In the Big Man's boots

By John J. Moser

Bruce Springsteen has enlisted the talented nephew of late saxophonist Clarence Clemons, a prominent member of his E Street Band, to join him on tour in Australia and New Zealand. So far, it's been emotional for Jake Clemons, writes John J. Moser

Jake Clemons wants everyone to know this: he isn't trying to replace his uncle, Clarence Clemons, by taking over as saxophone player in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. The Big Man died in 2011.

"I'm very careful with that notion," Clemons says in a phone call. "I in no way feel, expect or hope to have replaced Clarence. That's not a word that I would ever use. For me, it's filling the role from a place of need.

"Clarence's mission, as the job was communicated to me, was just to bring spirit, love and joy to the world. And that voice doesn't stop, you know? I mean, I feel he was the flag man in the army, waving that flag."

Springsteen and the E Street Band have been touring Australia since last month, kicking , off at Perth Arena on February 7.

In addition to having his own mission in the E Street Band, Clemons also has established himself as a musician of note outside it, with his own band.

Though Clemons might not feel he's a worthy replacement for his uncle, who played nearly 40 years with Springsteen, his joining the band made perfect sense when Springsteen made the announcement a month after Clarence died of complications from a stroke at age 69.

Jake Clemons, 36, says the band had long been like a family to him, and his uncle was a musical mentor and more.

"Clarence and I were very, very, very close," he says. "I mean, he was a father figure to me, a best friend, and our lives were very much intertwined. I spent a lot of time on the tour ... My earliest memories are being around those guys."

Clemons grew up as the son of a Marine Corps band director and attended the Virginia Governor's School for the Arts to study jazz performance after seeing his uncle play the sax.

Uncle Clarence got him his first paid gig - playing alongside him at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993, when Jake was just 16. "I didn't have a bigger supporter for my solo career than Clarence. He would have interviews regarding his own stuff - his book, or the E Street Band - and he would always throw in a comment like, 'You gotta hear my nephew,"' Clemons says, laughing.

"I mean, I would be sitting around with him sometimes and hear him say that."

The younger Clemons had occasionally sat in with the E Street Band and had gone on to play with The Roots, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Will Smith, The Israelites and The Swell Season.

"I've just followed the river of dreams, if you will," Clemons says with a laugh. "And played alongside some really amazing people. And people have been very generous in providing the opportunities for me to get up on stage."

He says the conversation with Springsteen about joining the E Street Band "was all just a natural conversation".

"Bruce always gave honour and respect, and took care of the people that love Clarence."

Clemons joined the band for its tour to support the album Wrecking Ball, which was released two months after Clarence's death and included his last recording sessions.

Those initial shows were solemn affairs, in which a light shone on the stage space beside Springsteen, where Clarence would have stood. Clemons says the shows were emotional for him, too. He points out that the first E Street Band show he saw that didn't include his uncle was the one that he played in.

But, he says, "There's always challenges personally, for myself and emotionally." The first show was tough, but also enriching. "You know, we carry the torch and there's something beautiful in that - that magic."

The mood had lightened by the second leg of the tour later that year. "It's a lot of weight to carry, in the sense of the weight of missing someone," Clemons says.

"But we come to the point where, if we're lucky, that weight that we carry, that depth of our sorrow, is put away and we see a beautiful thing that we feel good about.

"It will never go away, but instead of being a burden - not that it's ever been a burden - it becomes something that is new."

Asked whether the subject of recording with Springsteen has come up, Clemons says: "I have no idea what Bruce's plans are for the future. I think he's a very wise and good man, and we'll see how it goes. I'm very much a person of the present."

For now, Clemons is completing his second solo album, hopefully by the end of the year. It follows his solo debut EP It's On, in 2011.

Who: Jake Clemons, saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band.
Where: Performing with Springsteen at Mt Smart Stadium tonight, and tomorrow night.

- TimeOut / AAP

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