Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's concert at New York's Apollo Theater was an evening of firsts. It was the first show they've played in support of Springsteen's new LP Wrecking Ball, their first show in well over two years, their first show with a newly assembled five-piece horn section, their first show since adding an extra percussionist to the band and their first show at the legendary soul venue. But one first hovered above all the rest: it was their first ever show without Clarence Clemons. "We're missing a few people tonight," Springsteen said early on. "But if you're here, and we are here, they are here."
The concert was also the first opportunity for Springsteen fans to check out Clarence's nephew Jake Clemons, who now splits sax duties with Ed Manion. Jake (destined to be known as the Little Big Man) stayed in the back with the horn section during the first two songs, but when the group kicked into "Badlands," he moved his way up to play his uncle's famous solo. It was a big moment, a real passing of the torch, and he absolutely nailed it.
The concert was held to celebrate the 10th anniversary of SiriusXM satellite radio. Only a fraction of the tickets were distributed to the public, and it was a mob scene outside. Die-hard fans held up signs desperately seeking tickets, and paparazzi and autograph seekers aggressively chased down the celebrity guests. The lucky few inside took advantage of the open bar and hors d'oeuvres and gawked at Ben Stiller, Christine Taylor, Elvis Costello, Paul Rudd, John McEnroe, Chad Smith, Steve Earle, Gary "Baba Booey" Dell'Abate and many other big names as they waited for the show (which was broadcast live on SiriusXM) to begin.
The concert started with each member of the E Street Band taking the stage one by one as they touched the famous Apollo Theater tree stump for good luck. They opened up with new tracks "We Take Care Of Our Own" and "Wrecking Ball." The group has been rehearsing in New Jersey for a couple of months, and their hard work has clearly paid off. Nobody sounded rusty, even though this was the first time many of the songs have been played in public.
When Springsteen began calling his backing group the E Street Band in 1974, it consisted of a mere five people. That number has now swelled to sixteen, and at times it sounds like a cross between the old E Street Band, the Seeger Sessions Band and, to a slightly lesser extent, Arcade Fire. This new iteration of the group allows Springsteen to create lush new arrangements of old material, such as the gospel-infused "My City of Ruins" he played early on at this show, or a cover of the Temptations' "The Way You Do The Thing You Do" featuring a chorus of backup singers. Some Springsteen purists may bemoan all the changes, but the last couple of albums have made it quite clear that Bruce has moved far from the sound of his Greetings From Asbury Park days.
For the first time in memory at an E Street Band show, Springsteen did not perform "Born To Run." In fact, the only real hits he brought out were "Thunder Road," "Badlands" and "The Promised Land." The rest of the show set mixed in new songs ("Jack of All Trades," "Shackled And Drawn") with soul covers ("Hold On, I'm Comin'"), deep cuts (a mind-blowing "E Street Shuffle" and a tender "Mansion On The Hill") and concert staples ("Waiting On A Sunny Day," "The Rising"). For "Rocky Ground," he brought out gospel singer Michelle Moore to reprise her rap from the album. It was a risky move for Springsteen to include such a thing on the disc, but Moore made it work – and it sounded almost better live.
The MVP of the evening was Jake Clemons. He's filling very, very large shoes, but he didn't seem to have any opening night jitters. He pitched in on back-up vocals during the soul covers, and even played a large drum during "We Are Alive." It'll be interesting to see how his role in the band evolves as the tour goes on – but it's quite clear that Springsteen made a very wise choice in keeping the sax in the Clemons family.
The second to last song of the night was "10th Avenue Freeze Out." The song is (at least loosely) about the formation of the E Street Band. When it came time for Bruce to sing "the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band," the music stopped cold. Springsteen held the mic out to the audience and let us sing it, encouraging everyone to yell out Clarence's name over and over. This could have been a very sad moment, but Springsteen made it absolutely exuberant – which is exactly how Clarence would have wanted it.