EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. Garden State rocker Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band were not the only old friends returning together to the Continental Airlines Arena Thursday night.
Clifton natives Jerry Hill and Howie Rogers were fresh out of high school and enjoying what they remember as the best summer of their lives in 1981, the year they saw Springsteen and his comrades in rock play the grand opening of what was then known as the Brendan Byrne Arena.
Thursday night, Hill and Rogers now both 36 years old sat in the same arena, waiting for the same singer and the same band to take the stage. "It's like Bruce has grown up with us," Rogers said, explaining that, like Springsteen, he and his friend are now both married with children.
Not every fan at the venue found as much deep emotional resonance in the show, which opened the U.S. leg of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer's first tour with his longtime backing band in 11 years. For many, it was simply the biggest and best party in town.
Fans arrived in the arena's parking lot as early as 1 p.m., drinking beer, grilling steaks on barbecues and visiting mock boardwalk attractions. The carnival-like atmosphere was set up on the far side of the lot by New York classic-rock station Q104 and the arena to honor Springsteen's Jersey Shore roots, according to veteran New York DJ Dan Neer, who was broadcasting for Q104 from the parking lot.
"We tried to bring a little flavor of Asbury Park here," Neer said, referring to the decaying resort town about 50 miles to the south, where Springsteen and his cronies got their start in the late '60s and early '70s.
The mini-boardwalk included carnival games and a stage set up for "Bruce Karaoke," which had various fans grabbing a microphone to deliver pitch-impaired renditions of such Springsteen staples as "Born in the U.S.A," "Jersey Girl" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Hungry Heart."
On another side of the parking lot, a group of fans indulged in a less formal karaoke ritual as showtime approached, Brice Devedney, 18, Rob Nigro, 19, Mike Tuero, 19, and Steve Breining, 27, boisterously sang along with Springsteen's 1985 pop hit "Glory Days" as it came blasting over their car's sound system.
"This is what it's all about," Tuero, of Hazlet, said, as his friends yelled their approval.
Several of them said they had been waiting all their lives to see Springsteen with the E Street Band, which the Freehold-born singer disbanded in 1989, though he had played and recorded with them on a few occasions in the years since. "There's no nostalgia for us it's new," Devedney said. "I'm a [Springsteen] virgin."
Dana Parkhill, a 29-year-old Garwood resident who stood by a nearby barbecue, joked that she hoped the evening's concert would make an impression on her unborn baby. "I was hoping to make a lifelong fan," she said.
Parkhill, who is nine months pregnant, said she received her obstetrician's OK to attend the show, though he warned her not to jump around.
If Parkhill wound up following her doctor's orders, she would've been one of the few people in the arena standing still when the Boss and the band finally took the stage around 8 p.m. and launched into "My Love Will Not Let You Down," from the 1998 outtakes box set Tracks.
But there were other ways fans found to express their appreciation of Springsteen's reunion with the E Streeters, which many said they'd thought they'd never see. For instance, as the musicians took their places onstage, and Springsteen emerged from the darkness, Jerry Hill quietly wept.