Monday, Aug. 19, 2002 | 9:24 a.m.
On his 1999-2000 U.S. concert tour Bruce Springsteen gave his fans exactly what they wanted: a lovefest.
Backed by a reunited E Street Band, the Boss spent much of that tour revisiting his back catalog, performing classics spanning his 30-year career as America's premier rocker.
Sunday night at the Thomas & Mack Center, it wasn't nearly that simple.
This time Springsteen challenged his Las Vegas audience. Gone were most of the greatest hits; in their place new material, much of it thematically centered on Sept. 11 and the country's mood since the attacks.
Yet while such a risky undertaking might have proven disastrous for most musicians, Springsteen and the E Street Band pulled it off with overwhelmingly positive results.
Over the course of the 2 1/2-hour set, complete with two encores, a mostly full house reacted enthusiastically as Springsteen performed 11 of the 15 tracks from his new album, "The Rising," along with a pair of songs he debuted on his 2001 release, "Live in New York City."
Even when dipping into the more distant past, Springsteen chose songs that fit in with the evening's mood, from an emotionally charged "Darkness on the Edge of Town" to the up-tempo, yet haunting, "Badlands."
Fans who came principally to hear the oldies didn't leave unhappy, particularly after a first encore that featured the holy trinity of "Thunder Road," "Glory Days" and "Born to Run" (with "Viva Las Vegas" thrown in).
But when the second encore rolled around, Springsteen returned to what he clearly felt was most important, ending the show with the emotionally gripping "My City of Ruins," "Born in the U.S.A." and "Land of Hope and Dreams."
With his 53rd birthday approaching (Sept. 23), Springsteen's grizzled voice sounded strong as ever. Bearing his trademark facial stubble and baring a portion of his chest (though not quite as much as in the old days), the Boss's dynamic stage presence helped keep the audience in step throughout the concert.
The E Street Band was also in fine form, again confirming that Springsteen's decision to disband the unit in the late 1980s was one of the few significant miscues of his musical career.
As they have for much of the past quarter-century, drummer Max Weinberg and bassist Garry Tallent gave the group its rhythmic backbone, while "Professor" Roy Bittan and Danny Federici lent their magic fingers from their seats at the piano and organ, respectively.
Anyone wondering about the need for four guitars onstage needed only listen to the vocal harmonies from Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, Nils Lofgren and Steve Van Zandt on such numbers as "American Skin (41 Shots)" to appreciate their presence.
Violinist Soozie Tyrell, a new member of the touring band, added an extra wrinkle, as her strings helped provide much of the new material with its highly emotive quality.
And then, of course, there's Clarence. The unquestioned crowd favorite on this night (and many others), saxophonist Clarence Clemons filled the roomy Thomas & Mack with his booming, soulful sound.
After laying low on the opening twosome "The Rising" and "Lonesome Day," Clemons announced his presence with his familiar solo in "Prove It All Night," and was a presence thereafter.
The show experienced early technical problems that plagued Springsteen's vocals and guitar work, though the sound improved noticeably as the night wore on.
The performance also lost critical momentum at times, most notably midway through the main set, when an unspectacular version of "Worlds Apart" forced most fans to their seats moments after "Waitin' on a Sunny Day" and "The Promised Land" had them dancing in the aisles.
On the whole, however, the evening lived up to Springsteen's vision, apparent early as the crowd went silent to listen to his lyrics from the Sept. 11-inspired "You're Missing."
Parents pulled kids a bit closer, and couples held each other a little bit tighter, as Springsteen sang: "Shirts in the closet/shoes in the hall/Mama's in the kitchen/baby and all/But you're missing."
This time around, the man who made his name writing songs about girls and cars is still proving that rock 'n' roll has a soul after all.04