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

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How do you think the tour is going to evolve over the next year?
Steven: Generally speaking, in the first half of the tour we usually emphasize the new album and the second half of the tour tends to loosen up a bit, get a little bit more spontaneous, a little bit crazier. I wouldn't be surprised if that was how it went this time. The first 50 shows, your primary purpose is to communicate the new album and whatever is on Bruce's mind, which is usually something relevant now. After you do 50, 60 shows, you feel like, "OK, it got said," and you continue to keep the essence of that show but things tend to loosen up a little bit. 

Why did you bring in a percussionist for this tour?
Steven:  There was more percussion on the new album, and bringing someone in is something we've talked about quite often. The reason we haven't done it in the past was that Clarence tended to do a lot of it. So we thought, "Clarence won't do it, so let's get someone else to do those parts and add percussion to the other songs." So it changed the flavor a bit. It tends to shift different songs you'd already been familiar with and gives them a little bit of a different approach, maybe a different angle, a different emotional communication, and then you'll see the song a little differently, or it will revitalize an older song in a new way. All those things add up.

This is a very different E Street Band than what you joined in 1975.
Steven: Yeah, it really is. It's just a broader, more rootsy…it's an orchestra more than a rock band. It's a rock band at its core, and that rock band has just blossomed into many different textures. With the configuration of a classic rock band, you are essentially playing the orchestra parts with your couple guitars and a keyboard. In our case, we always had a little bit more than most bands by having two keyboard, which already moves you from a rock band into the area of a gospel band. We were born already a gospel-inflected rock band.

The reason that a fuzz pedal was invented was to emulate a saxophone. As a band, you're doing things that are much more orchestrated, but you're doing it in a reduced fashion. So now it's a little more of a literal translation. Now you take the essence of that rock band and make a few adjustments and start to flesh out those roots and come full circle, in a way. Instead of listening to your influences and interpreting them on your guitar, you're now taking those influences and actually using them literally. It's interesting.

Tell me your first reaction to hearing Wrecking Ball.
Well, I loved it. I got an advanced copy to start writing my charts and getting ready for rehearsals. I thought it was a brilliant record, a very timely record on the rough times we've been going through. It shows that with some hope and dignity, the human spirit will pull itself out of the some of the messes that we're in. I'm real proud of Bruce. 

I imagine that you listen to a new Bruce album in a different way than most fans.
Nils: Many times I've bought a Bruce record, like Devils and Dust or The Ghost of Tom Joad, and just listened to it knowing I'm not learning it. So instantly, this was a very different approach. I'm looking at chords, charts…I also know Bruce and the band very well, so I'm already thinking, "Well, in this song, the key is going to change. It's gonna get higher. So how does that impact my part?" The beautiful thing is that when I heard this thing, I knew we were gonna perform it. So instantly I was able to go to that place and start really addressing my parts and present it with the E Street Band.

How did it feel walking onstage at the Apollo to do that first show? Lots of pressure?
Steven: It's what I'm built for, to tell you the truth. That's what we do. The more pressure there is, the more normal I feel. At the Super Bowl, once the audience hits a billion, it does get your attention. Even that, after the first 10 seconds, you just concentrate on the 3,000 or so people up against the stage and it's just another gig. We're a serious band and Bruce is a serious guy, a serious songwriter. We do serious things. When people need something serious done, they come to us. You need somebody to open the Grammys on a very tough night, that's our job. That's what we do.

Speaking of the Grammys, is it true that a planned Clarence Clemons tribute was canned because of Whitney Houston?
No. You hear all kinds of talk, but no. He was just going to be included in the usual thing.

There was a lot of riding on you guys that night.
Steven: Yeah, and Whitney Houston died, so it was like, "OK, this is a job for the E Street Band." We were already carrying the emotional pain of losing Clarence, so we were already in that state of mind. Everybody was shocked because of Whitney Houston, but we were already there. And "We Take Care of Our Own" was a perfect song. That was the perfect song at a perfect moment.

I think it's pretty clear that Clarence would have wanted you guys to carry on.
Nils: I believe it wholeheartedly in my heart and soul when Bruce says, “If the audience is here and we’re here, then they’re here.” And they are. I stood right in front of Danny, used to run up on his riser, and Clarence and I were side by side. A lot of moments in the dark where Bruce was carrying the show, we’d be like, “What the hell is this song?” Stuff we hadn’t played 20 years: "How did it go? What was the key?” We’d laugh about it and figure out how to fake it if we weren’t sure, or we'd just have a moment in the dark to ourselves right in a freaking sea of 60,000 people. Those were really great times, and 27 years is nothing to sneeze at – but being greedy and loving Clarence like we all do, I would have taken another 27 if God was willing. Carrying on this tour as we are now is a form of healing for us. 

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