With a recording of "Big Boss Man" playing on the P.A., Bruce Springsteen and the expanded 17-piece E Street Band took the stage Tuesday night at the IZOD Center at the Meadowlands for the first New York area concert of his current tour - "the Romp in the Swamp," as Bruce put it. Clearly, Bruce was feeling at home, and the crowd was thrilled to welcome him back. He and the band kicked into "We Take Care of Our Own" from the new CD (a better opening anthem than "Radio Nowhere" from the earlier tour), segued into the title track, "Wrecking Ball" ("I was raised outta steel/Here in the swamps of Jersey" getting an appreciative roar from the audience), then hit full throttle with "Badlands."
"Badlands" gave Jake Clemons, Clarence's nephew, his first chance for a saxophone solo. By using a first-rate five-piece horn section Bruce finessed a little the question of how to carry on without Clarence, but he seems to be offering Jake a little more of the spotlight than the others. Jake has the right tone, if not the stature of his uncle yet, and he certainly has lots of potential. Still, this first tour without The Big Man is bittersweet at best. During the intro to "My City of Ruins," Bruce introduced each of the band members, then paused and asked, "Are we missing anybody?" And there was no doubt whom he meant, especially when a spotlight shone on the empty corner of the stage which used to belong to Clarence.
The band was capable of covering all the musical ground in the Springsteen repertoire - rock, folk, Celtic, country, soul (with the Apollo medley of "The Way You Do the Things You Do" and "634-5789" a particular standout.) - and just about everyone got a chance to shine.The set list included 8 songs from the new CD, a satisfying sampling of old faves, plus a rarity or two.
In his "My City of Ruins" intro Bruce launched into his preacher mode. I've seen Rev. Al Green at his church in Memphis, and he's got nothing on Bruce when he starts to testify. (Remember how Bruce used to cover "Take Me to the River"?) This was to be a night of old faces and new faces, Bruce testified, but the mission of the E Street Band remains the same. "We'll take you to the heights," he said, "And we need you to take us there." That surely is a big part of his genius - the symbiotic relationship between him and his audience, whether it's raising the rafters with them singing along, bringing an 11 year old girl onstage to sing "Waiting On a Sunny Day," or crowd surfing during "634-5789." The trust is eternal and inviolate.
At a time when our country is so polarized, Bruce finds the common denominator and makes us believe: in "The Promised Land," in "Badlands" ("I believe in the love that you gave me/I believe in the hope that can save me"), and in the "Land of Hope and Dreams" (with room for saints and sinners, losers and winners, all of us). Unlike our polticial leaders, Bruce never lets us down. He gives everything he has every night, and he keeps us in touch with the power of rock & roll, the energy of our youth, and the possibility that the American Dream is still worth fighting for.