As E Street Band deals with loss, Little Steven Van Zandt says Boss 'continues to amaze me'

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The E Street Band is in the midst of one of its most difficult and unusual concert tours ever, interpreting for the first time a new solo release by Bruce Springsteen — and doing so without saxophonist Clarence Clemons or keyboardist Danny Federici, both of whom have passed since 2008.

Little Steven Van Zandt is blunt about the twin departures: “It will never be the same ever again,” he says.

Federici played alongside Springsteen from the group’s inception, adding organ, glockenspiel and accordion until he was felled by cancer in 2008. Clemons served as tenor man and principal foil in the E Street Band from 1972 until his stroke-related death in 2011. Wrecking Ball, Springsteen’s 17th studio album, features a brief solo from Clemons, during “Land of Hope and Dreams.”

[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.]

“Clarence or Danny are people you don’t replace,” Van Zandt tells The Hollywood Reporter. “You have people playing their part, so it will be a hybrid; it will be the E Street Band, it will be different, and we will carry on their work very respectfully.”

The pain of going on without those two longtime friends melds, with a deep concern over the loss of American ideals on the new release, Van Zandt says. That Springsteen continues to aspire to such bold statements, and to so with such a personal touch, is why his music remains so resonant.

“I’ve known him 45 years,” Van Zandt says, “and he just continues to amaze me — how hard he works at it and continues to search for the truth and find ways of communicating what’s going on, very much in the present tense. And that’s always kept us from being a nostalgia band.”

Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on Bruce Springsteen. 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.

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – WRECKING BALL (2012): Thematically, Wrecking Ball is split into two parts. The first half — from the defiant “We Take Care Of Our Own” through desolate “This Depression,” gives the soapbox to the down and out, the people dealing with the aftermath of economic and social breakdown. The title track then kicks off part two, which allows a little hope into the discussion. Springsteen employs many elements both old (protest folk, gospel, an incendiary horn section) and new (electronic beats, samples). There are masterful uses of irony (the cornpone, cartoonish characters of “Easy Money,” thinking crime-laden thoughts but set to such cheerful music), dynamic explosions of emotion (Tom Morello’s “Jack Of All Trades” guitar solo), and gospel tinges as well (the sample of the Alan Lomax-recorded Alabama Sacred Heart Singers that is the underlayment of the stomping “Death To My Hometown,” the entirety of “Rocky Ground.”) Kudos to Bruce (and producer Ron Aniello) for thinking far outside the E Street box.

SNEAK PEEK: BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – WRECKING BALL (2012): Reports using words like “experimental,” “loops” and “hip hop beats” to describe these songs — while not entirely off-base — don’t mean so much that Bruce has adopted some new-fangled, “hippity-hop, ya’ don’t stop” type of sound. Instead, Springsteen has simply expanded upon, and added new dimensions to the folk, blues, country and especially gospel influences that were always there anyway. Those political lyrics you’ve been hearing so much about are likewise nowhere near as angry as you may have heard. Oh sure, there’s some talk about shooting a few robber barons and bankers here and there. But for all the tension brought upon the circumstances of the characters of these songs by tough economic times, an undercurrent of hope and redemption never lies too far underneath it.

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.

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