Philly sees Boss at his best

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia loves Bruce Springsteen, and Bruce Springsteen loves Philadelphia. It's been a mutual musical love affair for years, and thus it came as no surprise Sunday that when The Boss' latest tour rolled into the City of Brotherly Love, he delivered a special show.

By all accounts, the performance was a bit longer than some previous stops on the tour, and it offered a few rarely played numbers from deep in Springsteen's catalog. Like other shows on his latest road jaunt, it also served as a showcase for some of the remarkable material on his latest CD, "The Rising."

If there's one thing Springsteen's fans have learned over the years, it's this: If The Boss is touring in support of a new album, you better have it before the show, because he's going to play lots of it in concert. On Sunday, he offered 11 songs from "The Rising," and the Philly crowd, always one of Springsteen's best audiences, seemed to revel in each one.

The sold-out show at the First Union Center opened with "The Rising" and a slight touch of theater. Springsteen, joined by the E Street Band, first took the stage and began singing under very dim lighting, but as the song neared its inspirational chorus, the lights — in what seemed like a symbolic gesture — became brighter. It worked beautifully and set the tone for what was to be a long, fun and sometimes inspirational night of music.

A driving and spirited performance of the new "Lonesome Day" followed, and The Boss then dusted off and dished out a punchy rendition of "Night," from his 1975 classic album "Born To Run."

"Hello, Philadelphia!" Springsteen said after several numbers. "Good to see ya!" He then asked the crowd for quiet and offered a few of the more somber tracks from the 9/11-inspired "The Rising," including "Empty Sky," which was embellished by Patty Scialfa's soft backing vocals and Springsteen's harmonica, and the poignant "You're Missing," which came with some beautiful violin work from new E Street member Soozie Tyrell.

Prior to "Empty Sky," Springsteen appeared to forget the opening words or chords to the song but handled the situation with grace and wit. He simply huddled his bandmates around him, worked it out and joked about suffering from senility.

The new "Waitin' On A Sunday Day" inspired a sing-along from the audience, and the crowd was then treated to rare performances of 1973's "Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?" and "For You." A stirring performance of the new "Worlds Apart"' followed, then the band tore through a long and energetic rendition of "Badlands" and a pounding performance of "She's The One."

Springsteen, who has always maintained his artistic validity by remaining a prolific songwriter and shying away from nostalgia, must have been delighted by the audience's response to some of his newer material. During a strong performance of "Mary's Place," the crowd of 20,000 sang along, danced away and treated the number as if it were a 20-year favorite. And when he sat behind the piano for a moving rendition of "Streets of Philadelphia," he again connected beautifully with the town that owns the name.

Another nugget, "Incident of 57th Street," delighted the diehards, and the set ended with the new "Into The Fire." The first encore included a spiced-up version of "Dancing In The Dark," plus "Ramrod" and a torrid performance of "Born To Run," during which the house lights came on and even those sitting in the last rows of the upper tiers could be seen pumping their fists, singing along and dancing in the aisles.

A second group of encores included a soulful performance of "My City of Ruins," "Born In The U.S.A.," "Land of Hope and Dreams" and another rarity, 1973's "Kitty's Back."

Three years ago, when Springsteen reunited The E Street Band after a lengthy hiatus, he called the shows a "rededication"' of the group, and since that time, he and the band have lived up to that word. Steven Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren, Danny Federici, Roy Bittan, Clarence Clemons, Wax Weinberg, Gary Tallent and Scialfa and Tyrell played with passion and precision, and Springsteen — though still a very socially conscious artist — seems to be having as much fun as ever. And, at 53, he is still one of the most dynamic and charismatic entertainers ever to walk on a concert stage.

On Sunday night in Philadelphia, Springsteen — with new songs from "The Rising" and with older, highly cinematic songs that serve as a soundtrack to the lives of many of his fans — again did what he always sets out to do: He made a connection.

No one in music does it with more conviction. And no one in music does it better.