Bruce Springsteen delivered an unforgettable performance Sunday night at the Bradley Center.
He started by remembering where he was.
Springsteen, who is sprinting to the finish of the "Working on a Dream" tour that began in April, made international headlines -- for all the wrong reasons -- Friday night in suburban Detroit.
In a rare misstep by a performer whose laser-like focus is the stuff of legend, Springsteen stepped onto the stage at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich., and yelled "Hello, Ohio!"
He repeated the gaffe two more times before sideman Steve Van Zandt corrected him. The story hit the wire services and national news and prompted one Milwaukee concert-goer to produce a sign early in the evening that read: "Tonight: Wisconsin."
Springsteen joked about his miscue -- "I'm back on my meds," he said -- and seemed intent on making amends with a high-octane performance and adventurous 27-song set list that ranks among his stronger performances in Milwaukee, a city that has enjoyed more than its share of memorable moments.
Playing their first local show since the Harley-Davidson 105th anniversary gig on Labor Day weekend 2008, Springsteen and the band were on top of their game from the outset. Warming up for a beginning-to-end performance of the "Born to Run" album -- Springsteen opened with Wisconsin favorite "Cadillac Ranch," followed by "Badlands" -- a 1-2 punch that set a powerful tone.
By the middle of his third song, "Hungry Heart," Springsteen had strolled to a platform in the middle of the venue and did his own version of the Lambeau Leap, with the crowd passing his 60-year-old bones back to the stage. Introducing "Born to Run," as the record that "began the conversation" between the band and its fans, Springsteen and company packed enough highlights into the eight-song arc that he probably could have ended the show at that point without many demands for a refund.
Springsteen followed the "Born to Run" portion with up-tempo numbers like "Darlington County" and "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," the latter of which featured a 10-year-old boy invited onstage to sing a chorus. The boy handed drummer Max Weinberg a note and was rewarded with a pair of drumsticks.
The "stump the band/request" portion of the show proved to be the highlight of the evening. The signs from the audience included a Santa hat, and after asking "Isn't it too early?" Springsteen launched into "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," as a tree-shaped sign -- complete with lights -- made its way to his microphone stand. The sign proclaimed: "We need Bruce juice because the Big Man is Coming to Town." Clarence Clemons, who also donned a Santa hat, clearly enjoyed the sax solo.
The next sign, which also featured lights, asked for "Loose Ends," a rarity from the "Tracks" box set of previously unreleased material. It took a moment for Springsteen to realize the "Are you loose?" reference on the sign, but the version of the song was outstanding and set the stage for two rarities to come. "Jole Blon," a chestnut performed sparingly on "The River" tour, and "Growin' Up," ended the formal request portion of the show.
After closing out the main set with a version of "No Surrender," Springsteen left hardcore fans slack-jawed by grabbing a pink sign from the audience that read "Two weeks ago, I found Living Proof" and featured a photo of a baby girl with a onesie that read "Future Boss Fan."
That was enough for Springsteen to play "Living Proof," a song from the 1992 album "Lucky Town," which was recorded after he sent the E Street Band on hiatus to work with other musicians.
"Living Proof," was last performed in 2003 and it was clear that many in the band didn't remember the song, but Springsteen and organist Charles Giordano used hand signals to to prompt the chord changes and the song -- the 182nd played on this tour -- held together nicely.
Springsteen followed "Living Proof" by honoring another request -- for a blistering version of "Kitty's Back" that paved the way for the final stretch of songs that closed with "Dancing in the Dark" (with a female fan dancing with Van Zandt), "Rosalita" and the Jackie Wilson classic "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher."
As the crowd filed out of the building, a veteran Springsteen fan spied two teenagers in the atrium. "I almost feel bad for them," he said. "They're not even 20 yet and they've already seen the best concert of their lives."
It was hard to argue with the sentiment.
Springsteen is headed for a hiatus after the tour finale Sunday in Buffalo -- a show that will now feature a full performance of his debut album, "Greetings from Asbury Park" -- and it's hard to imagine a group from outside E Street matching the power generated Sunday at the Bradley Center.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN SET LIST
Nov. 15, 2009
1. Cadillac Ranch (show begins at 8:18 p.m.)
3. Hungry Heart
4. Working On A Dream
5. Thunder Road
6. 10th Avenue Freezeout
9. Born to Run
10. She's the One
11. Meeting Across The River
13. Darlington County
14. Waiting On A Sunny Day
15. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
16. Loose Ends
17. Jole Blon
18. Growin' Up
19. Into The Fire
20. The Rising
21. No Surrender
22. Living Proof
23. Kitty's Back
24. American Land
25. Dancing In The Dark
27. Higher And Higher (show ends at 11:16 p.m.)
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.