Springsteen’s Homecoming: At 49, He Proves It All Night

Way back in 1979, when Bruce Springsteen played the No Nukes fund-raiser concerts at Madison Square Garden, during a particularly athletic workout of Gary (U.S.) Bonds’ “Quarter to Three,” he pretended to pass out, exclaiming something like: “I can’t keep doing this–I’m 30 years old!”

Singing “Thunder Road” at the Continental Airlines Arena on the night of July 15, Mr. Springsteen got to the line “So you’re scared and maybe you’re thinking we ain’t that young anymore”–a line he wrote when he was maybe 24–and he couldn’t keep his face from breaking into a self-conscious grin.

Mr. Springsteen turns 50 in September. He’s newly inducted into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame. He has not released an album of new rock music since 1992, nor toured with his longtime E Street Band since the 80’s. In other words, he ain’t that young anymore–and neither is his audience.

So an hour and a half into his exhilarating performance, when he started playing the rave-up “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” turned up the house lights, and started introducing every member of the band, you could almost feel the crowd breathe a sigh of relief: Clearly, we were heading into intermission, like the old days, and everyone would have time to recover from being on their feet, screaming, dancing, singing, before round two.

But Mr. Springsteen refused to leave the stage. He danced up on the toes of his black boots; he paced like a mad preacher, improvising lines from Curtis Mayfield’s “It’s All Right,” goading the crowd to match his new falsetto notes, falling to his knees before his wife-guitarist Patti Scialfa, locking hands with his saxophonist Clarence Clemons. Then he romped and crooned a half-dozen more songs, including the epic “Backstreets” and the fist-pumping “Light of Day.”

By now, the show was well more than two hours along, and the exhausted audience couldn’t even clap or yell “Brooooooce.” They just stood in their seats, stunned at his vitality. Mr. Springsteen finally left the stage for about three minutes–and then came back for about an hour of encores. He definitely works with a better trainer than most of his audience.

Mr. Springsteen’s albums–even the live box–have never done justice to what is his supreme achievement, the ability to forge community in a room, whether it’s the Stone Pony Club in Asbury Park, N.J., or the basketball arena in East Rutherford. I can understand people who might be ambivalent about his recorded output. But it’s hard to imagine anyone at one of his concerts standing with arms folded, saying, “I just don’t get it.”

If the July 15 show had a theme, it was reconciliation with that community–with the band, for ever having deserted them (whether for financial or artistic reasons), and with the audience, for his long absence. A high point was when he divvied up the vocal part for “If I Should Fall Behind”–a sweet ballad from the underrated 1992 album Lucky Town –among his singing band members. As Steve Van Zandt (now a star of The Sopranos ), Nils Lofgren, Ms. Scialfa and Mr. Clemons took their turns at the microphone, it felt like a symbolic representation of the band’s diversity and interdependence.

Then Mr. Springsteen described this tour (which started in Europe and goes across the country after 15 nights in New Jersey) as “a rebirth and rededication of our band and our commitment to serve you.”

Who else among the other longtime great rock-and-rollers would come up with that as a theme for a tour? Certainly not Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who have been going through the motions for two decades. In contrast, Mr. Springsteen–who a few years back admitted to something of an addiction to the high he gets from performing–has always given the impression that it’s not about the adulation, it’s about the bonding.

Mr. Springsteen’s connection to his fans is admittedly trickier to achieve the richer he becomes. (It’s said that he gets 97 percent of the take from each of these shows, which, even after overhead, should at least put his three kids through college.) And his audience has also changed: when I met someone who told me he planned to attend eight of the 15 shows, my first thought was, “He doesn’t have baby-sitting issues yet.” When they sing about being raised above these “Badlands,” there has to be some distance, since most paid $75 for their ticket, and many were playing the concert to friends via cell phones.

But Mr. Springsteen’s spirit is undousable and unfakable. Thanks to the propulsive drums of Max Weinberg and backbone bass of Garry Tallent, the dual keyboard attack of Roy Bittan and Danny Federici, the wall of guitars played by Messrs. Springsteen, Lofgren, Van Zandt and Ms. Scialfa, and the throaty tenor sax bleatings of Mr. Clemons, songs like “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “Murder Incorporated” and “The River” lost none of their intensity–and foot-stompers like “Out in the Street” were joyous. Most significantly, the material from the albums he made on his own–”Youngstown” and the title song from the Ghost of Tom Joad and “Mansion on the Hill” from Nebraska –benefited greatly from the band’s presence.

Mr. Springsteen’s desire to own up to who he is today was most apparent in one of the show’s two new songs, “Freehold,” a folk musing about his hometown that he described as “Whitmanesque–Slim Whitman.” Like many in his generation, Mr. Springsteen, who recently relocated back to New Jersey after several years on the West Coast, has found that for all the pains of his youth, home exerts a powerful pull. “Freehold” touches on his first kiss (“I walked home with a lump but I felt just fine”), his sister getting pregnant at 17 and his father being buried there (“his ghost flipping the bird at everyone in Freehold”). It ends with a giddy riff about masturbation that makes me think he’s not going to commit it to vinyl.

If the concert had a weak spot, it’s that Mr. Springsteen feels compelled to balance his soaring power and poetry with feel-good rockers: “Stand On It,” “Where the Bands Are,” “Darlington County”–even the song he’s decided to start every night with, “My Love Will Not Let You Down.” It’s true that fans need a breather from the emotional roller-coaster, but few in the audience would rather take any of those over “Prove It All Night” or “Adam Raised a Cain” or “The Fever” or …

In fact, as the drained crowd wended its way through the Meadowlands parking lot, one fan groused, “We see the first show in the States, the first show back, and we got nothing!” He was referring to the fact that the set list was virtually unchanged from that of the European tour (widely distributed on the Internet). People see Mr. Springsteen so many times that for some the pleasures have to be measured in novelty. “No speeches or anything,” he continued.

“Maybe it’s ’cause we dissed him with Tom Joad and Lucky Town ,” suggested his companion.

“Hey, don’t give me that. We came here and saw Shane Fontayne play guitar for him–more than once!” the first man retorted. He was making reference to the hired gun who played in Mr. Springsteen’s hired band during his 1992 tour.

His unhappiness inspired me to devise a suggestion: Since the New Jersey Nets are about to abandon East Rutherford for downtown Newark, when Mr. Springsteen is done touring he should park himself and his band in this arena, like Bobby Short at Cafe Carlyle, for six months out of every year. That way he can stay home with his wife and kids, commute to a job he loves and play every song everyone wants to hear for anyone who wants to see him.

Is that too much to ask?