I was at the San Jose Bruce Springsteen show in April, the first full month of his year-long Wrecking Ball tour and, for whatever reason, didn’t feel the impact of how much had changed since his 2010 tour. But not so in St. Paul last week, where I fully got that this was not the band or the performer that I’d grown accustomed to over the decades. That’s not to say that it wasn’t an immensely entertaining show, which it was, but that it was different from the past in fundamental ways.
An obvious and profound change was the absence of Clarence Clemons, Bruce’s big bro, his partner on E Street. A few years earlier, Danny Federici had departed. Two-sevenths of the core band is gone, but the chemical change can’t be measured simply by arithmetic. The man-for-man replacements are excellent musicians. Charlie Giordano is a fine keyboard player and accordionist, with a hip, geeky presence quite unlike the sweet vulnerable vibe given off by Federici. Clarence’s sub on saxophone, his nephew Jake Clemons, is a closer match to the original and a crowd favorite. Still, the history, the mythology, the energetic connection between “Scooter and the Big Man” is not replaceable.
After the loss of Clarence, Springsteen made a big decision, one that harkened back to his admiration for big show bands, with a particular reverence for Sam & Dave. He didn’t just replace Clarence, he added five horn players and a chorus of back-up soul singers. There’s an army on that stage now, seventeen musicians when Bruce’s wife Patti is performing. What was a band of brothers is now a full-on show band with Bruce, as much as anything, a bandleader, a cheerleader, and a relentless crowd-diver (more on that). With that shift, with the back-up singers and the horns, the band has a distinctly greater R&B flavor. Jon Stewart said a few years ago that he believed that Bob Dylan and James Brown had a baby, left it on the Jersey Turnpike, and that child grew up to be Bruce Springsteen. In this incarnation of the Springsteen saga, the James Brown DNA seems to be coming to the fore.
One more observation. Springsteen has always had an extraordinary connection with his live audience. He made hand contact with the fans from the runways and once or perhaps twice a show fully ventured into the crowd. On this tour, he is in the crowd almost as much as he is on the stage—repeatedly on the floor, amid the fans, crowd surfing, seemingly hungry for as much physical contact as he can give and get. If he is not having a blast doing this for three hours, he is one hell of an actor.
My buddy Andrew Lustig, cited here before, thinks that this tour is the last hurrah for the outsized, marathon Springsteen shows. Bruce’s gait is visibly slower and somewhat stiff, as though something’s going on with his knees or hips. He gives his all, as he always has, but seems to be more slammed at the end than in the past. People have been saying for years that each tour would likely be his last. Perhaps his hunger for contact with his audience is a clue that he suspects that this may be the last time around with the big crowds in the big venues. I hope not.