The Rockologist: What to expect from Bruce Springsteen and his new 'E Street Big Band'

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Bruce Springsteen has just notched his tenth U.S. No. 1  album — knocking off the previously unstoppable juggernaut that is Adele, no less — on the Billboard charts. But with the kickoff for the massive Wrecking Ball world tour just around the corner, there are probably just as many burning questions in the minds of Boss fans, as there are answers.

Some of these were put to rest with Springsteen’s amazing two-hour set last week at New York’s legendary Apollo Theater, which was also broadcast live over Sirius Satellite Radio. A similar warmup gig is scheduled for later this week at the South By Southwest industry confab in Austin, Texas.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: ‘Wrecking Ball’ wasn’t a radical shift, so much as a modern testament to Bruce Springsteen’s folk, blues, country and especially gospel influences.]

By most accounts, the newly expanded E Street Band sounded as tight as ever at the Apollo. The horn section added an element of sweet soul music to the otherwise downcast lyrical mood of some of Springsteen’s new songs. Perhaps most importantly —  and in probably the biggest question mark hanging over the room that night — it sounds like young Jake Clemons is going to do just fine, filling those size-twelve shoes that the Big Man left behind.

But just how is this new “E Street Big Band” — a group that includes so many guys onstage, one could really liken it more to a small orchestra — going to translate to audiences, once it moves out of the small theaters, and into the big arenas and stadiums?

Fortunately for us, there are a few precedents for this. The most recent example of Springsteen touring with this large an ensemble, would be the Seeger Sessions tour.  In addition to the new band featuring a few carryover guys from that era, the songs on Wrecking Ball also incorporate some of the rawer folk elements from its namesake album. On that tour, the Seeger Sessions Band also created a hell of a joyous racket, even if it was of a slightly different color than the “big noise” the E Street Band is so famous in rattling arena rafters for.

Springsteen has also previously utilized a full horn section working in concert with the E Street Band. The last time he did this was on 1988’s Tunnel of Love Express Tour, and the results were pretty spectacular there. On that tour, the more austere tone of the songs from Tunnel — which foretold the real life soap opera of Springsteen’s first marriage disintegrating, even as he was shacked up with then backup singer Patti Scialfa out on the road — gave way to concerts that were often more like an old school R&B revue.

Doubt this?  Just check out the clip below from the 1988 Tunnel tour in Europe — an uproarious cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom, Boom,” complete with a full compliment of blaring horns.

Perhaps owing to the venue (or “Temple Of Soul,” as Bruce himself put it), a lot of the same sweet sounding soul carried over to last week’s show at the Apollo, which blended the songs from Wrecking Ball with great R&B covers by everyone from Sam & Dave to Smokey Robinson. Bruce also re-introduced one of the more personal elements from his original performances back in the 1970s with the E Street Band — the place where he really first made his reputation as the greatest live act in rock — that hasn’t been seen all that much since then.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: The E Street Band’s Nils Lofgren talks about the devastating loss of Clarence Clemons, and signature career moments with Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Ringo Starr.]

During both “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” and a cover of the Temptations’ “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” Bruce ventured out into the crowd. Longtime fans will particularly remember that back on the Darkness tour, Bruce would routinely do this almost every night, usually by about the third or fourth song. Here at the Apollo, Bruce takes this “personal approach” to a new level, that at one point had me fearing a little for his safety.

Check out the video below. Starting at right about the 7:00 mark, the way he is seen precariously dangling from the second balcony will remind you more of an old ECW wrestling match, than a rock concert.

Another thing about the upcoming tour that has a lot of Springsteen’s more hardcore fans speculating out loud: What are the setlists are going to look like? While I do have some (but not a lot) of sympathy for the way some fans tend to obsess about this, I also have little patience for those who take this obsession to the extreme. I’ve been waiting to see my own favorite Bruce song, “The Price You Pay,” performed live for a second time since the first time I saw him do it on The River tour back in 1980. But remind me sometime to tell you about the music blogger I know, who once wrote a concert review that devoted considerable space to how he turned his back on Springsteen when he had the audacity to perform “Waiting On A Sunny Day.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Can’t get enough Bruce Springsteen? We’re going song by song — every one of them — from throughout the Boss’ entire career in our weekly feature ‘Sparks Fly on E Street.’]

Hey, it’s not one of my favorites either. Even so, not cool. At the same time, I have to admit that I much prefer the “anything goes” nature of Springsteen’s recent tours for the Magic and Working On A Dream albums, over the more static approach taken on the tour behind The Rising, for example. I only saw two shows on the Magic tour — on back to back nights in Seattle and Portland. But on each night, the setlists were wildly different, and loaded with rarely played songs like “Trapped” and “Lost In The Flood.” By contrast, I caught multiple shows for The Rising, in venues ranging from Vancouver B.C. to New Jersey, and the only significant difference with any of them came when he busted out the ultra-rare “Janey Don’t You Lose Heart” at Giants Stadium.

Although I suspect that things will change once this tour makes the jump to stadiums — the shows should be longer than two hours, for one thing — Springsteen seemed to be sticking to a pretty strict setlist last week at the Apollo. Despite the aforementioned soul covers, the focus was definitely on Wrecking Ball, much the same way as The Rising shows (at least the ones I saw) honed in on that album. That said, if every show I see this tour (which I expect will be several) starts the same way as this one, you’ll hear no further complaints from me.

The funniest thing about this clip, of course, is that none of the songs Bruce name checks in that over-the-top intro — “Dancing In The Dark,” “Born To Run” and “Hungry Heart” — were actually played that night. But most likely, I’m just splitting unnecessary hairs here.

Of the more familiar tracks Springsteen did play at the Apollo — stuff like “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” “Badlands” and “Thunder Road” — you have to figure that Jake Clemons is still just getting his feet wet, which would also explain why there weren’t as many of the “hits” played as usual. By the time, Jake finally does bust out something like “Jungleland” for example — which I fully expect will happen at some point on this tour — there are going to be a lot of fans in attendance holding their collective breaths.

The ghost of Jake’s uncle,  Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, still hangs just about that heavy over the Wrecking Ball tour.

It’s going to be a bit of a learning curve for Jake, I suspect. In the meantime, if the Apollo show was any indication, Springsteen’s audience seems to be warming to him. And the rest of the guys in the horn section have got his back, just in case.

It’s Boss Time, baby. See ya’ out at the shows this year.

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Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd

The Something Else! Reviews webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, is syndicated through Bing News, Topix and AllAboutJazz.com. The site has been featured in The New York Times, NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, the NoDepression.com Americana site, Popdose.com and JazzTimes, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com, Rock.com, Blues Revue Magazine and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Glen Boyd
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