You don’t expect a legacy artist to still be able to surprise you, to put out music 40 years later that is genuinely interesting and expansive and making a good honest attempt at being relevant. Not in the “Mick Jagger getting his young minions to curate the hottest young live music acts for the Stones opening slots” kind of relevant, but in the way of giving you a record you want to listen to over and over again because it’s great, not out of obligation or so that you know all the songs for when you go to see them live.
Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball is surprising, innovative, and vital in a way that is both a blessing and a relief. The record is far from perfect—the production suffers in spots, which hurts a few tracks—but it’s strong, with a few older songs that get remade in remarkable fashion. It’s easy to pigeonhole the record as being some kind of bold new step for Springsteen when in reality all of the themes and elements brought to the forefront on Wrecking Ball have been around for years, if not decades.
But what about the live show? Even The Boss can put on a lackluster show without the right amount of rehearsal time, or put together a setlist so uninspiring that frequent fliers (like myself) decide to see the local shows and peacefully call it a day. And last year’s passing of Clarence Clemons adds a mountain-sized hole to the left side of the stage.
Last Monday and Friday, with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, I attended the two shows of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon‘s Springsteen Week to actually feature the man himself. I had tickets for the “band bench,” which surrounds the musical guest on three sides. It was a little surreal to be standing right above Roy Bittan (“Hey, Roy,” I said, as though I saw him every day of my life) and to correct some idiots behind me who kept yelling “HEY MRS. SPRINGSTEEN” at Patti Scialfa, only to have her hear me, and laugh.
I am used to the E Street Band being rusty and out of practice early in the tour; many local Springsteen fans make the trek down to Convention Hall in Asbury Park to watch rehearsals. The profits go to charity, so you can forgive the shaky performance, occasional error, wrong note or missed key change. What I didn’t expect to see last week, though, was a band in mid-tour form. Wrecking Ball‘s gospel edges gives newly expanded roles to backup singers; there is a five-piece horn section; and on Friday night they turned up with Tommy Morello in tow, and added the Roots for good measure.
This is not your mother’s E Street Band. But then again, it absolutely is.
Night one, the band played both “We Take Care Of Our Own” and Wrecking Ball‘s title track. I like “We Take Care Of Our Own” just fine, despite accusations of it being too commercial; I’m not sure it should be so shocking that Bruce Springsteen can write a catchy, radio friendly tune. But “Wrecking Ball,” written to commemorate the last shows at Giants Stadium in 2009, should have remained out in the swamps of Jersey where it came from. Musically it’s interesting; lyrically it makes me wince because with a few small changes, it could have been a great song that helped advance the thematic arc of the record that much more. The only line that gets me is the one that reminds me of Shea Stadium: “All our little victories and glories have turned into parking lots.”
On Friday night, the announced guest was Bruce Springsteen and the musical guest was Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. There was a comedy bit where Jimmy dresses up as Neil Young and Bruce dresses up at ’80s Bruce. The last time they did this, they parodied “Whip My Hair,” which was terrible (because “Whip My Hair” is a terrible song). On Friday, within a few lines it was clear the chosen victim was “Sexy And I Know It” by LMFAO—and this time the performance didn’t remind me of someone’s dad dressing up as Justin Bieber for Halloween. (Note that nearly 30 years later, Bruce still has those Born In The USA arms!)
The highlight of the interview segment came during the commercial break, when the zipper on Springsteen’s leather jacket got caught, requiring the assistance of the wardrobe mistress and an assistant to rescue him. The Roots broke into a vamp, Jimmy Fallon offered play-by-play, and women in the audience kept yelling “I’ll help you!” When he finally emerged unharmed, he hugged those who had come to his assistance and broke into a victory dance.
A tweet from ?uestlove earlier in the day had revealed that the horns and Tommy Morello (who guests on two songs on the album) would be in attendance. I was amazed at how they fit every single musician onto that stage. Two quieter and more complex songs from the new record, “Death to My Hometown” and “Jack Of All Trades,” were played first. The former was a demonstration of how problematic production won’t negatively affect certain songs’ live performances; my least favorite song on Wrecking Ball was transformed from what sounded like a slightly forced Dropkick Murphys cover into a soul-tinged-vocal, Stax-Volt-horn-embellished major composition. And the performance of the six-minute “Jack Of All Trades” convinced me that it might not become the “get up and get beer” song of the show.
Springsteen closed out the week with “The E Street Shuffle” from 1973’s The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle; it’s not super-rare, but hardly a frequent flier on the setlists. It’s one of those jazzy songs stuffed with rhymes and images, anchored by the now-ancient and memorable call and response on the chorus: “Little Angel says, Whoa ohh ohh, everybody form a line.” Captain Kirk Douglas switched places with Miami Steve Van Zandt and the band kicked into the song, horn section in all its glory.
The song ends with a lengthy instrumental duel between the scratchy rhythm guitar and the horn section, more call and response, more thrust and parry. Bruce ran over to the Roots’ riser, followed by the horn section (all five of them), and all the guitar players (all four of them). (Fallon, playing cowbell in the back, trailed them.) Bruce gestured at the audience to come on down—he’d said earlier he was going to do that, but everyone thought he was kidding—and after he gestured, again and more emphatically, all hell broke loose: People of every shape and size nearly formed mosh pit in the middle of the studio floor, dancing and jumping up and down for all they were worth until the song was over, the fairy dust wore off and security shooed everyone back to their seats.
Of course, the elephant in the room was the idea of seeing the E Street Band without the Big Man. There was a time that I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do it, and then I just decided if Springsteen was going to show up, well, it would be the least that I could do. I thought that the first time I saw them play together again, it would be all that I would think about. Don’t get me wrong; seeing everyone standing in different places was disorienting (bassist Garry Tallent, the member with the longest tenure in the band now besides Springsteen himself, has moved to Clarence’s side) and there was a feeling of something missing. But equal to that was the feeling of the band playing hard enough to fill that space, or at least try. While it will always be good to remember Clarence Clemons, it was good to know that I could just stand there and dance and sing—and as much as doing so felt different, it was still very much the same.