JAKE Clemons has a special relationship with Ireland. It was at the RDS in Dublin in 2009 that he played saxophone with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band for the first time. Four years later, touring Cork, Limerick, and Kilkenny, he was introduced as a permanent member of Springsteen’s regular touring ensemble, taking up the mantle of his greatly-mourned uncle Clarence Clemons on sax.
“In Dublin, I came on stage and performed with Clarence on ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’,” he recalls. “It was the first presentation of me in the E Street Band if you will.”
He was unfazed about playing alongside his uncle and later filling his shoes. Sharing a spotlight with Springsteen and his crew of veterans felt like the most natural thing in the world. “It was exciting — but also relaxing. To be amongst the great fans in the world, to share their love of the music — it’s wonderful.”
Having first met Springsteen in 1971, Clarence Clemons was the singer’s lieutenant-in-chief and the one member of his group regarded as unsackable. He suffered a fatal stroke in 2011 at aged 69, at which point his nephew was elevated to his place.
Clemons the younger has an intriguing cameo in Springsteen’s autobiography Born To Run. In the book, the singer recalls the fresh-faced musician arriving for his audition for the E Street Band an hour late — and not entirely au fait with the repertoire. “Let me get this straight,” Springsteen recalls telling Clemons. “You are coming to audition for Clarence ‘Big Man’ Clemons’ seat in the E Street Band, which is not a job, by the way, but a sacred fucking position, and you are going to play Clarence’s most famous solos for Bruce Springsteen [referencing myself in the third person], the man who stood beside him for 40 years, who created those solos with him, and you’re gonna ‘sort of’ know them?”
Taking the message to heart, Jake returned to his hotel and practiced until he could play the material in his sleep. “It’s a sacred position to me,” says Clemons, who returns to Ireland this week for solo shows in Cork, Dublin and Limerick.
“I have no other perspective but to be grateful. To be able to keep his voice alive — that’s very important. Of secondary importance is the fact that I’m playing with the greatest live band in the world and learning on a continual basis.”
In parallel with the E Street Band, Clemons, 37, has a career as singer-songwriter. He’s released two solo albums, the most recent, Fear and Love, coming out last January. But Springsteen naturally takes priority, and Clemons had to put back Fear and Love by 12 months to accommodate 2016’s mammoth River tour.
“I’m fortunate to be around some great people who help me have a good perspective on all of that,” says Clemons. “So I don’t get frustrated by it. I am nothing but grateful.”
Springsteen fans often come to Jake’s solo concerts and are presumably surprised to be confronted by a soulful singer-songwriter rather than the saxophone wiz they know from the E Street Band. “They check me out from a sense of nostalgia and don’t necessarily know what to expect,” says Clemons. “They sometimes don’t even know I play guitar. They maybe expected a sax show.”
Clemons recently discovered that he has distant Irish heritage and has always felt at home here. That’s why he is commencing his new tour in Ireland. However, fans looking forward to an evening of bonhomie maybe be surprised. Love and Fear is stark and dark, informed by a period of upheaval in his life. “It’s an introspective record,” he nods. “I was processing a lot of things and trying to figure out how to deal with them. The biggest challenge is communicating that without depressing anyone.”
Growing up, Clemons’s first concert was an E Street Band gig. He was hooked on the spot. In other ways, though, he came late to rock music. While uncle Clarence was a true believer all this life Jake’s father regarded rock ’n roll as an inappropriate distraction. “My dad was a military band conductor, a southern baptist and, at one point, a preacher,” he says. “His family was very very strict. The first time Clarence heard the blues at his father’s house, his grandfather stumbled into the room and told him to turn it off. That was what set Clarence off — he needed to know more. So we have a similar tale in that respect.”