Bruce Springsteen followed up his 2006 and 2012 performances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with a triumphant return Saturday to the Fair Grounds Race Course.
What appeared to be one of the largest crowds in Jazz Fest history massed in front of the Acura Stage for Springsteen and the E Street Band’s 2½ -hour marathon of rock anthems, working-man ballads, folk songs and spirituals.
Springsteen, despite the especially star-studded lineup that the festival announced in January, was always the most anticipated act of the 2014 Jazz Fest.
He and the E Street Band, enhanced by members of the Seeger Sessions Band who also appeared with him at Jazz Fest in 2006, delivered Saturday, performing epic renditions of beloved Springsteen favorites that got the crowd singing along heartily, as well as newer material that lived up to his musical legacy.
Springsteen and the band opened with the title track to his latest solo album, “High Hopes.” It’s not one of his original songs, but its lyrics and passionate music are a good fit for his famously populist persona.
“Give me help, give me strength,” he sang. “Give a soul a night of fearless sleep.”
“High Hopes” also introduced Tom Morello, the former Rage Against the Machine guitarist who’s filling in for regular E Street Band member Steven Van Zandt while he’s filming his Netflix series, “Lilyhammer.”
During “High Hopes” and, especially, later in the show on “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” Morello proved his worth with fierce guitar solos and co-lead vocals with the Boss himself.
As Springsteen has done in previous New Orleans performances, he kept the music coming almost nonstop, counting down the start of one song just as the previous one ended. “High Hopes” morphed into the Chuck Berry-influenced rock ’n’ roll of “Johnny 99,” another of Springsteen’s tales of hard luck and trouble, which in turn moved straight into an epic “Badlands.”
Maybe in a nod to southeast Louisiana’s warmth and humidity, Springsteen introduced one of his classics, “Hungry Heart,” as “a little summertime song.” He made his first of multiple forays into the audience during the song. Finding a platform to stand on, he led the crowd in a “Hungry Heart” sing-along.
“Do it again!” he said. “Feels good!”
The first of the show’s two guests, Rickie Lee Jones, joined the troupe for one of Springsteen’s Seeger Session Band songs, “Jesse James.” The song became an epic hootenanny, including a fiddle solo by Soozie Tyrell and a walk to the front of the stage by the E Street Horn Section, featuring Jake Clemons.
Clemons, of course, is the saxophone-playing nephew of the band’s longtime sax man, Clarence Clemons. Playing his uncle’s saxophones, Clemons performed his uncle’s “Promised Land” and “Thunder Road” solos note for note. The show also featured a video tribute to Clarence Clemons, who died in 2011, and the band’s late organist, Danny Federici, who died in 2008.
The show’s second guest, John Fogerty, joined the band for performances of two of his Creedence Clearwater Revival hits, “Proud Mary” and “Green River,” and they were definitely highlights of the show. Springsteen shared lead vocals with Fogerty and plugged the classic rocker’s own Sunday performance at Jazz Fest.
Obviously, everyone onstage at the Springsteen show was working hard, but no one worked harder than the Boss. When he removed his vest to reveal his shirt, it was totally soaked except for the edges of his rolled-up sleeves.
“It’s always a pleasure and honor to play here,” Springsteen said before the band launched an at first quiet but ultimately celebratory “When the Saints Go Marching In.”