Here’s a rule to live by: It’s OK to get to a Bruce Springsteen concert a little late, but never ever, ever leave early.
Then again, with Springsteen’s new self-introduction – a tongue-in-cheek intonation about “The Jersey devil…the future of rock ‘n’ roll himself …he’s sexy and he knows it” – it was worthwhile to have been standing, camera phones poised, when Springsteen and the venerable E Street Band kicked off their “Wrecking Ball” tour at 8:10 Sunday night at Philips Arena.
It was the first of many “new” things on this 53-date outing. The second one came the instant the lights flooded the open-backed stage and, along with it, the jolting reality of what – rather, who – was missing.
Clarence Clemons. The Big Man. The imposing glue of the E Street Band.
It was a massive shadow that hung over the concert for two hours and 35 minutes – but one that was acknowledged frequently and gracefully, bittersweet sighs mixed with cheers in Clemons’ memory. Early in the show, Springsteen took “roll call” of the band, asking, finally, “Are we missing anybody?” an obvious nod to Clemons and organist Danny Federici, who died in 2008.
“The only thing I can guarantee,” Springsteen said, “is that if you’re here and we’re here…then they’re here.”
But still, no matter that this current incarnation of the E Streeters is bigger than a football team (16 players plus their MVP quarterback). Or that the excellent five-piece brass section is anchored, in a bit of karmic awesomeness, by Clemons’ nephew, Jake.
The Big Man was still missed.
But life – and the E Street Band – goes on, and Springsteen kept a healthy chunk of his 24-song set list current, opening with the double-punch of new songs “We Take Care of Our Own” and “Wrecking Ball,” the latter a slow-build into the inevitable cymbal-crashing crescendo from Mighty Max Weinberg, the human metronome.
The success of “Wrecking Ball,” the album, which hit No. 1 last week (the 10th of his career), hopefully means that fans are willing to embrace the songs live, too.
For every nostalgic glance to “Badlands” – during which Springsteen called Clemons the Younger forward for his first solo – or infectious “E Street Shuffle,” came a handful of new tracks.
But Springsteen is one of the few artists who can play 10 of 13 songs from a new album and still hold a multi-generational sold-out crowd rapt with his intense delivery and distinctively raspy voice. It also helps that as sturdy as many of these fresh tunes are on record, live, they’re dusted with E Street magic.
For the musically adventurous “Death to My Hometown,” featuring tuba, accordion and electric banjo, Springsteen growled the lyrics, thrusting his finger at the crowd, passion flying alongside spit and sweat.
He briefly mentioned the 2009 recession as the impetus for “Jack of All Trades” before quickly heading into the wrenching, yet ultimately uplifting, ballad. Those who have chastised Springsteen in the past for politicking at his shows will find nothing to complain about this time.
He did, however, note that he spent a lot of time in Atlanta the past decade (“The Rising,” “Magic” and “Working on a Dream” were recorded at Southern Tracks studio) and that he was “glad to start our tour off here and see if this [stuff] works…or die tryin’.”
At 62, Springsteen is still a taut package of rugged masculinity in tight black jeans and a neat vest and button-down shirt; and while he might not slide across the stage on his knees anymore, he’s still insanely active.
He called wife Patti Scialfa to join him a few rows into the crowd for “Easy Money,” gave a quick kiss to the back of her head at song’s end and then took a swing on his mic stand, staying close enough to yelp another, “1-2-3-fah!” to kickstart “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day.” During that one, he tightrope-walked his way across the front part of a lower side section, and, a few moments later, for “Promised Land,” perched on the drum riser to trade harmonica licks with Clemons’ sax riffs.
While many fans relish Springsteen’s cover songs, the selections for this tour (so far) – The Temptations’ “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and Wilson Pickett’s “634-5789” – sounded more like an audition to be the world’s greatest bar mitzvah band. Although watching Springsteen get passed across the crowd on his back, Peter Gabriel-style, was almost worth the soul-revue detour.
While the first three-quarters of the typically no-frills show maintained an even-keeled pace, without the spikes of energy of tours past, the final five songs proved – just in case it still needed verifying – that Springsteen and the E Street Band is the best live act in the business.
It was the usual houselights up for “Born to Run,” a roar greeting Clemons when he unleashed the notes of his uncle’s iconic solo. For whatever reason, in the moment of that song, with 20,000 people singing in unison, there is always a swelling feeling that all is right with the world.
Springsteen also revived “Dancing in the Dark,” a pop tune whose perky melody belies its introspective lyrics and his lone live nod to his ‘80s hit-making period. He appeared to have a ball during the song, though, even reminding us of Courtney Cox’s earliest fame by pulling a young girl onto the stage to dance with him.
But it was the climactic “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” that will stick with fans, both for its eternal melody and now, its more poignant meaning.
Springsteen strolled the stage for the swaggering tune – Steven Van Zandt, with his wonderful cartoon face, mugging appropriately behind him – and when the line, “When the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band,” arrived, did the only appropriate thing: Stopped the music.
The song culminated with grins and hugs and bows, and an exhausted yet exhilarated Springsteen proclaimed, “What an audience!” Then, he backed off the stage, blowing a kiss to the crowd before heading back to join his brotherhood.
Set list from March 18, 2012
By Melissa Ruggieri, Atlanta Music Scene Blog
Follow me on Twitter: @ajclifestyle