As he roared through ''Thunder Road'' Tuesday night at New Jersey's Giants Stadium, Bruce Springsteen couldn't help grinning at the ever-increasing accuracy of the 1975 song's line ''So you're scared and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore.'' But in the debut of his first U.S. stadium tour in 18 years, the 53-year-old Boss -- with an E Street Band whose oldest member, Clarence Clemons, is 60 -- was still able to conjure a younger man's magic in the night.
Springsteen easily returned to his big-stage showman mode, unafraid to break into a goofy dance, and ever-aware of how his slightest eyebrow twitch played on the Jumbotron screens. And while his days of ceaseless sprinting across the stage have vanished with his bandanna collection, he did venture a couple of injury-risking knee slides (but not before sponging water on his black jeans to ease the way). In the end, Springsteen and the band proved themselves to be more than a Stones-style nostalgia act; the 50,000-strong audience greeted songs from last year's ''The Rising'' as welcome additions, not as bathroom-break filler between hits.
The new material wasn't perfect, but it did supply some of the most affecting musical moments: Federici's lonely-walk-on-the-boardwalk organ solo on ''You're Missing,'' Springsteen's ghostly falsetto harmonies with wife Patti Scialfa on ''Empty Sky.'' And the buoyantly simple chorus of ''Waitin' On a Sunny Day'' inspired one of the night's most fervent sing-a-longs. ''The Rising'''s 9/11-themed title track, however, still hasn't gelled into a convincing anthem (just what is ''the rising'' that we're supposed to ''come on up for''?). And the love-across-cultures rocker ''Worlds Apart'' disappoints in concert, its samples of Arabic singing fitting awkwardly with the live musicians.
On their 1999-2000 reunion tour of smaller arenas, Springsteen and the E Street Band avoided some fan favorites and radio hits. But this time around, the crowd's embrace of the new songs seemed to free the Boss from fears of self-indulgent nostalgia. He closed his second set of encores with a killer one-two punch worthy of the Terminator: the joyous ''Rosalita,'' his most beloved concert staple (hardly played since the '80s), followed by a guitar-heavy version of his biggest hit, ''Dancing in the Dark'' (similarly shunned in the '90s).
While some classic selections -- ''Badlands,'' ''Born to Run,'' ''Out in the Street'' -- will likely return every night, it looks like Springsteen will also mix in less obvious song choices on the stadium outing, which stretches into the fall. On Tuesday, Springsteen threw in ''Sherry Darling,'' an oft-overlooked, Clemons-spotlighting party track (and a perfect song for summer, with its images of ''a hot sun beating on the blacktop'' and ''girls melting on the beach'').
And on Thursday -- the second of his 10 planned Giants Stadium shows -- Springsteen pulled out six different songs not played Tuesday, including the relative rarities ''Night,'' ''Candy's Room,'' and '''Growin' Up'' (dedicated to Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, who covered the song in concert earlier this week). The other additions were ''Prove It All Night'' -- which always inspires Bruce's noisiest guitar solos -- and an impassioned take on the epic ''Jungleland,'' with tour fiddler Soozie Tyrell ably replicating the recorded version's melancholy violin intro.
In the encores, Springsteen reprised the ''Rosalita''/''Dancing'' pairing, while adding another too-often-avoided favorite, ''Hungry Heart'' -- his first top 10 single (as always, Bruce let the crowd sing the first verse for him). Sadly, Thursday's encore didn't include the first night's most frenetic rocker, a cover of the rockabilly nugget ''Seven Nights to Rock.'' From the way this tour looks and sounds so far, though, Springsteen and the E Street Band have a lot more time left than that.