Newark, NJ, May 2, 2012—The Prudential Center was literally shaking. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band were due up in minutes. The vibe couldn’t have been more exciting, as we knew it was the last stateside show before Europe. And any last show is always a party. Question: So how do you replace Clarence Clemons? Answer: With a five-piece kick-ass horn section including his young nephew Jake Clemons and the honking ballsy Eddie Manion, both saxing it up like mad.

We were taking bets on what he’d open with. So far on the tour, it’s been “We Take Care Of Our Own” but tonight was “No Surrender,” the first of many surprises. Usually, it’s the old material, for any artist, that proves to be the night’s highlight. In an inverse brand of logic that would permeate the proceedings, the songs off the powerful Wrecking Ball had the most resonance. And it started with the title track. These songs are all mini-anthems anyway and, in a live setting, flourish like spirituals (which some of ‘em are).

“My wife Patti is staying home with the kids tonight,” he explained, “making sure they don’t get into our drug stash.”

Since it was the first time he had played this room, he said he wanted to do a song “for the first time.” Well, he’s played “Bishop Danced” before but not, as far back as I can remember, since his days at the Stone Pony in Asbury before he was signed to Columbia Records. It’s not on any album (although it appears on disc one of the Tracks box). It was a freakish moment. Then he brings out a guy and introduces him as his homeboy who’s seen the band 1,002 times. For this, the dude got the honor of counting off “Badlands” and the place erupted.

“Candy’s Room,” “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City,” and “She’s The One,” came fast ‘n’ furious—the band loud, Bruce’s voice strong, better than ever. You couldn’t take your eyes off mighty Max on drums, one of the best in the biz. Fiddler Soozie Tyrell flounced around the stage like it was the Grand Ole Opry. Guitarists Steven Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren were also obviously inspired on this celebratory night. Bassist Garry Tallent and Professor Roy on the keys were understated theatrically and that’s just the way they like it. There’s no understating their musical contribution, though. Bruce, 62, is an athlete. He has to be able to push himself like that in nightly three-hour shows. When he ran the length of the stage, falling and sliding on his knees, he had a little kid from the audience do it with him this time and the boy—who also did some singing—almost got the biggest ovation of the night.

During the soul covers of “The Way You Do The Things You Do” (The Temptations) and “634-5789” (Wilson Pickett), Bruce went deeeeeep into the crowd, swiped a beer from someone’s hand and drank it like pro wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin, letting it spill all over him, at which point he fell backwards into a sea of people who miraculously passed him on all the way back to the stage. There’s a level of trust implicit in that act that defies common sense. Then there’s the messianic aspect to his performance. He’s so loved, so cherished, so at one with his crowds, who the hell is going to let Bruce fall to the ground? And he knows this. God only knows what it must feel like.

So he deserves the adulation because, yeah, he’s that good. Distilling all these aspects of American pop culture from rhythm ‘n’ blues (helped out, by the way, by a bevy of sterling background singers) to old-time rock ‘n’ roll, to protest songs to gospel, elongated jam band moments and even personal asides where he spouted a few common sense aphorisms as song intros (felt most deeply on “Jack Of All Trades”), he’s a pop-culture sponge who spews it back out so natural and free that it’s awe-inspiring.

As the night seemed to end with his saintly “Land Of Hope And Dreams,” we stood stone still reveling in the afterglow. The encore, then, was the afterlife and it was heaven: “The Weight” (ostensibly for the kid with the sign that said “play one for Levon” in reference to the fallen drummer of The Band). But “Rocky Ground,” “Born To Run,” “Dancing In The Dark,” “Rosalita” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” followed that and I, for one, didn’t move for another 20 minutes after that.

It’s 2:00 in the morning as I type this. I left the venue in a daze, couldn’t find the restaurant where I left my car, forgot my glasses, ran out of money, and had to walk blind through the streets of downtown midnight Newark not knowing where I was going or where exactly I was. I was the happiest man in the world.

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