This story was updated to correct Jake Clemons' relationship to Clarence Clemons.
Over the decades, Bruce Springsteen has garnered just as many detractors as he has adoring fans. Often the fans are fans and the detractors are detractors for the same reasons — the earnest anthems, the rough-hewn vocals, the similar-sounding songs.
But there’s one thing that isn’t up for debate about Springsteen and his E Street Band — their mastery of the arena rock show. Once again, Springsteen and company proved their mettle before a packed house at the Times Union Center Monday night. All of Springsteen’s weaknesses didn’t matter as soon as he began bashing on his trusty Telecaster — the man was born to be onstage. For three whole hours, the energy never let up as the band tore through most of its new album “Wrecking Ball,” old favorites and more than enough surprises to keep even longtime fans out of their seats and dancing.
Taking the stage shortly before 8:30, the band wasted no time, jumping right into “Badlands” with more energy than most bands reserve for their big finishes. This tour features one of the biggest versions of the E Street Band to grace a stage (there were 16 players and singers up there this night), and the sound was correspondingly huge, yet surprisingly nuanced for an arena show.
As Springsteen grimaced his way through new tracks “We Take Care of Our Own” and “Wrecking Ball,” the rest of the band gamely kept up. Guitarists Nils Lofgren and Steven Van Zandt each added a different color to the proceedings, trading solos with Springsteen. Van Zandt even dueled with The Boss on a violently awesome version of “Murder Incorporated.” And “powerhouse” doesn’t begin to describe drummer Max Weinberg, who thundered away on a bare-bones four-piece kit, pushing songs like “Out in the Street” and “My City in Ruins” into the stratosphere.
Perhaps saxophonist Jake Clemons demanded the most attention, however, as he was taking over lead sax duties from his late uncle, Clarence Clemons, on the E Street Band’s first tour ever without the founding member. The younger Clemons did more than admirably, managing to both evoke his uncle and put his own spin on solos early on in “Badlands,” and on a massive soul medley of soul standard-bearers “The Way You Do the Things You Do’ and “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.).”
The band’s joyful energy was palpable throughout the evening. Springsteen was the one egging it on, whether crowd surfing during the soul medley, letting audience members have a turn on the vocal mic during “Waiting on a Sunny Day,” or dousing Weinberg with a wet sponge in the middle of “The Promised Land.”
As fun as these lighthearted moments were, the earnest Springsteen ballads were equally poignant. A solo take on “Janey, Don’t Lose Heart” — the song’s debut on this tour — was pure raw beauty, with Springsteen’s unsure beginning turning into one of the evening’s strongest performances. The epic “Backstreets” managed to be both heart-rending and boot-stomping at the same time, climaxing with a snarling guitar solo from Springsteen that drove the crowd insane.
Best of all was main set closer “Land of Hope and Dreams.” The studio recording on “Wrecking Ball” features the last saxophone solo Clarence Clemons ever recorded, and his nephew Jake delivered his own solo in moving tribute.