Bruce Springsteen asked for silence, and a crowd of thousands obliged. Springsteen and the E Street Band were eight songs deep into their three-hour, 26-song set at the Pepsi Center on Monday night, and the mood had suddenly turned reverent as Springsteen introduced "My City of Ruins" as a tribute to Asbury Park, New Jersey, a town hit successively by economic hardship and, more recently, a natural disaster.
On a deeper level, he added, it was a song that acknowledged "the ghosts that we gather around us." After singing lines about a missing congregation and a brother who was "down on his knees," Springsteen asked for a roll call from the other sixteen musicians on stage. "Are we missing anybody? Are you missing anybody?" he crooned before declaring, "This is where we like to stop for a moment to feel the ghosts that walk alongside us ... Shhh." Silence descended, and the ghost of Clarence Clemons was hard to miss.
See also: - Photos: The twenty best Bruce Springsteen shirts we saw last night at the Pepsi Center - Slide show: Bruce Springsteen at the Pepsi Center - Review: Bruce Springsteen at Pepsi Center, 4/10/09 - Review: Bruce Springsteen at Well's Fargo Theatre, 5/7/05 - Review: Bruce Springsteen at Pepsi Center, 3/31/00 - Deferred Hat Tip: Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska - When it comes to Bruce, David Brooks misses the point
That heartfelt moment was only one of many tributes Monday to Clarence Clemons, the iconic E Street Band saxophonist who died last year following complications from a stroke. It was the E Street Band's first visit to Denver since the loss, and the Big Man's shadow loomed large. His spirit was summoned in the extended performance of "My City of Ruins," as Springsteen recalled Clemons's misadventures as the owner of an ill-fated cowboy bar called Big Man's West before the band broke into "Saving Up."
The consummate skill and verve of Jake Clemons, the Big Man's nephew and one of two lead saxophonists was another constant reminder. But those nods to Clemons never weighed too heavy; they were only a part of a show that was dynamic and explosive on too many levels to count. Springsteen and the E Street band delivered a tour-de-force performance, an explosive show that never felt static.
Springsteen fused pure rock and roll, Pentecostal fervor and Celtic bravado in the course of three hours. He collected signs from the audience bearing requests for obscure tunes and played at least three; he brought a twelve-year-old onstage to sing the chorus of "Waitin' on a Sunny Day"; he crowd surfed and hammed it up while wearing a coonskin cap. There were too many of these memorable moments to count. The effect was dizzying, inspiring and intoxicating, all at once.
Shortly after 8 p.m., the lights went down and shadowy figures moved on the stage before Springsteen appeared in the spotlight holding a guitar. Dressed simply in jeans, a button-up shirt, a tie and a dark vest, Springsteen offered the requisite, "It's great to be back in that Rocky Mountain high," before making a few cracks about legalized pot to raucous applause. The jokes were brief, and led to an apt opening tune.
Shortly after the first strains of "Get Out of Denver" rang out, the stage lights blazed and revealed the full majesty of this touring incarnation of the E Street Band. There was the core band that featured veteran players Roy Bittan, Nils Lofgren, Steven Van Zandt, Garry Tallent, Max Weinberg, Soozie Tyrell and Charles Giordano. They shared the stage with a five-piece horn section, a three-piece vocal section and master percussionist Everett Bradley. The sound was lush and rich. Despite a few moments of feedback here and there, the ensemble offered a gorgeous musical framework for Springsteen's frenzied and energetic lead work.
And the Boss didn't waste any time. Rapid-fire renditions of "I'm a Rocker," "The Promised Land" and "Hungry Heart" whipped the crowd into an immediate frenzy, a fervor that was only stoked by Springsteen's well-rehearsed antics, from kneeling in front of crowd at the front of the stage after the first song and throwing his guitar across the stage to a handler to letting the thousands of rabid fans in the Pepsi Center sing the chorus for "Hungry Heart" and then venturing out to the middle of the floor, where he got up close and personal.
Climbing onto a metal walkway, he asked for "strong men" and "strong women" and then proceeded to crowd surf back to the stage before kicking off "We Take Care of Our Own," a tune from the band's latest album. The title song "Wrecking Ball" followed, with an instrumental outro that sounded downright Scottish. It was a feel that came partly from the instrumentation -- the band broke out a banjo, an accordion, a violin and a skin drum.
The first tribute to Clemons came in "My City of Ruins," albeit in a subtle fashion. The saxophonist wasn't the only one missing when Springsteen asked for a roll call -- longtime organist Danny Federici, who died in 2008, was also one of the "ghosts" summoned in the ballad. Springsteen sad a few rounds of the Sam Cooke line "I'm in a sad mood tonight" before asking for silence.
Later, after hamming it up with Jake Clemons in a coonskin cap during "Spirit in the Night," Springsteen would offer a more direct remembrance of the Big Man. He collected requests from the audience in the form of handmade signs. After fulfilling a twelve-year-old's request for "Bishop Danced" and another hand-written demand for "Human Touch," Springsteen spotted a sign that read, "Saving Up. My mom worked at Big Man's West. Play one for the Big Man."
The Big Man's West was a bar Clarence Clemons opened in Red Bank in the era of "Urban Cowboy," a faux Western bar that failed and sucked up Clemons' investment. "I personally had some of the finest nights of my life there," Springsteen said, before adding that he felt guilty and wrote the tune for Clemons. "This is a message song," he said, a clear reference to the chorus of "You better start saving up/For the things that money can't buy."
The intensity mounted from there with performances of "Shackled and Drawn," "Raise Your Hand" and "Lonesome Day." "Land of Hope and Dreams," from Wrecking Ball, tapped into an effusive, gospel feel, as Springsteen took cues from old spirituals in lyrics for the outro ("People get ready/There's a train coming/You don't need no ticket/You just get on board.")
In lieu of a formal encore, the band just switched gears and moods. After a rendition of "Across the Border Line," the house lights came up and illuminated the entirety of the crowd. Every one in the house was in stark focus for rousing versions of "Born to Run," "Bobby Jean," "Dancing in the Dark," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out."
The lights didn't stop the antics. During "Dancing In the Dark," Springsteen recreated the iconic music video moment that first featured Courtney Cox. He brought up three dancers to the stage instead of one -- two danced with Roy Bittan on one side of the stage, and Springsteen danced solo with another on the other side. Springsteen donned a Santa hat for his Christmas tune, and he spun his guitar around his neck multiple times at the close of "Born to Run." These were iconic moments, feats that spoke of a performer who hasn't lost his flair for the stage.
It was a skill that was in full force when Springsteen announced the last song and the first strains of "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" rang loudly. Springsteen jumped on the top of Bittan's piano and gestured to the crowd. The masses sang the melody of the wordless intro, and Springsteen basked in the sound. He leaned drunkenly on his mic stand, he hurried back to the platform in the middle of the floor.
Then came the final tribute to the Big Man, an homage that was much less subtle. After the second chorus, Springsteen announced, "This is the most important part!" The words, "When the change was made uptown/And the Big Man joined the band," followed. Springsteen and the band went silent.
The live feed on the Pepsi Center's massive video screens was instantly replaced by photos and still images of Clemons. He was on stage performing with an older iteration of the E Street Band. He was posing with his saxophone. He was smiling big. Then a lone picture of Danny Federici. Springsteen watched the screen intently from his perch among the milling, crowing fans.
The video tribute ended, and Springsteen made it back to the stage to finish the song. Before linking arms with the other sixteen players, Springsteen asked a final question as the last chords of the song rung out. "Can you feel the spirit?" he demanded once more. The answer was pretty obvious.
Keep reading for Critic's Notebook and Setlist
Personal Bias: I'd never seen Springsteen and the E Street Band live. The show ramped up my respect for the man and the band by leaps and bounds.
Random Note: Before breaking into "City of Ruins," Springsteen proclaimed his continued passion for live performance. "I'm an old man, but I don't want to go home ... I fucking like doing it."
By the way: If you score floor seats for a Springsteen show, make a sign asking for your favorite song. He pays attention to those things.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Pepsi Center - 11/19/12 Denver, CO
Get Out of Denver I'm a Rocker The Promised Land Hungry Heart We Take Care of Our Own Wrecking Ball Death to My Hometown City of Ruins Spirit in the Night The E Street Shuffle Bishop Danced Human Touch Saving Up Working on the Highway Shackled and Drawn Waitin' on a Sunny Day Raise Your Hand Lonesome Day Badlands Land of Hope and Dreams Across the Border Line Born to Run Bobby Jean Dancing in the Dark Santa Claus is Coming to Town Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
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