In His Passing, Clarence Has Given Bruce the Gift of Musical Life Everlasting. (A Springsteen review)

Bruce Springsteen,"Wrecking Ball" by Colin Gawel

Originally, I was going to use this space to review the latest Bruce Springsteen release "Wrecking Ball", and explain why I would give it 2.9 stars out of 5. But after seeing the Boss perform at the Q in Cleveland Tuesday April 17th, I realized the new CD was only a small part of the big picture. At 62 years of age, Bruce played the best full band show I have seen him do since the E Street reunion tour in 1999. Q: How is this possible?

The answer lies in the Seeger Sessions project Bruce released in 2006. I caught the "Seeger Sessions" tour in Columbus shortly following the CDs release. Playing a 20,000 seat amphitheater in front of maybe 3,000 diehard fans, Bruce played mostly old folk covers with his large but largely un-electric band. There were no Marshall amps pointed towards the sky, yet with the various instruments and most importantly, the entire band singing behind him, it was sonically, as powerful as an AC/DC concert. I left shaking my head telling friends, "I've never heard anything like that". Pound for pound, it is very well the greatest show I have ever seen. If not, certainly hearing the trilogy "Mrs McGrath", "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times" and "Jacob's Ladder" was a lifetime highlight. Something that might flash across my mind moments before my time comes.

watch "Jacob's Ladder" here 

 While it was obvious watching the Seeger show Bruce had tapped into something important and was having a ball doing it, the reality is and was, Springsteen's manager Jon Landau needs to keep the big money coming to please the shareholders at SONY music. Landau has become a master at tolerating a little "Nebraska" or "Tom Joad" here and there , as long as the E Street Gravy Train ramps back up soon after to keep the product and merchandise flowing to the bottom line. 

Bruce + Clarence = $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

So Bruce dutifully returned to E Street with the impressive "Magic" (2007) and toured the world and elsewhere with Clarence back as his right hand man. Maybe Bruce was feeling mortality creeping in, or more likely, the pressure to have new "product" ready for purchase before his Super Bowl halftime appearance in 2009, "Working on A Dream" appeared uncharacteristically quick, right on the heels of the "Magic" CD and tour.

And..."Working on a Dream" was a disaster. The worst Springsteen album ever. Sure the tour and shows were excellent, but Bruce is always great. The E Street band reunion had run its course. Bruce surely knew "Working" was a mis-step and did what he does best, fearlessly moved in a different direction adding new players, producer and sound to record the admirable, if uneven "Wrecking Ball".

It's obvious listening to new tracks such as "Shackled and Drawn" and "Rocky Ground", Bruce was trying to find some of that Seeger Sessions magic he loved so much in 2006. The problem is, his fans love the E Street band and by extension, Clarence Clemons so much, they would never accept a substitute band. At least not an arena full of Springsteen fans anyway. So Bruce was kinda stuck. His instincts were pushing in a new direction, but "market forces" as it were, demanded he keep throwing hunks of E Street red meat to the masses.

What to do?

Well, Clarence Clemens, Bruce's loyal sideman stepped up and solved the problem. Look, I am not trying to make light of the Big Man's passing in any way. He was a musical legend and a hell of a good guy on top of that. Nobody wanted to see him go. But the very reality of his "Bigness" meant no one person could replace him. That would be an even "bigger" outrage than Bruce going on tour without E-Street and doing another Seeger Sessions tour.

So with "The Big Man" being too big to replace, it opened the door for Bruce to revamp the entire line-up and combine the Seeger Session band with the E Street band. The results in Cleveland were stunning. Jumping between bar room stomps like "Light of Day" and "Ties That Bind" and soaring spirituals like "The Rising" and "My City in Ruins", the "new" E Street band could play either style powerfully. It became obvious after only 3 songs that Bruce had a new energy, that he was slightly tired the last couple times out. Just a click slow mind you, but with Bruce, he is never too far from greatness. This huge new sound allowed him to do less running around and more singing. I think Bruce is singing better now than at any point in his career. What other 60+ year old can you say that about? Is Robin Zander 60 yet?

With the house lights still on, Bruce took the stage with a near riot inspiring "Badlands" and didn't let up for 3 hours. And this was no retro greatest hits show. No sir. Check it out:

Badlands  (watch it live in Cleveland here )
We Take Care of Our Own
Wrecking Ball
The Ties That Bind 
Death to My Hometown
My City of Ruins
The E Street Shuffle
Jack of All Trades
My Love Will Not Let You Down 
Shackled & Drawn 
Waitin' on a Sunny Day
The Promised Land
Racing in the Street 
Apollo Medley
Because the Night
The Rising
We Are Alive
Light of Day (including You Can't Sit Down) 
* * *
Rocky Ground (with Michelle Moore)
Out in the Street
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-out

After "Badlands", Bruce goes 13 songs before returning to what I would consider another "can't miss" in "Promised Land". Bruce doesn't spoon feed his audience, he jams what he is cooking right down their throat. To Cleveland's credit, they ate it all up and deserve the title of being one of Bruce's 4 biggest cities (NY-NJ,Philly,Pitts,Cleve) I've seen Bruce a number of times in Columbus and it never feels the same as the North coast. In Cbus people are sorta wonder, "when is he going to play the hits?". In Cleveland they just scream "BRUUUUCE"

or put another way, remember that record "Born in the USA"? The one with 7 top ten singles and sold over 20 millions copies? He played exactly one song off of it, "Dancing in the Dark" and it was #24 of the 25 song set.

or...of the 25 songs, 12 were off the new CD or B-sides not to be found on any Springsteen releases proper. Could you imagine the Rolling Stones doing a set like this? 50% new songs and outtakes?

Do you know what I find most excting about all of this? Though"Wrecking Ball" isn't a classic by any means, Bruce seems to have found the thread and I wouldn't be surprised if his next CD was a classic. At the very least, I wouldn't bet against it. In fact, I would never bet against Bruce Springsteen.

Colin Gawel plays in the semi-legendary midwestern rock band Watershed who have a new CD and Book about them being released June5,2012. He also fronts the Lonely Bones, is a husband, father, and moonlights as a coffee shop owner. Sometimes when he drinks to much or spends too much time riding in a van, he writes silly little essays like this one. He did get invited by the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame to be the only performer at the opening of the Springsteen exhibit and even had a beer with Bruce once. He wrote about that too. read it here