Springsteen plays rocker emeritus on Wrecking Ball tour

by Ryan Snyder

Of all of Bruce Springsteen’s ineradicable contributions to the pop-and-rock canon, his keynote address at South by Southwest last week could ultimately be among his most important. For 50 minutes, the Boss poured out shots from his private stock, gushing about James Brown, about Charlie Rich, about Roy Orbison. His off-the-cuff take on the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” likely sent 100,000 people to iTunes with 99 cents to invest. “That’s every song I ever wrote,” he said. “That’s ‘Born to Run,’ ‘Born In the USA,’ everything I’ve ever written.” You got the sense that if Springsteen ever decided to hang up his exhaustive live sets, he’ll be able to turn to a hit oneman show of which Spalding Gray would have been proud.

It had to be an intense experience for Springsteen because there’s no doubt it was one for his audience and anyone who watched it ex post facto. His admission of creative impurity, living in “a post-authentic world,” was one of the humanizing moments that fans long for from their rock idols, but rarely receive.

It felt a lot like seeing the Boss trouncing around the stage during Jake Clemon’s brief sax solo Monday night in Greensboro on the second night of the E Street Band’s Wrecking Ball tour. Springsteen seemed to be looking for a big mountain of a man in a long, black coat to lean on, whose nephew and understudy was posted on a riser upstage right amidst the five-piece horn and wind section. The collection was among the largest Springsteen has ever toured with, but still a little short of the stature that Clarence Clemons himself possessed.

Maybe the passing of Clemons last summer has Springsteen feeling a little nostalgic for the sounds that informed him. His moving declamation in Austin was essentially rooted in the platform for the entire Wrecking Ball tour; the band’s walk-in choice of “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” referred back to his hilarious James Brown anecdotes, the horn arrangements were classic Motown soul and their occasional transformation to a five-piece percussive team was pure Atlantic and Stax. The band had just performed at the Apollo Theatre a week earlier and brought back with them a medley of the Temptations and Wilson Pickett, sung a capella. Springsteen pointed out where Jake sat in the crowd at the Greensboro Coliseum during his first trip with the band, and then offered to take the 13,600 in the house “back to the beginning” with an inspired take on “The E Street Shuffle.”

The attention on Clemons the younger wasn’t distracting, but it was evident. There was a cameraman posted on the floor whose viewfinder remained trained on him for a good portion of the show. Never was it applied to the overhead display feed, giving the impression it will be squirreled away for later. Springsteen said that Clarence won’t be replaced, but given Jake’s early audience approval, there will be a lot of disappointment if he isn’t at least bestowed adjunct status. The enthusiastic reaction to his extended solo on “Thunder Road” to close out the main set felt like more than just muscle memory. Hell, Bruce even called Jake “Big Man” at one point during the Apollo medley.

Though it was on some small level disappointing that he didn’t bring his acoustic take on the Animals’ classic with him from Austin, the song’s sense of class consciousness that would infect him was more visceral on the Wrecking Ball tour than ever. The agitprop of Wrecking Ball was woven into the more traditional material masterfully: “We take Care of Our Own” lead off, “Land of Hopes and Dreams” in the encore, and elsewhere as mid-set rabblerousers. Once you get past Springsteen’s sizable fortune, “Jack of All Trades,” a song written before the Occupy movements but has since been dubbed an anthem of sorts, feels Guthriesque live — that is, if Woody Guthrie embraced his inner militant. The line “If I had me a gun I’d find the bastards/ and shoot them on sight” in particular elicited a curiously passionate response, and at least a sizeable handful of whom were spotted barbequing in the VIP lot amidst stretch limos. In Springsteen’s post-authentic world, you don’t really have to be down with the Occupy movement to get down to the Occupy movement.

Almost three hours and 23 songs after tip-off, one line in particular from Bruce’s SXSW address stuck out like a piece of incisive university commencement fare: “Young musicians: Learn how to bring it live and then bring it night, after night, after night. Your audience will remember you.” That’s the Boss’s platform. Always has been. Bruce McCulloch once quipped on “Our Love” from the album Shame-Based Man, “Our love is like a Bruce Springsteen concert. It’s not that great, it’s really long, but wow! What energy!” While there’s certainly truth in those implications — there are times you wish the Boss would just let you go home — Springsteen will never lose a fan through his live experience. Mostly it’s because he comes across as one himself, and like he’s been preaching: He takes care of his own.

Follow Ryan on Twitter @YESRyan