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Bruce Springsteen played the Apollo on Friday night.
And he really played the Apollo.
Performing at this intimate, historic theater, the 62-year-old Boss didn’t confine himself to a stage far smaller than in his usual arenas. He sang from the aisles, from the tops of seats, from a side box, from a lighting rig and from the balcony. It’s a wonder he didn’t make it to the roof.
The two-and-a-half-hour show by Springsteen and the E Street Band was held to celebrate the 10th anniversary of SiriusXM, which broadcast it live. The audience was composed of lucky subscribers and seemingly every celebrity in the tri-state area, including Tom Hanks, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Ben Stiller, Harry Belafonte, Elvis Costello, Michael J. Fox, Tommy Hilfiger, Bill Bradley, Ruben Blades, John McEnroe and others too numerous to mention.
After each member of the band strode onstage and did the obligatory ritual rubbing of the tree trunk that is Apollo tradition, Bruce did his own introduction. “Welcome to Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater,” he boomed, before jokingly describing himself as “the hardest-working white man in show business.”
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The show, which he referred to as “our first nontelevised gig,” was an unofficial kickoff of the Wrecking Ball tour, which begins March 18 in Atlanta. It included eight of the 11 songs from the new album, plus several golden oldies and — befitting the venue — a few soul classics.
It was also a clearly emotional event, since it marked the first public show by the band since the death of founding member Clarence Clemons. Replacing him are not one but two sax players, including Clemons’ nephew Jake, who received tumultuous applause when he delivered his uncle’s iconic solos from “Badlands” and “The Promised Land.”
While his effort of his playing is discernible, it’s compensated for by a huge sentimental factor that was most apparent in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” After Bruce sang the lyric, “The big man joined the band,” he and the band froze as the crowd erupted into an ovation that lasted several minutes.
Springsteen’s shows always take the audience on an emotional roller-coaster ride, shifting on a dime from elegiac mournfulness to righteous indignation to joyous renewal. This superlative evening, which began with the socially charged new single “We Take Care of Our Own,” was no exception. Such laments as “Death to My Hometown and “My City of Ruins” were followed by a rollicking “The E Street Shuffle,” which he described as “the song that started it all.” After singing about the workingman’s plight in the wrenching “Shackled and Drawn,” he immediately lifted spirits with the joyous “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day.”
Delivering a lengthy band introduction that was, typically, more entertaining than most performers’ full sets, Bruce asked the crowd, “Are we missing anybody?”
“That’s right, we’re missing a few,” he continued, in reference to the deaths of Clemons last year and organist Danny Federici in 2008. Adopting preacher cadences, he repeatedly intoned, “But if you’re here, and we’re here, then they’re here.” The audience went wild.
The augmented, 16-piece band was in its usual top form, with such players as drummer Max Weinberg and guitarists Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren showing no signs of rust. Soozie Tyrell’s violin provided folksy Irish textures, singer Michelle Moore enlivened the gospel-flavored “Rocky Ground” with a rap interlude, and the booming five-man horn section could have led its own New Orleans parade.
Clearly jazzed about his surroundings, Bruce rhapsodized about the legendary performers who’ve played the Apollo before launching into covers of the soul classics “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and “634-5789.” The show ended with a version of “Hold On, I’m Comin’ ” that featured him chanting the names of cities the band will be hitting on their upcoming tour.
The evening, by any measure, was a thrilling experience that won’t be forgotten by anyone who was there. One middle-aged male audience member said it best. Speaking on his cell phone to a significant other who apparently hadn’t managed to score a ticket, he exclaimed, “Oh my god, it was the greatest…” before briefly pausing and thoughtfully adding, “non-night of being with you ever!”
1. We Take Care of Our Own
2. Wrecking Ball
4. Death to My Hometown
5. My City of Ruins
6. The E Street Shuffle
7. Jack of All Trades
8. Shackled and Drawn
9. Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
10. The Promised Land
11. Mansion on the Hill
12. The Way You Do the Things You Do
14. The Rising
15. We Are Alive
16. Thunder Road
17. Rocky Ground
18. Land of Hope and Dreams
19. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
20. Hold On, I’m Comin’
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