Kevin Mazue/
Jeff Labrecque
March 10, 2012 AT 02:25 PM EST

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band took the stage together for their first full concert since the June passing of saxophonist Clarence Clemons, kicking off their Wrecking Ball tour at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater. An exclusive benefit show celebrating 10 years of SiriusXM radio — and raising money for WhyHunger charity — it was the band’s first-ever official performance at the historic venue, and the buzz rippling through the pre-concert happy hour felt more like a big heavyweight title fight downtown at the Garden. There was Elvis Costello and Paul Rudd. There was Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, and there was the entire Tom Hanks clan. Tommy Hilfiger and Harry Belafonte, Pat Riley and Tom Coughlin, Bill Bradley and Brian Williams — you practically couldn’t move without spilling red wine on some famous Friend of Bruce.

“People are going to be talking about this concert for many, many years to come,” announced SiriusXM CEO Mel Karmazin before the main event officially got under way. But he didn’t get the privilege of introducing the evening’s star. That honor was reserved for the Boss himself, who playfully mimicked James Brown’s entrance from the soul singer’s 1962 show at the Apollo. “Ladies and gentleman, are you ready for showtime?” he intoned, before describing himself as “the hardest working white man in show business.”

Springsteen has seemingly been everywhere promoting “Wrecking Ball,” which he’s called his “most direct album.” (“We’re here to put a whip-ass session on the recession!” he announced early on last night.) At one point, he half-joked that this was his first non-televised gig, and he even teased the crowd with a quick “Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle” shimmy from his recent appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s show. The band quickly launched into “We Take Care of Our Own” and “Wrecking Ball, and then “Badlands” presented the first real opportunity to reflect on the new changes with the band. Clemons’ nephew Jake burst out the song’s sax solo and the audience responded enthusiastically — both for his mighty blast and for the man who made it famous.

Without Clemons, though — and with Jake stationed in the back row with the rest of the horn quintet — the entire balance of the stage show shifts. Clearly, Springsteen has always been the center of attention, but Clemons was a strong and important counterweight, just by his immense physicality and charisma. There’s still Nils Lofgren and Steven Van Zandt, like bishops bookending their king, but there was no ignoring the Big Man’s absence, a point tenderly underscored by his roll call during “City of Ruins.” “Are we missing anybody?” he tested the audience after introducing the members of the band. “That’s right, we’re missing a few… The only thing I can guarantee is that if you’re here and we’re here, then they’re here.” While the crowd echoed that line back to him, he jumped back into the song with the line, “Now there’s tears on my pillow…”

Springsteen made the most of mixing in new songs with old favorites, especially those from The Rising, his post 9/11 album that seemingly planted the seeds for some of the tunes on Wrecking Ball. Pairing “City of Ruins” with “Death to My Hometown,” “The Rising” with “We Are Alive” is probably something fans can expect more on the tour. But two of the most memorable moments of the night might be more difficult to replicate. He set up “Mansion on the Hill,” with “On our new record, our motto is dancing and crying. This one is just crying.” But just as Springsteen can energize the most somber social commentary, his romantic duet with wife Patti Scialfa was made even more so after he sealed the song with a kiss. “That was fun. That’s how the whole f—in’ thing started,” he quipped before referencing their 22-year old son.

Throughout the night, Springsteen sprinkled in Apollo Theater references, but the show-stopper was definitely his tribute to the house, when he called it “the home of the Gods and the true temple of soul,” during an a cappella interlude. “All the men and women who worked on this stage were our teachers and our masters,” he said, remembering his days as a kid listening to soul music on the radio. “History? Sam Cooke … Religion? Aretha Franklin … Sex Education? Marvin Gaye. The wisdom of Solomon… Burke. The poetry of Smokey Robinson.” The 16-member band than launched into a rollicking medley of the Robinson-written Temptations hit, “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and Wilson Pickett’s “634/5789.” Springsteen outdid himself, climbing through the upper-level mezzanine while the band blasted from the stage before climbing back to safety with a careful leap from a balcony opera-box. At the end, they wrapped with “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” another loving shout-out to their lost brother that morphed into Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming.” Heaven.

By any measure, the evening was special — momentous even. And Springsteen, to no one’s real surprise, recognized and honored the moment and place. Springsteen at the Apollo might not be the Beatles at Shea or Sinatra’s Main Event. But for Boss obsessives, it was as good as it gets.

Read more:

‘Wrecking Ball’ review

Springsteen hires new sax player

Bruce Springsteen will swing his ‘Wrecking Ball’ all over the world: See the tour dates here

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