TAMPA — "Are we missing anybody?"
Again: "Are we missing anybody?!"
And again: "Are we missing anybody?!!"
Bruce Springsteen was taking roll call of his E Street soldiers, the musicians who follow him into rock battle night after night, decade after decade. After he name-checked his 16 loyalists at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Friday, he asked the crowd to remember the two fallen warriors who weren't there: organ player Danny Federici and sax leviathan Clarence "Big Man" Clemons, their familiar places onstage illuminated by spotlight.
"The only thing I can guarantee tonight," Springsteen said of his late friends, "is if you're here, and we're here, then they're here."
The sold-out crowd of 17,591 amen'd to that, taking boisterous cues from the blue-collar bard himself, a man who sends off his angels not with a whimper but a roar.
Cue the celebration, the rock and the roll, a near-three-hour throwdown that showed the 62-year-old Jersey boy in full-on howl-at-the-moon mode. I've seen Springsteen a dozen times, but I've never heard him so loud, so loose, so happy to be here. He even introduced himself with self-deprecating fervor —- "He's sexy and he knows it!" "He had the No. 1 album in America for one consecutive week!" — setting the weekend-kickoff vibe.
He howled between anthemic cuts from new album Wrecking Ball — including opening one-two wallop of We Take Care of Our Own and the title cut — with why-not rarities (Talk to Me, Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?) and know-'em-by-hearters (The Promised Land, Atlantic City, Thunder Road). He even nodded to a recent gig at Harlem's Apollo Theater with swingin' cuts from the Temptations and Wilson Pickett.
For Prove It All Night, he pointed to another hulking sax prodigy, a wild-haired young man named Jake Clemons, the Big Man's nephew. Every time the kid wailed on that mighty horn, the audience raised its hands, its collective voice, in welcome and remembrance.
Springsteen and his E Streeters have only been on the road for a few shows, but the set list is already a wild guessing game, and don't you know his band thrives on switching gears at the last second.
Mighty Max Weinberg pounded the drums like a man possessed during Radio Nowhere. Guitarist Nils Lofgren injected a searing solo into American Skin (41 Shots), originally written about the police shooting death of Amadou Diallo but taking on new resonance in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing.
Political speeches were kept to a minimum, although devastating new story-song Jack of All Trades, about a broken man trying to lift the spirits of his wife, was a chiller. Still, the messages were mostly delivered with gusto over gravitas: My City of Ruins, The Rising, the Celtic stomp of Death to My Hometown, for which Springsteen uncorked a militaristic jig.
The volume remained for the encore: Land of Hope and Dreams, Born to Run.Jake Clemons blew that fat sax line as his Boss stomped and howled and grinned. He invited a young girl onstage for Dancing in the Dark. In the middle of Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, he stopped the song dead in its tracks to honor the Big Man. But it wasn't a moment of silence; it was a moment of mayhem. Some things change; the Boss, bless his immortal heart, stays the same.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.