Springsteen waves his mighty wand over Hershey

HERSHEY — Bruce Springsteen's latest CD is titled "Magic," and for a man that many consider to be the greatest songwriter of our time, that word could also easily be applied to his live shows. And that is not said in an attempt to be cute or to offer an easy play on words. Magic — real magic-—is not often seen. It is an experience one senses very few times in a lifetime.

On Tuesday, Aug. 19 at Hersheypark Stadium before an energized sold-out crowd of 31,000, Springsteen and his mighty E Street Band waved their magic wands under a sea of summer stars and gave people one of those nights. The band came to play hard, and it came to play long, and in a town known for summer fun, they gave their fans what was probably, for most, one of the most fun nights they'd ever had.

With chants "B-R-U-U-U-C-E" filling the stadium, the band opened with a sparkling rendition of Eddie Cochran's often-covered "Summertime Blues" and followed with a supercharged, guitar-heavy performance of Springsteen's latest fan favorite, the soaring "Radio Nowhere." Enormous video screens that graced each side of the stage helped frame the sheer size of the concert perfectly, particularly when cameras showed The Boss from behind, gazing out into an adoring sea of humanity.

"Out In The Street" followed. It is a number that, when played live, aptly showcases the special covenant that Springsteen shares with his fans. Parts of the song — parts that don't even appear on the 1980 studio version — are sung by fans, and it is done night after night, in city after city, tour after tour, so much that those sections are now just as much a part of it as the music and lyrics Springsteen first penned nearly three decades ago.

"Can you feel the spirit? Can you feel the spirit tonight?" implored an impassioned Springsteen several times. Met with cheers, the band then launched into a rousing rendition of "Spirit In The Night," during which he often laid on the edge of the stage, playfully interacting with stunned and star-struck fans. His harmonica set the tone for "Promised Land," and the E Street Band stayed in a tight pocket throughout the night. Clarence Clemons' saxophone boomed, Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren brought edge and grace to the guitars and Max Weinberg pounded his drums with all the fervor of a young kid in a garage band, only with pinpoint precision.

In what appears to be a new fast-forming tradition at Springsteen shows, the band also took several requests. Dozens of fans in the general admission section directly in front of the stage held up homemade signs on which they'd scribbled song titles. A smiling Springsteen seemed to read them all, then grabbed about eight, threw them on the stage, and asked Van Zandt to pick one. Then another. Then another. The result: a fun cover of John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom," plus "Darlington County" and "Waitin' On A Sunny Day," during which he extended his microphone in to the audience, allowing several children to sing along.

"Reason To Believe" came with a gritty roadhouse flare and "Prove It All Night" offered another gorgeous solo from Clemons and a stingy guitar solo from The Boss himself. "Because The Night" began with tasteful piano and was later lifted into the stratosphere by a feverish and torrid solo from Lofgren. "Livin' In The Future," a slightly political number and one of the best tracks from "Magic," was delivered with an incredible sense of urgency and, prior to "Mary's Place," the crowd got its first dose of the gospel of Bruce when he briefly and effortlessly transformed into the larger-than-life and boisterous minister of rock and roll searching for salvation in the music. And judging by the euphoric way he played up to the video cameras and the fun he appeared to be having, he seemed to find that salvation while taking the crowd along with him.

Springsteen often seemed inspired by the sheer beauty of the night. Perfect temperature. Soft breeze. Moonlit sky. When he strummed his acoustic guitar during a performance of "Working On The Highway," his face was filled with sheer glee. A soulful performance of "The Rising," his post-9/11 masterpiece, sounded just as good and just as important in '08 as it did in '02, and though he'd already been on stage for well over two hours by the time the set closed with "Badlands," this night was just getting started.

"Thunder Road" served as the first encore, with the crowd of 31,000 singing the entire first verse ("The screen door slams, Mary's dress sways ...") and during the quieter sections of "Jungleland," ("Beneath the city, two hearts beat ....") there was a genuine moment when the crowd was nearly dead silent and perfectly still, seemingly aware that they were seeing one of the most beloved artists of our time singing one of his most cherished songs. It was as if they wanted to take it all in, savor it, and remember it always. It was the type of moment when music is at its best, but one that few artists can provide.

Other encores included "Born To Run," and just when you thought the night might be over, Springsteen and Van Zandt stared hard and pointed at a fan-made sign far off from the stage that simply read "Rosey." The crowd roared, and the band tore into a spirited rendition of "Rosalita."

Show over?

Not even close.

"Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," which, like "Out In The Street," now has specific fan-generated sections that come at every show, came as the concert entered its third hour, and the band finally took its bows following the brilliant Pete Seeger-inspired "American Land." Still, The Boss wasn't done yet. He and the band returned yet again for a burning rendition of Them's "Gloria."

Three-plus hours of music.

Nearly 30 songs.

An eight song encore.

An all-time great performer in absolute top form.

Pure, undeniable magic.