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Bruce Springsteen rocks out at The Apollo Theater

Bruce Springsteen performs during SiriusXM's concert celebrating 10

Bruce Springsteen performs during SiriusXM's concert celebrating 10 years of satellite radio at The Apollo Theater in New York City. (March 9, 2012) (Credit: Getty Images)

Don't worry. It was still a party.

Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band's show last night at the Apollo Theater had so much baggage attached – the high expectations for the first full concert since the death of Clarence “Big Man” Clemons last year, as well as the weight of being the first concert in support of the new album “Wrecking Ball” (Columbia) about struggles and celebration in a time of economic hardship. The stakes were even higher as the private two-hours-plus show was broadcast live on SiriusXM, as part of the satellite radio company's 10th anniversary celebration.

But Springsteen and the even mightier than usual E Street Band, now 15 members strong, delivered, dropping the stress as effortlessly as James Brown has shrugged off his cape so many times on the historic Apollo stage. Springsteen recreated the moment during “Hold On, I'm Coming” to end the show, with Steven Van Zandt draping a black t-shirt on his shoulders instead of a cape – the grandest of all the nods he made to playing the legendary venue.

“If you played in a bar on the central New Jersey shore in the ’60s and ’70s, you played soul music,” he explained, before launching in to an impressive version of “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” that opened a capella with lush harmonies from Springsteen and five of the E Street Band's singers. “We knew that way off in some never-never land of rhythm and blues there was a place called the Apollo... It was the home of the gods and the true temple of soul.”

However, as much as he paid tribute to the Apollo, there was even more love for his late saxophone player Clarence Clemons. During “My City of Ruins,” which became far more soulful thanks to the five-piece horn section now led by Clemons' nephew, Jake Clemons, Springsteen declared a roll call, with each member getting introduced and taking a solo. (When Jake Clemons nailed his first solo in “Badlands,” there was a noticeable sigh of relief followed by wild cheers.)

Then Springsteen asked, “Are we missing anybody?” repeating the question until the star-studded audience -- including Tom Hanks, Elvis Costello, and Ben Stiller -- understood he was referring to Clemons and longtime keyboard player Danny Federici, who died in 2008. He led the crowd in a rousing ovation before saying, “If you're here and we're here, they're here.”

During “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” Springsteen stopped the song entirely after singing, “The Big Man joined the band” to allow for another huge ovation.

The tributes added another level to the already-layered show. It puts the “Wrecking Ball” album mission statement, “We Take Care of Our Own” into a new context. It makes the epic title track's defiant taunt of “Bring on your wrecking ball” even more emotional and the payoff line, “Hard times come and hard times go” all the more soothing.

“On our new record, our motto is dancing and crying,” Springsteen said, introducing a stunningly spare version of his classic “Mansion on the Hill,” from the 1982 “Nebraska” album, accompanied only by the harmonies of his wife, Patti Scialfa, and Soozie Tyrell on violin. “This one is just crying.”

There was more dancing than crying in the eight songs he rolled out from the new album, though some offered both, especially in “Death to My Hometown” and the gospel-styled “Rocky Ground,” which featured Michelle Moore singing and rapping. Even “Land of Hope and Dreams,” which on previous tours had been cast as more of an emotional plea, has become tougher and more rocking, thanks again to the larger horn section.

The Springsteen classics chosen specifically to support the “Wrecking Ball” economic theme packed the most punch, though. “Promised Land” outlines the same “Wrecking Ball” desire for the American dream, as does “Thunder Road.”

“We've got some old friends and some new friends with us, but our mission remains the same,” Springsteen said early in the night. “We're here to bring the power, hour after hour. We're here to put a whoop-ass session on the recession. We're here to bring a smile to your face, an extra beat to your heart, and to raise your spirits high in these hard times.”

Mission accomplished.

(The "Wrecking Ball" tour hits the Izod Center April 3 and 4 and Madison Square Garden April 6 and 9.)

SETLIST: We Take Care of Our Own / Wrecking Ball / Badlands / Death to My Hometown / My City of Ruins / The E Street Shuffle / Jack of All Trades / Shackled and Drawn / Waiting on a Sunny Day / Promised Land / Mansion on the Hill / The Way You Do The Things You Do / 634-5789 / The Rising / We Are Alive / Thunder Road / Rocky Ground / Land of Hope and Dreams / Tenth Avenue Freeze Out / Hold On I'm Comin'

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