Bruce! Bruce! Bruce! Bruce!” With a pounding 4/4 beat and sporty choreography — a double-decker stand-up-sit-down wave — the 20,380 fans who packed Brendan Byrne Arena for the kickoff of Bruce Springsteen’s U.S. Tour performed their own warm-up act, then cheered. They’d heard that this tour, his first in four years, would introduce a changed Bruce, a new band, intimate songs about life’s limits, and shows under four hours from a no longer workaholic Boss. But in the swamps of New Jersey on July 23, Springsteen’s home-state legions weren’t going to let their feel-good machine get stuck in the mud of maturity.
Of course Bruce, now a nurturing father, understood. He mixed old favorites with new songs from Human Touch and Lucky Town; he mixed the hard-rocking numbers that the crowd needed with angrier, ironic, and, yes, rather adult stuff that suits his new ensemble’s bluesier, leaner sound. The new directions weren’t always appreciated. When he offered the tender ballad ”If I Should Fall Behind,” fans got down off their chairs and ran for beer on the concourse, as if the bottom of the order had come to bat. Of the 28 songs performed (in 3 1/2 hours), only a few oldies rang hollow without the E Street Band and Clarence Clemons’ sax filling the breaks.
By the concert’s third hour Springsteen had the crowd in his palm. On his way to a seven-song encore, he cut short a blistering ”Light of Day,” a song he wrote for Joan Jett. The crowd roared for more. The seconds passed, then he cocked his head back, pondering, and the thousands behind him roared anew. He inclined his head to the left; the crowd stage left roared. Slowly around the compass he went, once, twice, the joy building as the Boss wordlessly asked if we wanted to keep rocking. We did.