Contrary to widespread belief, Bruce Springsteen has never actually played a four hour concert. But on June 17th, at a soccer stadium in Madrid, he came close – missing the four hour mark by just 12 minutes, on a night that saw 60,000 fans screaming at the top of their lungs as the E Street Band tore through revved up renditions of “Because the Night” and “Working on the Highway,” plus a stadiumwide singalong of “Hungry Heart” as Spring steen dashed through the audience. “We’re not looking at the clock,” says guitarist Steve Van Zandt. “During shows, we’re transported to another time zone entirely and have no sense of how long we’re doing it. We’re going to test our own limits whenever possible.”
Four decades into their touring career, Springsteen and the E Street Band have been pushing themselves harder than ever at this summer’s European dates. Unusually rainy weather has led to multiple shows where Springsteen seemed to pick up more energy the more soaked he got, including in San Sebastian, Spain, and Florence. As always, Springsteen has been honoring fans’ midshow requests by playing completely unrehearsed songs most nights. And for only the second time in E Street’s history, the tour has been built around huge festival shows, packed with fans who were years away from being born when the band made Born to Run.
Portugal’s Rock in Rio festival in June was a particular challenge. “A lot of people were there for other bands, and you could feel that,” says E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren. “ ’Why are they playing this “Thunder Road” song with a guitar and a piano? He’s a folk singer all of a sudden?’ Bruce had to dig deeper to make them embrace us. We played two and a half hours, but it felt like five.”
This is also the first time that European crowds have seen the E Street Band play with new saxophonist Jake Clemons leading the horn section, replacing his late uncle, Clarence Clemons. “He’s done an extraordinary job,” says Lofgren. “I believe he’s even playing one of the saxophones that Clarence used onstage for all those great solos.”
With the European tour set to end on July 31st, the band can’t wait to come home to America for a run of August and September stadium gigs. “It’s ironic,” says Van Zandt. “You spend your life fighting to get out of clubs – and the minute you get into a stadium, you’re doing all you can to turn it into a club. We don’t change what we do, whether it’s a club, theater, ballroom or stadium.”
And while no dates have been scheduled after the U.S. leg wraps on September 22nd in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the tour could go even longer. “I hope it goes through 2013,” Van Zandt says. “Personally, I’d like to see it go forever.” (If the tour does get extended, the guitarist will run into a scheduling conflict: He is committed to shooting a second season of his TV series, Lilyhammer, in Norway. “If I gotta miss a few [shows], I’ll miss a few,” he says.)
In the meantime, the band is taking it one gig at a time. “The other night, Bruce called an audible of ‘Born in the U.S.A.,’ ” says Lofgren. “Everyone’s eyes in the band lit up. We didn’t even rehearse it once during rehearsals, and all of a sudden we’re playing it for 50,000 people. For the new people in the band, it’s their first time ever playing it with Bruce singing in that banshee out of hell voice. It’s extraordinary stuff.”
New music could also be on the way: Earlier this year, Springsteen told Rolling Stone that he’d written nearly 40 new songs that got sidelined in favor of the more topical material on this spring’s Wrecking Ball. Could we hear those songs in 2013? “I wouldn’t be surprised,” says Van Zandt. “He’s always got an album in his pocket. The industry cannot accommodate the speed at which he works.”
Springsteen’s superhuman onstage stamina this summer has prompted some fans to half jokingly wonder whether he could be getting a boost from performance enhancing substances. Van Zandt just laughs at the unfounded speculation. “He’s the opposite of a drug created monster,” says the guitarist. “He’s a living example of what happens when you never do drugs your whole life, don’t drink much, eat right and go to the gym. If you do that, you, too, can rock & roll at age 62.”
This story is from the August 2, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.