Hard times is what Bruce Springsteen's latest album, "Wrecking Ball," is all about. Good times, on the other hand, is what his live shows are all about -- and why he is reliably among the best of the big-arena acts.
With his "Wrecking Ball" tour, which stopped at the Izod Center Tuesday night for one of two dates, Sprinsgteen split the difference.
The E-Street Band, augmented to 17 pieces, roared to life on the first tune, “We Take Care of Our Own,” and Springsteen welcomed the Meadowlands audience to what he dubbed “the romp in the swamp.”
Though new Springsteen songs such as “Jack of All Trades,” “Death to My Hometown” and “Rocky Ground” paint a dismal picture of an America racked by greed and divided by class, the actual mood of the first of two shows this week at the Izod Center was jubilant as always – with the audience fist-pumping, bellowing the refrain to “Born to Run,” and mooing “Bruuuuceeee!” between songs.
“The mighty E Street Band,” as Bruce dubbed them, was even mightier this time around: more than twice as big as the classic lineup, even with the conspicuous absence of two beloved members: the late organist Danny Federici, who died in 2008, and the late “Big Man,” Clarence Clemons, who passed in June.
“Are we missing anybody?” Springsteen called out to the audience, in a shout-out to the honored dead. “Do I have to say their names? If you’re here, and we’re here, they’re here.”
Nephew Jake Clemons, on sax, received a thunderous benediction from the crowd: waves of applause hit him each time he took – and aced – one of his uncle’s solos. The climax came in the show’s last song, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” when Bruce sang the line about “The Big Man [joining] the band.” The ovation – both for the absent Clarence, and his living representative on stage – stopped the song cold for more than a minute.
But the big band in this show, including a five-piece horn section, also gives Bruce a bottomless chest of toys to play with.
Funky percussion? Here’s Everett Bradley on congas for “E Street Shuffle,” trading licks with drummer Max Weinberg. Banjo? Nils Lofgren’s got one handy. Celtic violin? Soozie Tyrell has it covered. Gospel and rap? Singer Michelle Moore, recruited by Springsteen for the new album’s standout tune “Rocky Ground,” is ready to go.
The material was even more rangy than the players. Old favorites like “Thunder Road” and “Prove it All Night.” Stuff from out of left field: “Seeds,” “So Young and in Love.” A rip-roaring salute to Apollo-theater soul: “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “634-5789.”
As always, Bruce took on the cadences of a revival preacher, as he exhorted his congregation to get right with the gods of rock-and-roll. “The mission of the E Street band remains the same,” he told the crowd. “We want to wake you up and shake you up and take you to higher ground.”
The audience at a Bruce show, it’s been noted more than once, is a unique one: because of the bonding between Springsteen and his fans, and maybe even more because of the bonding of fans with each other. This becomes all the more striking when you consider that the increasingly left-leaning, outspoken Springsteen seems to have fans of all political stripes (the conservative New Jersey governor is one).
As Springsteen reminded the audience about the New Jersey Food Bank, made pointed remarks about the corporatization of America (the Izod Center, once named after Brendan Byrne, is now “named after a shirt,” he noted) and delved into songs with a strong political message, such as “American Skin (41 Shots),” a rueful meditation on the 1999 Amadou Diallo police shooting that has become newly timely because of the Trayvon Martin case, the audience took it in stride. If not actually converted, they gave him a respectful hearing.
Which may be the great accomplishment of Bruce Springsteen, political activist: for three hours, he knits an audience ranging from deep-dyed conservatives to Prius-driving liberals into a single, more or less loving family.
Everything in his show Tuesday seemed designed to put the audience in communion with each other, and with the band: from the way Bruce stepped out into the crowd to sip someone’s beer, to pulling up a young girl from the audience on stage to sing and slide across the stage with him, to – memorably – crowd surfing across rows and rows of outstretched arms.
What Bruce’s political agenda is, and how successful he is at getting it across, is open to question. But the joyful feeling at his shows is real enough. It’s almost as if Bruce is reminding an increasingly polarized America: This is what pulling together feels like.
That, in these mean-spirited days, might be an important first step.
The "Wrecking Ball" tour is at Izod again tonight, then stops at Madison Square Garden Friday and Monday, and at the Prudential Center in Newark on May 2.
Concert set list
Bruce Springsteen, April 3, 2012, Izod Center
• We Take Care of Our Own
• Wrecking Ball
• Death to My Hometown
• My City of Ruins
• So Young and in Love
• E Street Shuffle
• Jack of All Trades
• Prove It All Night
• Easy Money
• Waitin’ on A Sunny Day
• Promised Land
• The Way You Do The Things You Do
• 41 Shots
• Because the Night
• The Rising
• We Are Alive
• Thunder Road
• Rocky Ground
• Out on the Street
• Born to Run
• Dancing in the Dark
• Land of Hope and Dreams
• 10th Avenue Freeze Out