Springsteen, E Street power as real as ever

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Bruce Springsteen wanted to "make it real."

The Boss easily could have rung up The E Street Band and asked them to accompany him on his 1992 U.S. tour. He surely could have rounded up the gang and headed out into stadiums in the summer of '95, after the successful release of his "Greatest Hits" LP. He could have forgone his one-time desire to work with new musicians or put off the release his Grammy-winning folk album.

At any given time over the past 12 years, Springsteen could have opted to spend less time with his family, more time on the road and effortlessly reunited with the E Streeters for a big tour of sold-out arenas.

But Springsteen — a man who has repeatedly sung about the virtue and the importance of "making things real" — waited until he was ready.

Absolutely ready.

And judging from his performance Saturday at the Continental Airlines Arena, The Boss clearly knew what was best. Back with The E Street Band and back in his home state for the fourth of 15 sold-out shows, Springsteen performed for nearly three hours with energy, passion, precision and conviction.

It was quite real.

"Alright Jersey!" shouted Springsteen to the crowd of 20,000 as the group took the stage. "We wanna be with you!"

The group then launched into "I Wanna Be With You," a rousing 1979 number released on last year's "Tracks" boxed set.

Springsteen followed with a harmonica-fueled, riveting performance of "Promised Land" and then launched into a spirited rendition of "Two Hearts." A rocked-up, driving version of "Atlantic City" also brought roars from the enthusiastic crowd.

The E Street Band sounded marvelous. Guitarists Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren shared the leads with grace and style, and Patti Scialfa — wife of Springsteen — strummed an acoustic guitar and added texture to the performance with her soft backing vocals. Drummer Max Weinberg and bassist Garry Tallent drove the band with an authoritative backbeat, while pianist Roy Bittan and organist Danny Federici spiced several numbers with their customary flair. And "The Big Man" — saxophonist Clarence Clemons — brought the house down on several occasions. With his sometimes fiery and sometimes soft and mood-setting solos, Clemons was comfortably on target each time he found himself in the spotlight.

Springsteen himself has lost no on-stage charisma and little energy. He strutted to each corner of the stage during an extended version of "Darlington County" and completely captured the audience with the soft and descriptive "Point Blank." "Youngstown" — originally recorded on 1995's folk-influenced "The Ghost of Tom Joad" LP — came with the full band and an exceptional solo from Lofgren.

The group, in mid-concert stride, then tore through zealous performances of "Murder Inc.," "Out In The Street" and "Badlands." Springsteen — while introducing the entire band — also told a humorous, preacher-style story during "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out."

"Jungleland" — Springsteen's poignant tale of inner-city life — was also one of the show's highlights. During Clemons' letter-perfect solo, Springsteen stood behind the saxophonist in a proud pose, beaming with the quiet dignity only the leader of such a talented band could possibly feel. The set ended with a vibrant performance of "Light of Day."

"Freehold," Springsteen's acoustic, semi-homage to his home town, served as the first encore. The song, which is more humorous than sentimental, also offered Springsteen at his unassuming best. "Hungry Heart" inspired a sing-along from the entire crowd, as did an exhilarating, true-to-the-original performance of "Born To Run."

A second group of encores included "Thunder Road" and a gorgeous performance of 1992's "If I Should Fall Behind" during which Springsteen, Scialfa, Lofgren, Van Zandt and Clemons each traded off verses and then harmonized together. It was during such moments that The E Street Band flexed its muscles the tightest and the reunion took on the most meaning. The show ended with the new "Land of Hope and Dreams."

There are plenty of things than run through one's mind while watching a Bruce Springsteen concert. There are the picturesque images that his songs create and the times in our own lives when we first discovered those songs. There is a sense of connection he still holds with his audience, and the knowledge that he writes songs that are not only good, but songs that truly matter.

But from a sheer musical and performance standpoint, there is one simple realization that comes during such shows. Bruce Springsteen, at 49, continues to give the type of concerts in which everything perfectly locks. It's where the music breathes free yet remains sharp and polished. They are the type of shows that most artists would be thrilled to pull off just once in an entire career — invigorating shows that he continues to put on every single time he plays.

They are rock 'n' roll at its very best.

And they are real.