Exclusive: Steven Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren Open Up About the New E Street Band

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It was emotional to watch Jake take that first solo in "Badlands" during the Apollo Show. It was sort of a passing-of-the-torch moment.
Nils: It has to be. What can you say? There's no "Clarence Two." We can't bring him back, or else we would have. And you're dealt with that choice of not sharing that music again with the band, or sharing it as best you can. You navigate the best you can with dignity and class, knowing that you can't bring him back.

How do you think Jake is doing so far?
Steven: The kid's doing great. We're tough guys, maybe for our generation…you can't take for granted every generation having the work ethic that we have. We are psychotic. We're fucking…we're nuts. We just reach for greatness all the time, and we expect everybody around us to do the same. The biggest question was, "He's a young guy, doing a lot of different things – would he be able to handle that kind of expectation?" I have to say, he rose to the occasion like a champ, working his ass off. 

I don't know how many important sax solos there are, probably 30 or 40. But they have to be perfect. It's not a sax solo where you can blow what you feel like. People want to hear those exact notes because they're now a part of the composition. You go see Paul McCartney and he plays those Beatles records note-for-note perfect, and that's exactly what you want because that's classical music. You don't improvise fucking Beethoven. You play those fucking notes. Every note means something. Every drum fill means something. It's in that sort of area when you talk about Clarence Clemons' solos. They're part of the composition, and so you have to nail those things note for note, and the tone. How often do you get in front of 20,000 people in your living room? Your first show is a live broadcast. 

I loved when he started the solo on "Thunder Road," and then the rest of the horns chimed in.
Steven: Yeah, all of those things have been extremely thought out. We tried it different ways, asking, "What's going to work emotionally?" You think of everything. You don't want to be surprised, and you certainly don't want to let the audience down or do something that's going to be confusing to the audience emotionally. You want to do things that are going to be satisfying and give them the show they've come to expect from us.

Tell me about learning all this new material.
Nils: Oh well, I never quite learn all of it. It's a work in progress. I don't have a photographic musical memory, so I can't keep track of all the songs. I've just gotten really good at guessing what might be coming down the road. I obviously don't have to rehearse "Ramrod." There's a lot of songs that are just imprinted in me. They're basic enough that I focus on the stuff that I forgot, like intricate parts to some of the more complex songs and some of the albums in the past twelve years. 

The whole tour is a work in progress. Bruce may give us ideas of five surprises coming down the pike and you might not see any of them that night, or you might see all of them. Invariably, he'll get inspired and call a song we didn't discuss. There's a lot of 'em that we might be rusty with, but you can probably call and we'll get away with it.

What was the first audible on the tour?
Nils: Oh geez, I think that he called "Seeds" on the first night and it wasn't in the setlist, and all of a sudden he called that out in the dark. That's the other thing – it's so freaking dark up there. In the rehearsal hall, I can read Bruce's lips and I can hear him. In a deafening sports arena, it's meaningless. You know, Bruce and Steve have such a great history that a lot of times in the dark after a song, I see them just talking and laughing. And that to me means whatever's written on the page is next. If they're not talking or laughing, they've having a conversation, I immediately run over and I stick my head right in there because I know something is going to change. And then because I'm fairly athletic, I become the Paul Revere of the stage and let everyone know.

It must have been a blast playing with Eric Burdon at SXSW.
That's a funny coincidence. Bruce did his keynote speech and he talked about what an influence the Animals were, and it all came down to that one song, "We've Gotta Get Out of This Place." He said every single thing he's written comes from that one song, which made Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil very happy, let me tell you. So he was going on about that, and what do you know, it turns out he was in town, which was really a freaky sort of thing. We found him, and we didn't rehearse. But he jumped on and we did it.

Nils: We all knew that we needed to learn that song, but I really didn't know that Eric would be walking out. So that blew my mind. That's another cool thing. As long as he knows the band is there musically, Bruce doesn't need to make us sure of every detail. He might not know if someone is going to sit in, because often guests they think are coming don't make it. Like I said, the whole show is like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

It was also great to see you play with Jimmy Cliff. I'm always amazed by how perfect his voice still sounds.
Steven: Yeah, he's still terrific. It's always nice when you can remind people that these people are still around and still great, and you can continue to give them support. I've always done that ever since I first walked into a recording studio with Southside Johnny on our very first album. I found Lee Dorsey under a car in New Orleans, working as a mechanic, to play on the album. We brought Ronnie Spector out of retirement, the Toasters, the Drifters. It's always good to say "thank you." They're really one of a kind, that generation. These people were talented way beyond anything you're seeing today.

On opening night in Atlanta, you guys played 13 songs written in the past decade. That's pretty rare for any veteran act.
Steven: That's more than half the show. That's nice, isn't it? That does say something. It says a lot about our audience, I have to say. We really have the best audience in the world, and I mean that. I'm not just saying that. They not only accept new material, they expect it. 

How do you have time to get the right instrument if Bruce calls out some random song?
Nils: I have over 50 instruments on the road, and that's insane for just one guy to have that many instruments well oiled and ready to go. I also have an emergency acoustic guitar and an emergency electric. In extreme cases I realize that I won't have time to get the right guitar, so I grab an emergency one so I can contribute something. And I have the freedom to do all that, and Bruce knows that. He knows that to have a show that’s by the seat of your pants, it can’t be perfect and flawless. 

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