It is heart-stopping. Pants-dropping. House-rocking. Earth-quaking. Booty-shaking. Viagra-taking. Lovemaking. And, of course, legendary.
The E Street Band has been a vital appendage of Bruce Springsteen’s career since he began using the moniker in 1972. And this year the New Jersey rocker, known by fans and band members as The Boss, has seemed particularly keen to celebrate the group, which endures despite occasional hiatuses, one particularly nasty split, lineup changes, health issues and the death of one original member, keyboardist Danny Federici, in 2008.
“The main thing that I’m proud of is just the band at this point in time,” Springsteen, 60, explained at a press conference before the group’s halftime performance at Super Bowl XLIII in February. “Y’know, we stayed together, we stayed alive — that’s hard to do for people in our business.
“It’s the long, long ride that it’s all about. It’s that I’ve had these guys and these ladies at my side and we’ve made it this far, and that we’re here to do it...We just want to carry on and give some people some smiles and some inspiration.”
The longevity is neither lost on nor taken for granted by the individual E Streeters, even though the band has never been credited as an entity on any of Springsteen’s studio albums and was not inducted with him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. But Roy Bittan, keyboardist since 1975, calls the group “a well-oiled machine” that’s still in its prime in terms of musicianship.
“We’re all enjoying playing so much,” Bittan, 60, says. “We’re having, I think, the time of our lives playing at this point. We all really look forward to stepping on stage every night and doing something that we’ve all been working on for a very long time.”
Guitarist “Little” Steven Van Zandt, who’s on his second tour of duty as an E Street Band member, adds that “we refuse to be a nostalgia act. We are an ongoing concern here, still creating things. Bruce is still writing fantastic things and vital things and he’s very, very much inspired and motivated to continue doing things as we have all along.
“We don’t go onstage with a different attitude. We’re the same as we were when we were 25 — we might not be as pretty, but we seem to be still getting better, so it’s a good time to see us now.”
Springsteen incurred probably his angriest fan backlash in 1989, when he announced that he was putting the band on ice in order to pursue other musical directions. The group members were none too happy, either; saxophonist Clarence Clemons was touring Japan as part of Ringo Starr’s first All-Starr Band when he got the call from Springsteen and recalls being “very angry and extremely hurt for the first half an hour, 45 minutes.
“But then the reality of it came,” says Clemons, 67, who recently published the memoir “Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales.” “I said, ‘You know, I know this is what he wants to do, and...it’s fine. This is not forever. This is just a temporary thing while Bruce is gonna try other things.’
“So I got through it. I knew it would come back and it did, so here we are.”
Springsteen first reunited the band in 1995 to record four new tracks for a “Greatest Hits” album and the subsequent “Blood Brothers” documentary. He went back to E Street for good in 1999, and during the past decade the group has been part of three studio albums, a live album, two DVDs and seven world tours, while Springsteen recorded two other albums on his own during that time.
“The nicest thing about it was that we were able to reconstitute the band as an ongoing, sort of creative unit,” Springsteen says. “We wanted to live up to that thing, and we wanted to continue to serve in the fashion that we served before.”
There are differences these days, of course. The band has expanded: multiinstrumentalist Soozie Tyrell came on board in 2002 for “The Rising” tour; Charlie Giordano, who was part of Springsteen’s “The Seeger Sessions” project in 2006, stepped in for the late Federici; and this year’s roster adds “Seeger Sessions” veterans Curtis King and Cindy Mizelle on backing vocals, Curt Ramm on trumpet and, at certain shows, 19-year-old Jay Weinberg stepping in for his father, Max, an E Streeter since 1975 who also does double-duty as the bandleader for Conan O’Brien on NBC’s “The Tonight Show.”
“As Bruce said to me one night, it’s good to know there’ll always be a Weinberg on drums in the E Street Band,” the older Weinberg, 58, says with a laugh. “The audience loves him, and he brings a youthful energy that is wonderful for me to see. I’m proud of him. “And I’ve never seen the band, obviously. I was able to step down front, and it was a hell of a show.” The nature of the concerts has changed, too. Picking up from his heavily improvised shows in the summer of 2008, Springsteen has made this year’s tour less about his current album — the gold-certified “Working on a Dream,” which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart in February — and more pleasing the crowd, including playing several albums in their entirety (such as “Born to Run” tonight at the Palace of Auburn Hills) and collecting signs from fans requesting particular songs, everything from his own obscurities to rock ‘n’ roll classics and even, at one show, “Hava Nagela.”
Van Zandt, 58, notes with pride that “we’ve never been totally stumped... but we may mess up the song a bit.” Springsteen’s wife Patti Scialfa, 56, an E Streeter since 1984, explains that, “We’re never shocked, because you know that the catalogue is a living creature. It’s like having hundreds of horses in a corral, and at any time somebody might say, ‘Hey, guess what, we haven’t ridden that palomino in two years. We’re riding that one right now.’ You know that you’re responsible for the whole catalogue.”
Guitarist Nils Lofgren, 58, who’s also celebrating his 25th anniversary in the band, adds that, “It’s just very unusual, seat—of-your-pants stuff that most bands just do not do. We’ve always done an improv show, but usually there’s a them to the set...The next frontier was just starting to call out the whole set audibly. I mean, he started changing the first song on the way to the stage.
“But when you mix that with the caliber of the songs and the quality of the playing, it makes for an extraordinary show.”
There’s a sense in Springsteen fans circles that this tour, which wraps up Nov. 22, may be a last hurrah for the E Street Band — for some time if not forever. Springsteen, who’s reportedly starting work on an autobiography, told the Italian edition of Vanity Fair this year that the group “will probably take a rest for a little while. But it all will happen again.” Clemons says that, “whatever he does next, it’s going to be fantastic, you know?”
Van Zandt, meanwhile, predicts that “we are going to take, I don’t know how long — a year, a year and a half, two years” off and even says, raconteurstyle, that “it could be the last tour ever. you never know, so if you’re waiting to see us you better come see us now.” But he’s clearly not feeling that way.
“We do every show like it’s our last show, anyway,” he says. “We grew up with very high standards; our heroes were the Beatles and the (Rolling) Stones and the Who and the Kinks. We were trying to live up to those standards. In our minds we’re probably never going to get to that point, but we keep trying and we keep working hard at it.”
SPARKS FLY ON E STREET
A guide to the E Street Band throughout the years:
Roy Bittan -- keyboards, 1974-present
Ernest "Boom" Carter -- drums, 1974
Clarence Clemons -- saxophone, 1972-present
Danny Federici -- keyboards, 1972-2008
Charlie Giordano -- keyboards, 2008-present
Curtis King -- backing vocals, 2009
Suki Lahav -- violin, 1974-75
Nils Lofgren -- guitar, 1984 to present
Vini Lopez -- drums, 1972-74
Cindy Mizelle -- backing vocals, 2009
Curt Ramm -- trumpet, 2009
David Sancious -- keyboards, 1973-74
Patti Scialfa -- backing vocals and guitar, 1984-present
Garry Tallent -- bass, 1972-present
Soozie Tyrell -- 2002-present
Steven Van Zandt -- guitar, 1975-84, 1995-present
Max Weinberg -- drums, 1974-present
Jay Weinberg -- drums, 2009
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band at 7:30 p.m. Friday (Nov. 13) at the Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $92, $58 and $32. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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