“We are alive,” sang Bruce Springsteen at the Times Union Center on Monday night, by himself in the spotlight during a new song about how the spirit and voices of the dead live on in the living. That refrain—from the song “We Are Alive,” which ends Springsteen’s latest album, Wrecking Ball—sounded like a reminder on a night that served as an elegy to lost loved ones: We’re here and we owe it to the departed to carry on.
On this tour to support Wrecking Ball—the first in four decades undertaken by the E Street Band without sax player and integral member Clarence Clemons, who died as the album was being finished—Springsteen knew he was walking a line between soldiering on without fan-favorite Clemons and also late keyboardist Danny Federici (who died in 2008) while paying tribute to their memory and acknowledging the loss.
Fortunately, Springsteen has Clemons’ nephew Jake—who’s taken over in part for his uncle as a member of the new five-piece E Street Horns section—to absorb some of the loss. The young saxophonist received nearly Clarence-level cheers as he replicated his uncle’s famous solos on classic Springsteen tunes like “Badlands,” “The Promised Land” and “Born to Run,” even leading the horn section in a march down to the front of the stage to take turns soloing on “Thunder Road.”
The first actual tribute to E Street’s fallen members came during the introduce-the-band portion of “My City of Ruins,” a song written about the decay of Asbury Park, N.J., but which took on new meaning as a message of hope following its inclusion on The Rising, Springsteen’s post-9/11-themed album. “Are we missing anybody? Do we have to say the names? If you’re here and we’re here then they’re here, so raise your voices,” Springsteen called out before leading the crowd in singing the song’s “Come on rise up” chorus until it sounded like an act of defiance.
That theme of survival seemed to permeate the three-hour show, which was filled with songs from Wrecking Ball, and seethes with anger at recession-era economic disparity: the bitterly populist, pre-Occupy movement tune “Jack of All Trades,” the Celtic-tinged laments “Shackled and Drawn” and “Death to My Hometown,” and album single “We Take Care of Our Own,” which appropriates the patriotic anthem “America the Beautiful” and spits it back in the face of those too selfish to look out for their fellow Americans.
Ultimately, the message was one of uplift, which is what Springsteen does like no other performer alive. “Hard times come and hard times go,” he repeated like a mantra during the album’s title cut, “Wrecking Ball,” reminding us that things may get bad but they will get better. Completely drenched in sweat by the end of the night—when he fell to his knees on the stage after a reverent video montage to “Big Man” Clemons during set-closer “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”—the biggest testament to survival was perhaps Springsteen himself: a seemingly ageless fountain of energy who reveled in his interactions with fans, spending much of the show venturing out among the general-admission crowd, even chugging their beer and entrusting them to inch him gently toward the stage as he surfed atop the crowd.