I have to admit…I went into last night’s Springsteen show at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia with mild reservation. For one, I haven’t really connected with Bruce’s album Wrecking Ball, though I always appreciate – in general – his serenades of struggle, sacrifice, and solidarity. I was also apprehensive about what the E Street Band would be now without Clarence Clemons. And, as is my concern for any aging rock musician, I fretted that at 63 years old, Bruce was potentially getting too old for this line of work. But, if I’ve learned anything from listening to the gospel-rock of Bruce Springsteen all my life, it’s that “faith will be rewarded.” And, while I am a doubting woman by nature, Bruce inspires faith in me – faith in mankind, in the power of music and art, in the better nature of ourselves. And, my faith – in him, in his music, in his politics, in his love, in his energy – was both rejuvenated and rewarded last night.
For being 63, Bruce Springsteen seems a long way from finished. He played for over three hours, he slid across the stage on his knees, he hopped up on Professor Roy Bittan’s piano and danced, he jumped into the General Admission “pit” and then CROWDSURFED back to the stage. At the end of the show, he went up the stairs and into the crowd, sat down with the fans, and drank somebody’s beer. Plain and simple: at any age, he’s the man.
When the band came out, it was hard not to notice that it’s almost doubled in size. There are your seven E Street members standing at the front of the stage, a five-piece horn section – which included saxophonist Jake Clemons, nephew of the revered Clarence Clemons – behind them to the left and two backup singers to the right (the “E Street Choir,” as Bruce called them last night). Then, there is a jack-of-all-trades (little nod to the new album there), Everett Bradley, who plays various instruments and sings. Noticeably absent, of course, was The Big Man, Clarence Clemons. Calling attention to this “new” band, Bruce made sure to quell the concerns of traditionalists by going into his typical preacher mode in which he told the crowd that the E Street Band’s mission has not changed; they are still here to infect your soul with rock music, to make your hands hurt from clapping, to make your voice hurt from singing, and to make your private parts tingle with sexual excitement (he really says all this during the show). Bruce has this uncanny ability to have his finger on the pulse of what everyone is thinking and feeling, and his sermon at the beginning of the show set many minds at ease concerning the direction of the E Street band as they transform, age and, sadly, die off.
The saxophone is such an integral part of the E Street Band’s music, it seemed hard to imagine the band without Clarence Clemons. I imagine that many fans questioned how Bruce would both professionally and personally handle this tragic loss of a colleague and friend. The addition of Jake Clemons is one way. Not only can that kid wail, but the fact that he is the nephew of the late Big Man is reassuring to those of us who grew up comforted by the deep baritone of Clarence’s voice and smooth, sexy sound of his sax. Bruce is keeping it in the family – literally – and the fans showed their appreciation for this by screaming and cheering wildly for Jake every time that he tackled one of Clarence’s famous solos.
Bruce also did two important tributes to Clarence that left me covered in my own tears and slobber. First, he played “My City of Ruin,” during which he introduced the band, which, at first, seemed like a strange choice because it’s such a sad and slow song. Normally, Bruce introduces the group during more upbeat songs like “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out.” After introducing the whole group, Bruce looked to the ground and then out at the crowd and said, “Is anybody missing? Do I have to say his name?” The crowd started chanting “Clarence!” over and over, louder and louder. Bruce gave the crowd a minute to shout for Clarence – almost like a parent giving his children time to throw a tantrum and cry it out – before moving into the last verse of the song, which goes: “Now there’s tears on the pillow/darling where we slept /and you took my heart when you left/without your sweet kiss/my soul is lost, my friend/Now tell me how do I begin again?/My city’s in ruins…” When the band and crowd sang the refrain of “Come on, rise up” together, it was a collective moment to both remember Clarence and to move on into a new life with the E Street Band.
The second tribute came during “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” which essentially is a song about the formation of the E Street Band. In one part, Bruce sings, “When the change was made uptown/and the Big Man joined the band…” at which point Clarence usually comes out to play a little sax riff. Last night, though, after Bruce sang that line, the band abruptly stopped playing altogether. Bruce, again, gave the crowd a solid minute at least to cheer, shout, and cry for Clarence. Bruce turned the cliché moment of silence completely on its head because, really, how could you mourn a rock star silently?
This is one thing I have always loved about Bruce Springsteen: he lets you in. He makes you feel a part of something that is so personal. And, even though you’re in a crowd of thousands, listening to a man you’ve never met, and grieving for a man you’ll never know, Bruce makes you feel like you’re in his inner-circle, a part of his flock.
For those looking for a night free of Bruce’s “political stuff,” you may have been disappointed. During “Shackled and Drawn,” a song from his new album, he gave a vehement middle finger upwards when he got to the line: “The banker man grows fat/the working man grows thin/It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again.” Then, he sang “41 Shots (American Skin),” a song inspired by the police shooting death of Amadou Diall, an African American teenager killed in NYC a little over decade ago, and said, “This is for Trayvon.” The band also did a rockin’ rendition of “Atlantic City,” which can be presumed was a jab at NJ Governor Chris Christie, who, after waging war on teachers and other working class citizens of NJ for the past two years, has recently given millions of dollars in tax breaks to a new casino in the south Jersey gambling town.
My dad reminded me last night that I have been seeing Springsteen shows for 28 years now, which is essentially my entire lifetime (my first concert ever was in 1984 – Born in the USA tour – Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia). Over those 28 years, Springsteen’s music has become my religion. Every album, every song, every lyric rouses me to grow personally, spiritually and intellectually, to look inwardly at myself and outwardly at the cruel but promising world around me. If his music has been my Bible, his concerts have been my service. When I see Bruce live, I feel as though I’m worshipping at the altar of art and music, Amen-ing in the congregation of blue jeans and bandanas. And, by the end, I have been saved and reborn, ready to commit my life to the hair-raising, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, heart-breaking, make-you-want-to-go-home-and-start-stripping Church of Rock and Roll.
Many people choose to have faith in a single god, in a single book, or in a single organized religion – many of which aim to frighten, to divide, and to subjugate their congregants in order to advance their stated goals. My thoughts are that if you’re going to believe in something you can’t logically prove, then it should be something that inspires you, uplifts you, and makes you feel an equal part of our greater humanity. And this is what Springsteen’s music has done and continues to do for me and, more importantly, for my soul.
Here’s the man who first brought me to the Church of Rock and Roll at last night’s Springsteen show: