OMAHA -- With the lights down, the sound of Bruce Springsteen’s harmonica carried over the CenturyLink Center Thursday night, delivering the aching opening passage of “Reason to Believe,” hardly a song that would be expected as a concert opener.
But it was, like the entire three-hour performance by Springsteen and the E Street Band, a masterstroke.
In 1982, Springsteen made an album of stark, acoustic-guitar-and-vocals-only songs he called “Nebraska,” with the title track about Charles Starkweather. “Reason to Believe” is from that album. So is “Johnny 99,” song No. 2 and “Atlantic City,” the third selection of the night.
But none of those were solo numbers. They instead were transformed by the full band with “Johnny 99” filled with trumpet, trombone and saxophone, and “Atlantic City” taking on an Irish flavor from Soozie Tyrell’s violin and Little Steven Van Zandt’s mandolin.
“Nebraska” came back again in the middle of the show when Springsteen stood on the stage alone with his electric guitar for an intense version of “State Trooper” and later was joined by the band for a hushed, evocative take on the tragic “Highway Patrolman.”
I’d never expected to hear so much of “Nebraska” live and certainly not in the way it was presented as it was Thursday. But it couldn’t have been better, more surprising or more appropriate.
An hour into the show, I sent out the following on Twitter: “Hard to find words to describe how good this is. Trip to rock ‘n’ roll church with the best preacher, maybe ever.”
That’s still the best summary I can come up with for an exhilarating, uplifting, entertaining concert with palpable connections between the band, the audience and the music.
That music spanned Springsteen’s career with songs from his first album, 1973’s “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.,” such as “Does the Bus Stop at 82nd Street” to this year’s “Wrecking Ball,” including “We Take Care of Our Own,” the song that Pres. Barack Obama walked off stage to following his speech after winning the election just over a week ago.
There were hits and deeper album cuts. There were favorites omitted -- “Jungleland,” “Glory Days” “The River,” I could name dozens -- but the 26 songs that were played Thursday fit together seamlessly.
Springsteen ventured onto a platform in the middle of the floor several times during the show -- and was transported back to the stage, crowd-surfing style during “Hungry Heart.” And he connected with the crowd in other ways.
A boy held a sign that caught his attention: “The future is secure, there’s a 10-year-old with a Badlands sign,” Springsteen said. “We’ll play that later. Don’t fall asleep. You don’t have to go to school tomorrow. Free pass. Tell 'em The Boss said so.”
Later, he pulled a girl, probably about 10, out of the audience, handed her the microphone and had her sing a cappella the chorus of the 60s pop rocker “Waiting on a Sunny Day.” She was confident, quite good and got a ride on Springsteen’s shoulders for her efforts.
It almost goes without saying that the E Street Band was superb. And what an ensemble it is with a five-piece horn section, three backing singers, violin, percussionist, drummer, two keyboards, bassist and two guitars.
That let them crank up a rock 'n' roll dance party, turning the arena into a club, slide into horn-powered R&B or move to quieter, more reflective sounds with aplomb. Simply, it was a great, great band.
After 2 1/2 hours, the full-on gospel of “Land of Hope and Dreams” was the final pre-encore song.
Not that there was much of a break, perhaps a minute, before the closing run through “Thunder Road,” “Born to Run” and “Dancing in the Dark,” with a pair of audience members brought on stage to dance -- a guy with Bruce and a girl on the drum riser with Max Weinberg, with Springsteen grabbing a stick and pounding the snare to keep the beat.
That was followed by Springsteen donning a Santa hat that had been thrown on stage earlier in the show, saying “Big Man, we need you,” then taking the band through a rousing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
Then came the finale, “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” which brought Springsteen back into the crowd for a tribute to the late Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons, with Clarence’s nephew Jake playing the saxophone solo.
At the end of the song, Springsteen, who didn’t talk much during the show, gathered the band members across the front of the stage, marking the triumphant conclusion of the 3 hour, 5 minute concert by saying “Thank you Nebraska for a great night.”
It was indeed great. I’ve seen Springsteen more than a dozen times, most of them with the E Street Band. Thursday’s was the best of those shows. In fact, I’d put it in the top 10 of all the concerts I’ve ever seen.