When Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band took the stage at New York's Apollo Theater on March 9th, the pressure was on. It was their first time playing songs from Springsteen's new LP, Wrecking Ball, to a live audience, the debut of the five-piece E Street Horns and new percussionist Everett Bradley, and – most importantly to fans – their first show without sax player Clarence Clemons in the group's four-decade history. If that wasn't enough, it was broadcast live on SiriusXM. "That's real balls," says E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt. "I have to say, it was pretty close to flawless."
Just six days later, the group played a wild set at Austin's South by Southwest music festival. While the Apollo show was built around several supercharged Motown covers, this Austin show kicked off with Woody Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home" and ended with his classic "This Land Is Your Land," featuring Arcade Fire's Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, Tom Morello, Joe Ely and Alejandro Escovedo. "It's interesting to be reminded how wide and varied the identity of the E Street Band actually is at this point," says Van Zandt. "It's Americana in all its forms, but it is integrated somehow. It's unique."
Those were just the first two shows of a tour that will take Springsteen around the world this year. Because it's playing in support of a record made almost entirely with outside musicians – and full of electronic loops and textures – the band started rehearsals two months before opening night at an abandoned military base in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. "Some of this stuff starts quiet and gets loud," Springsteen says. "For what we do onstage, the way we smash cut in between songs, we had to reverse some of those arrangements. But the whole thing began with me sending them the record and saying, 'Learn this!'"
The band also had to learn to incorporate a new five-piece horn section that includes Clemons' nephew Jake on saxophone. "He rose to the occasion like a champ and worked his ass off," says Van Zandt. "He had to learn something like 30 or 40 important solos. These aren't sax solos where you blow what you feel. People want to hear the exact solos because they're a part of the composition."
The current tour will also include songs from The Promise – the set of Darkness on the Edge of Town outtakes Springsteen released in 2010. "It's the first time in my 28-year history that we've gone on the road with this much new material," says guitarist Nils Lofgren. "That's three and a half albums of material."
On the day of the South by Southwest show, Springsteen delivered the conference's keynote address. Midway through, he picked up an acoustic guitar and broke into "We've Gotta Get Out of This Place," by the Animals. "That's every song I've ever written," he told the crowd. "I'm not kidding, that's all of 'em." Unbeknown to Springsteen, Animals frontman Eric Burdon was also in Austin for the conference. "My phone was going berserk," Burdon says. "So we got on Twitter and reached Bruce. He got back to us immediately and said, 'Come on over.'"
Burdon came out during the encore of Springsteen's show to reprise "We've Gotta Get Out of This Place." "I didn't know Eric would be walking out," says Lofgren. "It blew my mind. But as long as Bruce knows the band is there musically, he doesn't need to make sure we know every detail in the show."
Another of Springsteen's heroes, reggae icon Jimmy Cliff, joined the band for his classic cuts "Many Rivers to Cross" and "The Harder They Come." "He's still terrific," says Van Zandt. "It's always nice when you can remind people that these people are still around."
The Wrecking Ball tour formally kicked off March 18th at the Philips Arena in Atlanta. Springsteen played eight songs from the new disc, and five other songs released this past decade. "We have the best audience in the world," says Van Zandt. "They not only accept new material, they expect it. They take the trip with us." Jake Clemons handled all of his uncle's most famous solos, from "Born to Run" and "Badlands" to "The Promised Land" and "Thunder Road."
For Springsteen, a key issue was figuring out how to honor demons and late keyboardist Danny Federici, who died in 2008. "It's really not easy," says Van Zandt. "You want to make it a celebration of life. It's a very delicate, very fine line to walk."
On the shows so far, the first tribute comes during "My City of Ruins." In the middle of the song, Springsteen brings up their names, and repeatedly says, "If you're here and we're here, they're here!" The show wraps with a muscular "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" -and when the band hits what would have been Clemons' solo, the stage goes silent as Springsteen encourages the crowd to chant the sax player's name. "It's so fucking perfect," says Van Zandt. "I'm awe-struck. Bruce still inspires me after fucking 45 years of doing this."
This story is from the April 12, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.