He's still The Boss: Bruce Springsteen roars in Lion Country

STATE COLLEGE — Perhaps it should have come as no surprise, but the very first Bruce Springsteen concert of the new century wasn't much different from those of the last century.

It was excellent.

Springsteen — back again with the E Street Band — hit the stage with a vengeance at Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center on Monday. The show served as the opening night of the second leg of the band's North American tour, and with some rest under his belt and a sincere sense of purpose in his words and actions, Springsteen aptly preached the gospel of rock 'n' roll to the sold-out crowd of 16,000.

Springsteen, who said it was great to be "here in the shadow of Mt. Nittany," opened the set with "Lion's Den'" — an appropriate nod and wink to the Nittany Lion faithful in the crowd. "The Ties That Bind" followed, and an extended fiery performance of "Prove It All Night"' helped kick the show into high gear. Here, Springsteen passionately traded off vocals with guitarist Steve Van Zandt and ripped loose on a vibrant guitar solo.

"Promised Land" was also an early highlight, with saxophonist Clarence Clemons offering a sparking solo and Springsteen adding flair with some spicy harmonica. "The River," which featured a new, gorgeous instrumental intro, was delivered in a more deliberate fashion than the original rendition and featured Springsteen at his very best. With his eyes closed and his voice accenting the heartache of the song, it appeared Springsteen was still — 20 years after its release — visualizing each verse in his mind as he sang.

What was equally striking about the show was Springsteen's energy. At 50, he appeared to remain the wild-eyed performer that made him a young legend 25 years ago, and it was at times exhausting to simply watch him. He also appeared to have complete command of his voice, sometimes tearing things up with a raspy howl, other times hitting high notes that bordered on yodeling. The band was also on target, with Max Weinberg's thunderous drums particularly stepping up for notice.

Blazing performances of "Murder Incorporated" and "Badlands"' kept the show flowing, and Springsteen stood alone on stage for an acoustic-but-hard rendition of "Born In The U.S.A."' Springsteen then turned into a rock 'n' roll preacher during a spirited performance of "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" and introduced the band with humor and affection. The "ministry of rock 'n' roll" theme continued with a energetic performance of "Light of Day."

The first series of encores included "Ramrod,"' "Bobby Jean" and "Born To Run." To a thunderous ovation and chants of B-R-U-C-E, the band retuned with a performance of "Thunder Road" and a beautiful rendition of "If I Should Fall Behind" during which the band members traded off on vocals. The show ended with the new "Land of Hope and Dreams."

Bruce Springsteen in 2000?

Well, to borrow a line from another great classic band, it was "meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

And there's nothing at all wrong with that.

(Bruce Springsteen's world tour will end with a multi-night stand at New York's Madison Square Garden on June 12, 15, 17, 20, 22, 23, 26, 27, 29 and July 1. Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Saturday through New York's Ticketmaster at (212) 307-7171.)