Two things might surprise you if you go to see Jake Clemons Friday at the Cedar Cultural Center.
• Clemons, a saxophonist in Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, will be playing mostly guitar.
• Although Clemons lives in Virginia, he likely will have lots of relatives at the gig.
"I've probably got like 100 cousins in Minnesota. Half of my family is between Minnesota and North Dakota," said the musician who took his uncle Clarence's spot in the E Street Band. "My grandparents are from Cavalier, N.D. So I used to spend my summers — three months a year — working on their farm. Those are my people."
Did he get to see any concerts during those days?
"No, I was working 80 hours a week, baling hay and feeding cattle and stuff. There wasn't a lot of time for rock 'n' roll."
With his eponymous band, Clemons is the frontman. "I'm a songwriter. That's my identity," he said. "It's primarily original music. We all sing. I sing lead."
He said the band, which will open for rebounding New York rock 'n' soul man Garland Jeffreys, offers "a rock-driven sound with a lot of influences from the '60s to the present. We're heavily engaged in our music, and for me, it's important to engage the audience in the same way — make some sincere, honest connection."
The quintet — which includes bassist Jason Crowgey, Clemons' pal since age 13 — has been together since 2010. But they haven't played very many gigs because Clemons was recruited in 2012 to join the E Street Band along with an expanded horn section and backup singers.
With Clemons and Max Weinberg's son Jay occasionally sitting in on drums, has the group morphed into E Street Band: The Next Generation?
"I have no thoughts of that in terms of reality," the sax man said. "With [the late E Streeter] Danny Federici's son playing organ and Jay playing drums, I used to make teasing jokes about the Sesam-E Street Band. The incarnation [now] is what it's supposed to be. One thing that's always impressed me about Mr. Springsteen and that band is its ability to evolve and continue to grow."
Close to his uncle
Clemons, 33, started on piano at the insistence of his father, a Marine Corps band director who was Clarence's younger brother. After seeing his uncle play with Springsteen, Jake attended the Virginia Governor's School for the Arts to study jazz performance. At 16, he got his first paying gig — alongside Clarence at President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration. Since then, Jake has graduated to playing with Eddie Vedder, Glen Hansard, the Roots and Will Smith.
Since joining the E Street Band, Clemons has been dubbed "Little Big Man" by Springsteen fans because the Boss referred to Clarence as "the Big Man."
"Everyone is so sincere and full of kindness," Clemons said of Springsteen followers. "I celebrate all those things — including nicknames."
Clemons was very close to Uncle Clarence. Jake joined him often on Springsteen's Magic Tour in 2007-08 when Clarence was in dubious health; he died in 2011 of complications from a stroke.
"He was a daddy and a brother and a comrade. We spent a lot of time together. He always believed in me, he was always invested in me. We spoke on the phone all the time," Jake said. "One of the toughest elements for me as far as Clarence was concerned, he'd be onstage and then at the hotel, he and I would sit on the bed and chat for hours. That's hard now."
Starting in January, the E Street Band is headed to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Will there be a new Springsteen album next year?
Clemons avoided a direct answer: "That man is capable of enormous amounts of creativity. He's recorded probably 100 years' worth of music. We'll see what he has. The band's always working and focused on the moment. I have two people to answer to — the man upstairs and the Boss."
But he's squeezing in a few gigs with his own band — August marked their first show in two years — as well as the release of his second EP.
"It's called 'Embracing Light' It's about hope in the present and leaving the past behind. It uses horns and it's got an overdriven rock 'n' roll feel to it. It has my heavier influences, somewhere between classic American rock and Brit rock."
Clemons has had the Minneapolis gig circled on his itinerary for two reasons.
"I'm a huge fan of Garland Jeffreys," he said. "It's a cool thing to be on the same bill with him. It's a skipping stone in the ponds to the legends."
The other reason?
"I'm anxious to get in front of Minnesota Nice."