By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
With the Big 12 tourney reigning in Kansas City, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band commandeered Omaha’s empty arena for nearly three hours of musical magic on Friday night.
Springsteen opened with “No Surrender” and kept his foot on the gas for the rest of the night. Although the band played three-quarters of last year’s album, “Magic,” they didn’t shy from their late-‘70s glory days. The new material meshed with the old well. In short, it all worked and it all kicked ass.
The ballads were just as affecting as the barnburners. Violinist Soozie Tyrell duetted with Springsteen for a beautiful reading of “Magic” accented by guitarist Nils Lofgren’s flamenco-like fills. Bass player Garry Tallent added a captivating countermelody to “The River,” which was haunted by Springsteen’s falsetto vocals. “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day” found the band armed with acoustic guitars and leading the audience in a campfire sing-along.
After a short sermon updated from his pro-John Kerry, “Vote For Change” tour, Springsteen dedicated “Living in a Future World” to his “Vote For Change” tourmate, local boy Conor Oberst. Oberst himself popped up nearly an hour later during the encore to lend his voice to “Thunder Road,” but was woefully unprepared to keep up with The Boss. Oberst nervously paced in circles around guitarist Little Steven Van Zandt, and flubbed most of his lines. Fortunately, everyone else in the arena had the lyrics down and picked up the slack.
There were several surprises tucked into the 25-song set, but none was bigger than “Jungleland.” Saxophonist Clarence Clemons looked shaky throughout the night – he frequently took breaks in a large easy chair positioned near the back of the stage – but he and pianist Roy Bittan delivered a riveting performance of arguably Springsteen’s greatest song. That was followed by a throwback romp through the “Detroit Medley” led by drummer Max Weinberg. Springsteen said they hadn’t performed this one in a while, and he proved his point by fumbling with some of the lyrics. Earlier in the night, the band reclaimed “Because the Night” from Patti Smith.
Two E-Street mainstays were M.I.A. Springsteen’s wife Patti Scialfa was at home tending to the family, and Danny Federici is receiving treatments for melanoma. His organ bench was ably filled by Seeger Sessions tour alum Charles Giordano.
For a man who named his sixth album after Omaha’s home state, Springsteen and the E Street Band haven’t been frequent visitors. Springsteen said this was their first visit in 30 years, and his only musical nod to “Nebraska” was a boogie version of “Reason to Believe” that sounded like it was arranged by John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat.
The house lights came up for “Thunder Road” and “Dancing in the Dark” before the night ended with “American Land,” a Irish-flavored original that brought St. Patrick’s Day a few days early.
No Surrender/Radio Nowhere/Lonesome Day/Adam Raised A Cain/Gypsy Biker/Magic/Reason to Believe/Because the Night/She’s the One/Living in a Future World/Promised Land/Waitin’ On A Sunny Day/The River/Devil’s Arcade/The Rising/Last To Die/Long Walk Home/Badlands//ENCORE: Girls In Their Summer Clothes/Thunder Road (with Conor Oberst)/Jungleland/Detroit Medley/Born to Run/Dancing in the Dark/American Land