Over the years, I’ve had countless discussions with fellow fans and friends about the “best concert you ever attended” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. It’s always a tough call but up there in the Top 5 is March 6, 2003: The night that The Rising Tour stopped in Richmond, VA — on my birthday.
I’ve been lucky enough over the years to have a ticket “connection,” thanks to my Uncle Mike, a former police chief in New York. For the last decade of Springsteen shows I’ve either been in the “pit” right in front of the stage or in one of the first rows of seats along the side of the stage. On this night, I traveled from suburban Maryland with some friends and got to the Richmond Coliseum a few hours before the show, only to find a ticket office in chaos. Our tickets were nowhere to be found. Luckily, I had the cell phone number for our contact, we called him and he met us out front.
“Uncle Gerry,” as I came to call him over the years, never let us down, I told my friends as the clock ticked closer and closer to show time. Sure, enough Uncle Gerry showed up with our wristbands and tickets minutes before the start, but for some reason the staff at the arena would not let us in through the front door.
So, we went in through the back door.
We walked down and around, outside past the tour buses and in through a side door, and there we were, staring at the backstage dressing rooms and party rooms of the band. It took us all a minute to comprehend where we were. Bruce was just launching into The Rising — we had missed meeting the band by minutes. There were no smartphones then, so we all just placed our hands on the star above Clarence’s name on his door — realizing we had missed the great one by minutes.
We then took a few other turns and found ourselves in the “pit.”
I always camped out on stage right — The Big Man’s side of the stage. That’s where the action took place. Like countless other Springsteen fans, I fell in love with the sax after I heard “Jungleland” for the first time in high school. I would come to love the Jersey sound epitomized by the wail of Clarence’s sax. Over the years, I would go to see Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes and any other bar band that had horns. Recently, a local bar had a Blues Brothers Tribute band playing and I was there to absorb the horn section.
On that night in Richmond, I danced. The Rising Tour was the perfect cathartic experience for those traumatized by the 9/11 terror attacks. The concert was filled with the sorrow and pain behind songs like “Empty Sky” and “You’re Missing” as well as the hope contained in “Mary’s Place” and “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day.”
It was during “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” that I was able to get close enough to stage and hit/tap/touch/slap Springsteen as he went by, giving “high-fives” to those in the pit. And for one moment, my eyes connected with Clarence and he smiled. Springsteen concerts are very much about Bruce but almost every Springsteen song seems to build to that moment when “C” lifts the sax to his lips and starts blowing loud.
But, it was really the summer of the “Born in the USA” tour that I came to appreciate Clarence Clemons. My first show ever was at the Saratoga Performing Arts Centre in Saratoga, NY. Altogether, there were six of us including my brother and two sisters. The days leading up to the concert it rained and on the day of the concert it rained — getting to SPAC began to resemble getting to Woodstock.
The concert itself was a 29-song knock-you-out-of-your-seats, get your ass up and dance, come-to-Jesus moment if ever there was one. I remember looking at my concert-mates song after song, saying “I can’t believe this.”
Those were the days that the E Street Band, would come out get all sweaty and then take a break. Then they would come back and blow you away again. This was how the concert ended:
But what I remember most was how the concert began.
We were stressed all week about getting to the concert early — we wanted to get good seats at the outside arena, hopefully finding some shelter from the rain.
Hours before the concert began, Bruce came out with Clarence. They waved to the crowd, tuned the sax and guitar and then launched into “Who’ll Stop The Rain” as a sound check.
And, then the rain stopped.
Clarence Clemons: the man who blew the sax louder than any human alive; the man who helped stop the rain in muddy Saratoga.
You’ll be missed, Big Man.