t help but be moved. As for me, I may *or may not* have gotten choked up. I’m only human! Because while the “they” was clearly intended as a referral to the fallen members of the E Street Band, “they” could have just as easily been anybody lost to you. That’s the great thing about Bruce’s music: it’s a conversation, not a one-sided speech. And what you receive or perceive as an educated listener is just as important as what was said (*gross misuse of songs for political agendas not included).

The other moment that moved many to tears came during the final song of the night, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out”. The number tells the story of how the E Street Band came together; and as the song approached the lyrics describing the fateful meeting of the now-departed Big Man Clarence Clemons, Bruce proclaimed, “This is the important part!” before singing:

When the change was made uptown
And the Big Man joined the band

At that moment, the Boss, from atop a pedestal placed in the middle of the General Admission section, looked up to the arena’s monitors and paused as a photo montage of the Big Man was projected. After the applause finally died down, Bruce took up the rest of the song and brought it all home:

From the coastline to the city
All the little pretties raise their hands
I’m gonna sit back real easy and laugh
When Scooter and the Big Man bust the city in half
With a Tenth Avenue freeze-out

As Springsteen himself said on Friday, the band was there “to tell…a story of hellos and goodbyes. And things that get lost and things that never get lost. And things that leave and things that never leave…that stay with you forever.”  That concert was certainly something that will never leave anyone who was there. But it was also, like any Springsteen show, an invitation: an invitation to hope, an invitation to rally once again, an invitation to experience a great generosity of spirit, and an invitation to join in what can only be described as boundless vigilante joy. Because when it comes to the Boss and the E Street Band, you are not at that show as a spectator; you are there as a participant. And with the seemingly indefatigable Bruce leading the evening, that’s always a good place to be.

“The Ghost of Tom Joad” live 4/27/12

The Setlist:

For You (solo acoustic) [Pre-show!]
* * *
No Surrender
We Take Care of Our Own
Wrecking Ball
Death to My Hometown (with Tom Morello)
My City of Ruins
Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?
Jack of All Trades (with Tom Morello)
Prove It All Night
Darkness on the Edge of Town
Easy Money
Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
Apollo Medley
Racing in the Street
The Rising
Lonesome Day
We Are Alive
The Ghost of Tom Joad (with Tom Morello)
Land of Hope and Dreams (with Tom Morello)
* * *
Rocky Ground (with gospel singer Michelle Moore)
Bobby Jean
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-out (with Tom Morello)