With a 15-member supersized E Street Band at his disposal, Bruce Springsteen delivered an emotional wallop to go along with his 40-year repertoire of songs during a nearly three-hour performance at the dilapidated Los Angeles Sports Arena Thursday night. The 62-year-old rock ‘n’ roll titan, playing before a roaring crowd that ranged from certified geezers to those in the Nickelodeon demo, made sure to pay homage to those who have shared his life’s journey.
If there was a noticeable void on the side of the stage where legendary saxman Clarence Clemons once stood for thousands of you-had-to-be-there concerts, Springsteen filled the space with a solid five-piece horn section that gave added oomph to such staples as “E Street Shuffle” and “Dancing in the Dark,” the first single to come off his career-changing 1984 album, “Born in the USA.”
But it was the addition of enthusiastic saxophonist Jake Clemons, who just so happens to be Clarence’s nephew, which cemented the realization that the E Street Band remains an ever-changing musical organism. The young Clemons’ showmanship and, clearly, his excitement of just being part of a legendary band, as well as his ability to hit all the right notes his uncle never missed, clearly felt good for the audience’s soul.
In past tours, Springsteen would wait until near the end of the show for band introductions, but here he puts it up front with “My City of Ruins,” a song that has now been used three separate times as way to reflect on ominous occasions ¬– the economic demise of Asbury Park, N.J.; the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center; and, now, a band dealing with its own mortality.
When he asked the audience, “Are we missing anybody?” and fans began to raise their voices in appreciation of Clemons and organist Danny Federici, who passed away in 2008, Springsteen said: “If you’re here, and we’re here, then they’re here.”
Musically speaking, much of the night ¬– eight of the 25 songs played — was from Springsteen’s newest release, “Wrecking Ball.” The album, like much of his work over a career that spans 17 studio records, offers the perspective of the proletariat, this time left barren by an unforeseen economic crisis. In the jaunty but harsh “Death to My Hometown,” Springsteen sings: “Send the robber baron’s straight to hell/The greedy thieves that came around/And ate the flesh of everything they’ve found/Whose crimes have gone unpunished now.”
The somber but equally effective “Jack of All Trades,” written in 2009, also deals with the anger many have suffered when seeing their homes taken away from them or have their jobs outsourced or eliminated.
It was also the warhorses, however, that kept the fans on their feet most of the night. Springsteen opened the show – and kept the house lights on – for “Badlands,” and also made room for “The Promised Land,” “The Ties That Bind,” “She’s the One” and, of course, “Born to Run.”
Plenty of care was given to the “Darkness on the Edge of Town” album. Besides “Badlands” and “The Promised Land,” there were renditions of the rarely played “Something in the Night” and perennial fan fave “Candy’s Room.”
While plenty different from Tuesday’s set in San Jose – where “Thunder Road,” “Backstreets” and “Rosalita” made appearances, and where the show was, gulp, actually 20 minutes longer – the L.A. show had the good fortune of a guest appearance from Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine
Morello has become a staple of Southern California Springsteen shows over the last few tours and he certainly didn’t disappoint this time out. While joining in a few numbers, he blew the roof off the creaking joint with his guitar work on “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” which made its tour premiere.
While Springsteen is a solid, if unspectacular guitarist, Morello craftsmanship with his instrument is downright mind-boggling, and even Springsteen seemed amazed at the sounds Morello was making with his axe.
As for what the show lacked, there was certainly less playfulness this time around between Springsteen and his lifelong friend Steve Van Zandt, who has nicely segued to an acting career in dramatic television (“The Sopranos,” “Lilyhammer”). And, sadly, the spectacular musicianship of Nils Lofgren has rarely got a chance to shine in this new tour that will shortly begin a European swing.
The night closed on an emotional “10th Avenue Freezeout,” a song that is the musical tale of how Springsteen and Clarence Clemons met – the inevitable pairing of the Scooter and the Big Man.
On a small stage in the middle of the Sports Arena, engulfed by a sellout crowd both happily hoarse and exhausted, Springsteen stopped “Freezeout” dead in its tracks when the line arrived, “And when the change was made uptown, the Big Man joined the band.”
At that point, the beat became silent and images of a conjoined Clemons and Springsteen were offered on video screens, with fans watching intently, simultaneously not knowing whether to roar or cry. The video montage captured not only a celebration of Clemons’ oversized spirit, but of two larger-than-life figures that will forever be linked.
The truth is that Clemons and Springsteen were never buddies in a Fred and Barney sense, and rarely hung out together off the stage – certainly in the latter days of the E Street Band. But a chance meeting four decades ago brought them together, and not seeing them shoulder-to-shoulder anymore still remains difficult to process.
Yet the E Street Band, which saw Max Weinberg’s son, Jay, sit in on drums during the last tour, still endures. They come into your town, give it their all while having the audacity to make each city feel special and unique, and ship out.
It’s what they do. And as long as Springsteen can find the strength to strap on the Fender, there’s little reason to expect the carnival to slow down anytime soon.