After a five-year absence from Houston, Bruce stepped up to the microphone at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion and led the audience through an intense retrospective of his musical career. It is a career that dates back 40 years to Bruce’s appearance at a Houston club where he performed “The Fever” live for the first time. The night was filled with constant surprises, to the delight of the unsuspecting crowd, though a late-ending soundcheck heard by fans lined up at the entrance might have been Bruce’s first hint to expect the unexpected.

Opening the show with “Seeds” was no surprise, since the lyrics reference “Houston town.” Three songs later, however, Bruce began shuffling the signs he collected from the crowd and landed on the Darkness on the Edge of Town rarity “Adam Raised a Cain.” While he already enough signs to fill a good part of the evening, he spotted a sign for “She’s the One” and motioned for it to be passed to him. He immediately played it before reaching back into the request stack for his next number. In a night full of surprises, this would be the biggest: Springsteen introduced “One Step Up” by saying the E Street Band had not played it live since 1988, when they were touring for Tunnel of Love. Every show on the current tour has had that one jaw-dropping moment that fuels the energy and anticipation for the following show; this was not only the highlight of the evening for me, it could well be the highlight of the entire tour that concludes on May 18.

Springsteen continued to surprise the audience by sprinkling his planned setlist with sign requests. By the end of the evening, a total of seven were granted, including an encore performance of “Rosalita” with house lights on. Two singles from High Hopes played during soundcheck left some in the crowd assuming Bruce would devote some of the evening to his latest CD. Instead, we were largely treated to Springsteen classics such as “Backstreets,” “I’m on Fire,” and another tour premiere, “All or Nothin’ at All.” Based on the crowd’s gasps and cheers, it was a setlist that delighted the broad spectrum of fans that represent E Street Nation.

“Light of Day,” with its reference to Galveston, was the perfect ending of the regular set. Following band introductions, Amarillo native Joe Ely appeared on stage to play “Great Balls of Fire” and “Lucille.” For those in the audience who did not know the lyrics to sing along, major toe-tapping ensued. For a few minutes, the New Jersey in Bruce disappeared in the North Houston suburb of the Woodlands.

Because it was Houston’s first show since the passing of the beloved Clarence Clemons, the photographs of both Clarence and Danny Federici projected on the screens during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out” drew a resounding ovation and outpouring of emotion from unsuspecting fans. With those images in mind, you could not leave the venue without considering the passage of time — and hoping that Bruce won’t wait another five years to return.

—Gloria Sandoval, Backstreets.com