E Street Band’s Steven Van Zandt talks about ‘impossible’ decision to replace Clarence Clemons

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The Grammy show-opening performance from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band illustrated how the group intends to move forward without the late saxophonist Clarence Clemons. A horn section has been added to the production, with individual performers – including Clemons’ nephew, Jake – stepping forward to solo, as needed.

Longtime E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt said the decision was made because “in the end we felt it’s not going to be possible to replace Clarence, and it wouldn’t really be fair to the person. So we decided to have a horn section. In this case, we’re going to have two saxes, really, playing those parts. And whoever plays the sax part will emerge from the horn section, then they go back to the horn section. So it takes the pressure off that spotlight of suggesting that he’s replacing Clarence, which is just impossible to do.”

The 36-year-old Jake Clemons has sat in previously with Will Smith, Eddie Vedder and, of course, Springsteen. Clemons will be joined in the horn section by longtime collaborator Eddie Manion, a saxophonist who toured with Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions Band.

[CAN’T GET ENOUGH BRUCE?: Check out our weekly feature ‘Sparks Fly on E Street,’ where Mark Saleski breaks down Bruce Springsteen’s legendary career — song by memorable song.]

Van Zandt and Co. are still in the practicing stages for an upcoming tour in support of Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball. The first leg begins on March 18 in Atlanta. They played the lead single, “We Take Care of Our Own,” last Sunday. Still to be decided, Van Zandt said, is how to approach songs that have become Clarence Clemons’ signature moments, like the song “Jungleland.”

“I don’t know. We’ll see,” Van Zandt told RollingStone.com. “I’ll let Bruce talk to you about that stuff, but we’ll have to see. We’re starting with just the premise of a horn section and Bruce’s music being continued by this band. … It’s the early stages, we’re just starting to rehearse now, and I’m sure we’ll learn things as we go.”

Bringing Jake Clemons on board, aside from his talents on the sax, also helped the E Street Band — and, perhaps, the fans — begin healing in the wake of Clemons’ sudden death last year from an aneurism, Van Zandt said. “I think that helps us emotionally, and I think it’ll maybe help the audience emotionally to make that transition by keeping it in the family.”

Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Click through the titles for complete reviews …

FRIDAY MORNING LISTEN: BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, “WE TAKE CARE OF OUR OWN” (2012): I popped in the earbuds, pulled the comforter up over my head, and pressed play. Nobody could see it but a huge grin came across my face. The drums lead into the Telecaster arpeggios, and then the glockenspiel, and piano, and … and I’m a kid again. This is where I almost feel sorry for the nitpickers. It’s like people forget what the joy of discovery is like, choosing to remain attached to a kind of negative spirit that suits every occasion. Is it a control thing? I guess I don’t know, and certainly won’t spend a whole lot of time trying to figure it out. So press play I did. About ten times.

SOMETHING ELSE! SNEAK PEEK: HEAR FOUR TRACKS FROM ‘WRECKING BALL’: Can’t wait for Wrecking Ball? Neither can we. So, we dug around and collected four songs from the just-announced track listing. There are 13 tunes slated for the deluxe edition of album, including the lead single, “We Take Care of Our Own.” But Springsteen’s previously introduced fans to the title song, an album cut called “Land of Hopes and Dreams” and a bonus track from the deluxe edition of the album, as well. Here’s a quick listen to those earlier takes, plus the new single, to enjoy in the run up to Springsteen’s 17th official studio recording.

SHOWS I’LL NEVER FORGET: BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, APRIL 22, 2009: Earlier in the day, I had an e-conversation with a writer cohort about the issue of emotion at concerts. I can easily be overwhelmed with emotion in the moment and wondered how I would react last night, given the crazy changes that have affected my family over the last year. Well, there were a couple of times when it was tough to hold back. The first came early, during the louder parts of “Candy’s Room.” My mom loved that song and would always ask me to crank it up during those parts. The second, which did overcome me, came during “The Promised Land.” When Bruce sang “Mister I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man…” it just hit me that I am, indeed, no longer anybody’s little boy. I sort of hoped that nobody would see the tears, but I sort of didn’t care either.

ONE TRACK MIND: BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, “YOU’RE MISSING” (2002): This song, issued in the wake of the devastating attacks on New York City in 2001, nearly overwhelmed me with grief the first time I heard it. I thought of my father. He’s been dead more than 20 years, and I must admit that — like everything from that long-ago time — there are moments when it is hard to fully grasp his memory. I think of him more and more in the abstract, like a fading image from an old photograph. Springsteen’s ardent eye on this shattering tune — “shirts in the closet, shoes in the hall … coffee cups on the counter, jackets on the chair, paper’s on the doorstep … everything is everything, but you’re missing” — took me back to the specific. The billowing power of a song like this is that it connects, on some elemental, emotional level, and you make it your own.

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