One of the biggest rock stars in the world took the stage on Tuesday night by talking about himself. “Not only does he know how to get to San Jose, but he knows what to do when he fucking gets there,” said Bruce Springsteen at the start of his show at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, California. “The only man in rock & roll who introduces himself – let’s hear it for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band!”
Springsteen asked the crowd, rhetorically, “Are you ready to be transformed?” Ready or not, transformation was a key objective during the three hours that followed. The setlist followed a specific theme: anger at the current state of the union, with its growing divide between the “fat cats” on Wall Street and the average American worker. But Springsteen managed to convey the message while also providing sheer entertainment and an opportunity to dance it all off.
Opening with a pair of songs from the new album Wrecking Ball, “We Take Care of Our Own” and the title track, afforded Springsteen’s new configuration of the E Street Band a chance to introduce themselves without comparison. Of course, the absence of the late Clarence Clemons could not be ignored; it took an entire new horn section to replace the Big Man. When Springsteen launched into the longtime standard “Badlands” three songs into the show, all eyes were on Clemons’ nephew, Jake, as he replicated his uncle’s celebrated saxophone solo faithfully, eliciting a supportive and enthusiastic crowd response. Elsewhere in the show, some of Clemons’ signature parts were dropped, some were relegated to guitarist “Little” Steven Van Zandt, and others were reproduced by Jake note-for-note.
Springsteen was comfortable addressing the necessary lineup changes. “We’ve got some old faces and some new faces,” he said. “And I look out into the crowd and I see some old faces and some new faces. The E Street Band is back and we’re on the same mission that we’ve been on night after night, year after year. We’re here to manifest the sheer power and joy of music and to shoot it straight in your heart.”
Launching into one of the more emotional segments of the night – an extended “My City of Ruins” from 2002’s The Rising – he let the new E Street Horns trade solos, again eliciting a supportive response from an audience that, in typical Bay Area fashion, was far more subdued and quiet than Springsteen’s average East Coast fan base.
“Are we missing anybody? Do I have to say the names?” he asked, after introducing the current band members midway through the song. It was an implied shout-out to his fallen bandmates, the late Danny Federici as well as Clemons. He did actually mention his wife and bandmate Patti Scialfa by name, apologizing for her having to be at home. “All I know is that you’re here, and we’re here, and they’re here, so raise your hands!”
Springsteen veered from his nightly template to perform the lesser-played “Thundercrack,” “Johnny 99,” “Backstreets” and “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).” The show also featured the even more rare “My Love Will Not Let You Down” for just the second time this go-round.
But between and throughout, Springsteen repeatedly returned to the new material from Wrecking Ball. He introduced “Jack of All Trades” by saying that he wrote it in 2009 before the Occupy movement had mobilized, but that it was in protest of the very same issues that gave rise to the movement.
In previous eras, Springsteen famously placed some of the responsibility for his characters’ shortcomings and disappointments on the characters themselves. Perhaps they were searching in the wrong place for the American dream. Perhaps their view of the American dream itself was slightly misguided. But in San Jose – as on the rest of this tour – Springsteen appears to be more angry than ever before; he’s found a culprit and, this time, we don’t have ourselves to blame. On a rousing rendition of “Death to My Hometown,” for example, he sang, “Send the robber barons straight to hell / The greedy thieves who came around / And ate everything they found / Whose crimes have gone unpunished now / Who walk the streets as free men now / They brought death to our hometown.”
But just as Springsteen promised at the start of the show, his mission was transformation and, at the heart of it, his message was one of unity through these hard socioeconomic times. Several times throughout the night he walked deep into the middle of the floor, at one point even crowd-surfing from a middle platform back to the stage. He brought a young boy up on stage with him to sing along to “Waiting on a Sunny Day,” and he danced with a young girl during the Courtney Cox part of “Dancing in the Dark.”
And during “Thunder Road” – as he often does – Springsteen held out the microphone for the entire arena to sing along to the song’s most memorable lines. Thus, some of the evening’s best moments were also some of the more obvious, tried and true.
During the show-closing “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” Springsteen gave the audience a head’s up (“This is the important part,”) before singing, “When the change was made downtown / And the Big Man joined the band . . .” A direct reference to the fallen Clemons, the stage went silent as the audience erupted in cheers. Images of Clemons were projected from the video screens above. Much has already been written about the nightly tribute, but every stop along the way deserves its due. And as with everything else throughout the night, Springsteen took a hard truth and turned it into nothing less than a celebration.