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Talkin' with the Big Man

Clarence Clemons is 'Live from Asbury Park'

By Patrick Cooper

Clarence Clemons

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(CNN) -- You can take the Big Man out of the shore, but you can't take the shore out of the Big Man.

In fact, you can take him all the way to Florida and give him a fulfilling life there. But if Clarence Clemons -- the popular saxophonist and Springsteen sidekick known as "Big Man" -- winds up on the New Jersey shore, in a town called Asbury Park, in a legendary club called the Stone Pony, then the tides are right for a good night on the boardwalk.

Clemons recently released a new live recording of just such an occasion, adding his brand of south Florida "metro-rock" to the shore rock family. "Live in Asbury Park" (Valley) captures Clemons performing with his Temple of Soul band as they display a diverse array of musical influences, from rock to Latin to jazz.

The album collects a mix of songs written by Clemons, Springsteen and former ESPN music director John Colby. The arrangements are heavy on the percussion and sax, jumping from slow Florida heat of "Sax in the City" -- Clemons now lives in Palm Beach, Florida -- to the cool downtown beat of "Fatha John." Songs from his early solo work with the Red Bank Rockers also appear, including 1983's "Savin' Up."

How would Clemons sum up the sound? Very simply. "It's all rock and roll to me," he says in a phone interview.

'A special place'

Clemons, 61, recorded the album over Labor Day weekend 2001, during two days of afternoon and night shows in Asbury Park. "Asbury Park's a special place for me," he says. "It's where I really began playing."

Clemons is best known for his association with Bruce Springsteen, which dates back three decades.

Crowds for the shows packed the Stone Pony, the rock club Springsteen made famous in the 1970s and which has returned to operation in recent years. Springsteen himself appeared on the first night to jam with Clemons. Bootleg audience recordings show the Temple of Soul band proving its adeptness, moving from a loose "Peter Gunn" theme into Springsteen's "Pink Cadillac."

The special guest on the second night of the shows was less welcome. A bomb threat briefly emptied the club onto the sidewalk.

Neither the Boss pop-in nor the evacuation make it onto "Live in Asbury Park," but the material's positive reception does. Clemons says he was especially pleased with the audience for the shows.

"This was a project of love," he says. "I love Asbury Park. It's like the Liverpool of America."

He and the Temple of Soul have been touring during breaks in his recent E Street Band obligations. Since the July release of Springsteen's "The Rising," these breaks have been few and far between.

Thumb cymbals and bagpipes

"The Rising" and the subsequent tour placed Clemons in a variety of new musical situations. The Grammy-nominated album's deep mix, along with its somber tones, has limited Clemons' trademark soaring solos, but his saxophone and percussion work have come through strongly when called upon.

Thumb cymbals and bagpipes

"Waiting on a Sunny Day" and "Mary's Place" have been his cues to shine nightly with the new material, along with showpieces such as "Born to Run" and "Dancing in the Dark." Clemons' instrument repertoire has expanded to include tiny thumb cymbals on the Middle Eastern-tinged "Worlds Apart" and even bagpipes on "Into the Fire," albeit briefly.

The bagpipes, which appeared only during tour warm-ups, are a Clemons favorite. He first tried the instrument in Scotland about 15 years ago.

"I picked up the bagpipes," he says, laughing, "and they made some noise."

Now he practices them before all of his performances. The pipes "require a lot more (air) than the saxophone," he explains, providing him with the wind instrument equivalent of downshifting.

Clemons says he prides himself on his off-stage focus, taking his personal trainer on the road with him and working out daily. He suffered a detached retina in November, forcing the postponement of three Springsteen dates, but after surgery was back on stage about a week later. Although still indulging in the occasional cigar, Clemons has been on a health kick in recent years, causing many concert reviewers and fans to comment on the Big Man's slimmed-down appearance.

He takes such praise with a chuckle: "I've moved things around." Still, when he mentions that he's begun to write a cookbook, he points out how none of the "old stuff" will be included. Cooking at the Clemons' house these days is mostly "salads and fish," he says.

Also keeping him busy off-tour has been his community involvement. A sociology major in college and later a social worker (before going full-time into music), Clemons now speaks to school groups and has become active in charities in south Florida.

As active as he is with the two bands, he says the civic work is well worth his time. "It's the greatest thing I do," he says.

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