EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. Bruce Springsteen preached like an evangelist about sex, faith and rock 'n' roll and danced like a certain young Latin pop singer as his reunion tour with the E Street Band finally hit U.S. shores Thursday night.
He may be 49, and he may not move around the stage as much as he did in the 1970s and '80s, but the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer still came across as a kid living his pop dream.
"I look like Ricky Martin now," Springsteen said as he swiveled and thrust his hips during a long break that he used to introduce the rest of the band in "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out."
During the three-hour show, which launched a four-week run of 15 sold-out shows at the Continental Airlines Arena, Springsteen mixed his classic '70s and '80s hits with rarities and one super-rarity "Freehold," a paean to the town about an hour to the south, where the Boss grew up.
He was backed by the E Street Band, with whom he hadn't toured in a decade until this spring, when they began their world tour in Europe, and cheered on by an adoring home-state crowd.
"My boss named his pool supply company Hometown after 'My Hometown'," Ocean Township resident Helen White, 44, said, referring to one of the seven hit singles from Springsteen's 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. "That's what [Springsteen] is all about."
"I haven't enjoyed myself as much at a concert in quite some time," she continued. "I didn't expect it to be such a sing-along. I thought it was a riot."
Loud applause greeted the emergence of the E Street Band: saxophonist/percussionist Clarence Clemons, pianist Roy Bittan, organist Danny Federici, bassist Garry Tallent, guitarists Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, drummer Max Weinberg and singer/guitarist Patti Scialfa (Springsteen's wife). One of rock's most storied bands, the E Streeters made their name backing Springsteen in marathon, three-hour-plus shows for nearly two decades until 1989, when Springsteen decided, to the chagrin of many of his fans, to try recording and touring without them for a while.
They opened the show with the rocker "My Love Will Not Let You Down," a Born in the U.S.A. outtake that Springsteen released last year on the rarities box set Tracks.
The E Streeters are back with ferocity. With their dueling guitars, Van Zandt and Lofgren helped turned "Youngstown," a folkish number from The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995), into a muscular rocker and infused "Murder Incorporated" (RealAudio excerpt) with a heavy-metal edge Lofgren ended the song turned toward his amplifier to create howling feedback.
At other points, the E Street Band directly evoked their own glory days with Springsteen. Clemons, for instance, provided galvanizing sax breaks on songs such as "Backstreets," a longtime fan favorite from Born to Run (1975).
On a few fast songs, including "Badlands" and "Bobby Jean," the band seemed to be playing behind the leader, whose vocals were marred by an echo in the sound system.
Along with the hits and standards, Springsteen mixed in three cuts from Tracks: the opener, plus "Where the Bands Are" and the rockabilly stomp "Stand on It."
Sleekly dressed in black, Springsteen traded the rambling folksy tales he long regaled his audiences with for evangelical-style talks more typical of soul-singer-turned-minister Al Green.
During "Light of Day," the blazing rocker Springsteen wrote for Joan Jett to sing in the 1987 movie of the same name, he talked about "the magic and the mystery and the ministry of rock 'n' roll." He told the crowd, "If your spirit is bankrupt, I'm gonna lift that debt off you and set you free."
During "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," he veered from the song's story of the E Street Band's formation to shout about "the avenue of faith" and "the avenue of sexual pleasure" as he went into his Ricky Martin hip swiveling.
Springsteen's true religion remains his music and his bond with his fans, which was palpable as he delivered such anthems as "Born to Run" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Thunder Road."
A highlight was Springsteen's rendition of the acoustic "Freehold," a moving and hilarious song he first played a few years ago at a gig in his hometown.
"I went to school right here, got laid and had my first beer in Freehold," Springsteen sang. He grinned widely as he sang about frequently masturbating during his youth in the town.
"Would they have dumped me if they knew I'd strike it rich?" he sang about the girls he dated.
Springsteen didn't directly address the crowd a great deal, but left the audience with a touching send-off. He thanked everyone for "such a nice welcome home" and said the group was serious about "the rebirth and rededication of our band and our commitment to serve you."
"Every [artist] changes, but Bruce still sings about things people really feel," 24-year-old Dina Dimaio, of West Milford, said. Her sister, Nancy, 18, added: "He's just a regular person."