Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in Los Angeles: Concert Review

Getty Images
Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt
The bulked-up band roars back from a so-so 2009 tour with something to prove -- and proves it all night.

The first of two SoCal shows supporting a strong new record sends a truly all-ages crowd home smiling.

“The E Street Band is back!” Bruce Springsteen shouted early during his set Thursday at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena.

Quite correct, but it's hard not to take solemn note of the personnel change -- namely, the absence of four-decade bandmate and crowd favorite Clarence Clemons.

Perhaps sensing that from the throngs of faithful devotees, Springsteen returned to L.A. like a man with something to prove. And when this guy is motivated, life is good for concertgoers. After a less-than-stellar 2009 tour supporting the least affecting album of his career, on Thursday Springsteen delivered a terrific nearly three-hour show that no doubt pleased fans old and new, judging by how few people sat.

“We’ve got some old faces with us and some new faces,” Springsteen said of the widened E Street Band. Indeed, there were 16 players onstage -- a half-dozen more than the previous tour -- including a five-piece horn section. Rather than watering down the music, the bulked-up band enhanced and often enlivened it.

REVIEW: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Live at The Apollo

The ensemble is touring behind the strong new album Wrecking Ball, which supplied eight of the set’s 25 songs. The suite-like title track, which repeatedly cops the haunted keyboard riff from “Secret Garden,” came off well but battled the ancient Sports Arena’s muddy mix before spinning into one of Springsteen’s signature populist “Whoa-oh-oh” yell-alongs.

Easily the highlight among the new songs was “Jack of All Trades,” a dirge-like, borderline unsettling gut punch about a guy who’ll “take the work that God provides”: mowing, harvesting, building, fixing -- anything. But when Springsteen sang the refrain, “I’m a jack of all trades / Honey we’ll be all right,” something in his voice hinted that the character is merely saying what his wife needs to hear -- like he doesn’t really believe it. The nuance was masterful.

Fueled by piano triplets reminiscent of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts,” it’s arguably the best song he’s written in a decade, and it was a stone killer live.

Sprinkled around the new stuff were true nuggets from the Springsteen catalog, including the back-to-back-to-back “Something in the Night,” “Candy’s Room” and “She’s the One.” The last of the trio again proved that drummer Max Weinberg has lost none of his might as he hammered the hambone beat and killed the fills. And those trademark crossover flourishes are as exciting to watch and hear as they were decades ago.

VIDEO: Bruce Springsteen and His Mother Do 'Courteney Cox Dance' at Philly Show 

“The Ties That Bind,” a rave-up from The River that hasn’t been played much on this tour, featured the night’s first big sax solo from Jake Clemons, Clarence’s nephew. The kid -- he’s 36 -- played admirably all night, and the crowd showered him with the same disproportionate cheers his uncle always drew.

Still, there’s never a doubt who the star is. Springsteen doesn’t reel off those 10-minute stories onstage anymore, but he’s never had any trouble goading a crowd. He brought a bespectacled girl of 11 or so onstage to sing the kid-friendly “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” with him, and she charmed the room with her shyness-turned-confidence. A winning moment.

And after a soul medley inspired by the band’s tour-warmup gig at the Apollo in Harlem -- where he said “our great heroes and our masters and our teachers” played -- Springsteen strode into the crowd and stopped midway across the floor. When we finished the song, he crowd-surfed(!) all the way back to the stage. It took awhile, but the place was left buzzing.

Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine joined the band for three nonconsecutive songs, including the still-resonant “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” which Rage purposefully covered a dozen years ago. Morello sang some lead and deployed a typically knob-twisting solo, which at times sounded like Rage’s “Killing in the Name.” It was a stellar rendition of the title cut from the often-underappreciated 1995 album.

STORY: SXSW 2012: Bruce Springsteen Cites Barack Obama, Elvis Presley, Lester Bangs in Poetic Keynote Address

The set included four songs from 2002’s The Rising but happily none from 2009’s Workin’ on a Dream, whose material flattened -- and occasionally flatlined -- the band’s previous tour. (Nothing from 2007’s Magic, either.) And though they didn’t play anything from 2006’s folk album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, the 2012 E Street Band’s sound often nods to it. Case in point: the new “We Are Alive,” which was much more rousing than the recorded version.

During the five-song encore, Springsteen couldn’t help but play the Rivieras’ mid-’60s hit “California Sun.” It was simply fun, and Springsteen grinned as he sang it.

The show ended with “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” during which Springsteen headed back to his spot midfloor. The band abruptly halted after the line, “When the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band,” and the video screen showed a montage of Clarence Clemons through the years. Springsteen silently watched -- as he likely does every night on this tour. It was a fitting tribute to the beloved saxman.

At 62, Springsteen remains spry, confident and a master of the stage. And none of his five fellow sexagenarian longtime bandmates -- wife Patti Scialfa is 58 -- appears to be slowing down either. The band returns to the Sports Arena on Friday and has some U.S. stadium shows booked in the fall, so it's likely they’ll hit the Southland again. If so, be there.

Set List:

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
Something in the Night
Candy’s Room
She’s the One
Easy Money
Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
The Promised Land
Apollo Medley: The Way You Do the Things You Do/634-5789 (Soulsville U.S.A)
The Ghost of Tom Joad
The Rising
Lonesome Day
We Are Alive
Land of Hope and Dreams


Rocky Ground
California Sun
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out

Twitter: @THRMusic