Bruce Springsteen is a somewhat polarizing musician to the average music fan. He’s got a legion of hardcore fans who catch multiple shows each tour, can remember their best set lists and know every bit of audience participation. Then there are some people who just can’t stand him for whatever reason – they associate him with Born In The USA, a nostalgia act, a pop band, whatever the reason may be. Either way, an opinion of ‘The Boss’ should be reserved for after seeing him take the stage with the E Street band for a live show as it’s one of the best, high energy, straight up rock-n-roll shows out there today.While this was a personal favorite Springsteen show for me, it was definitely standard in many ways. Bruce and the band took the stage for over three full hours without any sort of set break. There was a rousing ‘Badlands’ opener. There was a five song encore including some of the band’s biggest hits – Born To Run, Dancing In The Dark, etc. A fan’s sign request was answered – this time Thundercrack, an old outtake track from the band’s second album. And of course, older, hardcore fans complained about the abundance of songs played off the new album – there were eight songs off of ‘Wrecking Ball’ compared to 25 in total. That’s not to say standard is bad or boring – there was the first ‘Spirit of the Night’ of the tour and tons of long solos and jams and special treats littered throughout the show. But, if you’ve seen Bruce for a while, you understand the formula, you know what to expect.

There was one huge aspect of the show that would not be the same – a part that really no fan truly understood or knew exactly what to expect. For most of the fans in attendance, this would be the first time they see the E Street Band without Clarence Clemons, who passed away last summer due to complications caused by a stroke. For those not as familiar with Springsteen, it must be noted that Clarence was not your average tenor saxophone player off in the corner. He was the biggest sidekick in rock n roll. He’s literally the shoulder Bruce leans on in the iconic cover to the ‘Born To Run’ LP. He’s responsible for the final and biggest ovation when the band is introduced. He’s owns a constant presence on stage, one that is unavoidable. The whole idea of seeing Bruce and the band without Clarence just seems weird.

However, life goes on, the world turns, and things change. This is a reality that we have to accept. So when Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band strolled into Madison Square Garden for their two night run of sold out shows, we would have to accept that this time, there would be no Clarence. In his place was a three man horn section, including Clarence’s nephew Jake Clemons. It is fitting that it takes three people to replace The Big Man.

There are probably many ways of handling this situation, addressing the crowd, and paying tribute while still keeping a ‘the show must go on’ mentality. In this regard, I think both Bruce and the fans reacted in appropriate fashion – Bruce with a story, and the fans with audience participation. From the opening notes of the brief saxophone solo in Badlands, performed by Jake Clemons, our Little Big Man, the crowd went absolutely nuts. This continued throughout the show, every single solo – and there are a bunch – the crowd just completely lost it. Bruce addressed the crowd twice – during ‘My City of Ruins’, in our first Bruce Story interlude, The Boss talked to the crowd about loss and moving on. During the song itself, he started to introduce the band one by one, like he normally does every show. After introducing Little Stevie Van Zandt, there was a brief pause. In years past, this would be the point in which the crowd would chant ‘Cla-rence!’ until the big man came out for his bow. But this time, Bruce asked the crowd in typical, sing-a-long chant form ‘Are we missing anybody?’ several times, to which the crowd responded ‘Cla-rence!’ and then an eruption of applause. There was one more major tribute the Clarence, in the last song of the encore, ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out’, which tells a loose history of how the E Street Band was formed. The third verse begins with the lyrics “When the change was made uptown/And The Big Man joined the band”, to which after sung the music stopped, Bruce raised his microphone in the air, and we were given a brief moment of silence before resuming the song.

It was all very fitting, and I think the entire band handled a hard situation in a perfect way. They managed to honor a pay tribute to an important member of the bands history without effecting the fun experience that the fans still want and expect. The rest of the show was fantastic, as I mentioned before, a personal favorite. While some complain about the new songs, I think the new material over the past 10 years have created a bunch of new staples, and it’s what keeps the band from being a nostalgia act. There were plenty of ‘Bruce’ moments – highlights include The Boss making his way into an elevated part of the GA Pit, and chugging not one but two full beers during an instrumental break. There was also a very fun Apollo Medley – a tribute to the Apollo theater where Springsteen had played earlier this year, which featured covers of The Tempations ‘Why Do You Do The Things You Do’ and Wislon Pickett’s ‘634-5789′. And of course, tons of Bruce favorites like Thundercrack, Rosalita, and Backstreets. But, I think when most people look back at this show, they’ll remember it as the first one they saw without the always present ‘Big Man’. The end of an era and the rise of a new. Life goes on and so does music.

Written by Justin Charles