Live review: Bruce Springsteen rocks the Apollo Theater

A soul man to the core, the Boss cuts loose in the heart of Harlem.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Apollo Theater

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Apollo Theater Photograph: Kevin Mazur/WireImage for SiriusXM

For all the soul heroes Bruce Springsteen openly feted at his electrifying Apollo Theater performance last Friday night, perhaps none exerted a more powerful presence in spirit than James Brown. That might sound incongruous to anyone who grew up listening to working-class rock anthems like "Thunder Road" (or for that matter, dead-on-the-heavy-funk joints like "Sex Machine"), but as a consummate showman with the instincts to suss out and crystallize the emotional highs of a moment, the Boss showed himself to be on equal footing with the Godfather.

It's not necessarily a gift you're born with. Springsteen pointed out as much at the top of his set, which he chose to open with a sizzling Danny Ray--style monologue, introducing himself as "the hardest-working white man in show business"—a line that could have come off like a boast but didn't, probably because, at 62, Springsteen has more than earned the title; he's literally lived it. Led by guitarist Steven Van Zandt, the 16-strong E Street Band played soul revue behind him, steadily building to a climax as drummer Max Weinberg kicked in with the opening beats of "We Take Care of Our Own," the leadoff cut from Wrecking Ball, released last week.

Throughout the night, Springsteen played eight songs from Wrecking Ball, but they were folded so artfully into a wide-ranging two-and-a-half-hour starburst of soul covers and Born to Run--era classics that it never felt like he was trying to sell a new album. As for the occasion—the show was sponsored by Sirius XM in honor of its tenth anniversary in satellite radio, and simulcast to its E Street Radio subscribers—any sense that this was just a contrived gathering of industry insiders and celebrities (sighted: John McEnroe) went out the window early on with "Badlands," once a showcase for the beloved Clarence Clemons on saxophone. When Springsteen waved Clemons's 36-year-old nephew Jake, now a permanent member of the E Street horn section, to the front of the stage to take his late uncle's solo, the house erupted.

Even to outsiders, it's easy to see that the E Street Band is a family, with Springsteen the obvious father figure, and while he rules with a gentle and democratic hand (unlike the hard fist of James Brown), the band is tightly attuned to his every gesture. This was most evident during a midset tribute to the soul-music roots that informed Springsteen's early days playing in bars on the New Jersey shore; while the band's singers gathered around him and crooned a low doo-wop melody, the Boss expounded at length on soul history before cuing a flawless a cappella version of "The Way You Do the Things You Do," followed by a rousing take of Wilson Pickett's "Soulsville, U.S.A."

What often gets lost amid the constant dissection of the sociopolitical message behind Springsteen's lyrics, whether he's remembering fallen heroes in "We Are Alive" or his hardscrabble youth in "Mansion on the Hill," is that the earthy sincerity of soul music always plays a prominent role in his songwriting. It's only when you hear him dig into the poignant "My City of Ruins" live—exhorting his fellow underdogs to "Rise up!"—that you'll hear the sanctified strains, for example, of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" (and in fact, when Springsteen made the rounds to introduce each member of the band during the song's breakdown section, his wife, Patti Scialfa, sang a chorus from the Mayfield original). He's not just a white rocker dabbling in soul music—this guy means it.

That kind of authenticity is what has won Springsteen a legion of devoted fans, and he reveled in it at the Apollo. Several times he left the stage to wade through the crowd, at one point even climbing into the upper balcony to serenade the house from above. At the end of the night, he drew not just the band, but the entire building into a palpable sense of camaraderie with "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out." When he stopped the music on a dime after singing "and the big man joined the band"—another moving tribute to Clarence Clemons—the audience filled the silence with at least a full minute of reverent cheers to Clemons's memory. Where else except in a house of worship could you find this kind of devotion?

Now that he's in the sunset of his career, that seems to be what will keep Bruce Springsteen going. He still jumps around like a kid half his age, and he even sings better than he did some 40-odd years ago. Probably most encouraging, he's never lost his sense of humor. When he and the E Street Band closed out the night with an extended chorus of Sam and Dave's "Hold On, I'm Comin,'" Springsteen got down on his knees, feigning exhaustion. Van Zandt immediately got the joke, and ran over to the drum riser to grab a towel and drape it over the Boss's shoulders. The two of them slowly staggered toward the wings, the band still churning, before Springsteen threw off the towel and ran back to the microphone. James Brown had struck again.

Check out this video from the performance.

Set list:

"We Take Care of Our Own"
"Wrecking Ball"
"Death to My Hometown"
"My City of Ruins"
"The E Street Shuffle"
"Jack of All Trades"
"Shackled and Drawn"
"Waiting on a Sunny Day"
"The Promise Land"
"Mansion on the Hill"
"The Way You Do the Things You Do" tribute to Smokey Robinson
"634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)" tribute to Wilson Pickett
"The Rising"
"We Are Alive"
"Thunder Road"
"Rocky Ground"
"Land of Hope and Dreams"
"Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out"
"Hold On, I'm Comin'" (chorus)