Bruce Springsteen, Crystal Palace Sports Arena, London

The wild, the innocent and the E-Street stomp. And, sorry, there will be no karate
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The Independent Culture

A confession: stadium concerts and Bruce Springsteen confuse me in much the same way. For the first, you pay up to £50 to stand out in the open and watch a giant video screen while the music washes over you in waves of sludgy loudness. For the second, well let's just say that you know you are not a "real" Springsteen fan when your favourite albums are the "wristslashers": Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad.

Anyway, woop-di-do, here we are in Crystal Palace Sports Arena, a venue so imperfectly formed for hosting rock shows that the staff have no idea where you should be going and the noticeboard outside says, "Today's Event: Karate". Still, you can't argue - the truth is that whatever I may make of all that clenched-fist Bossbastic balladeering, Springsteen is undeniably one of rock's black belts with the chops to prove it.

As the reformed E Street Band takes to the stage - 10 minutes earlier than the tickets would have you believe (now that's keen) - Springsteen leads them into the title track from last year's The Rising, his cycle of songs about hope, loss, love and despair that either perfectly captured the fragile American psyche in the wake of 11 September, or seemed like another excuse for some clenched-fist, lighters-aloft stadium moments, depending on your point of view and which tracks you listened to.

It is this ambiguity at the core that has always confused me - Springsteen the man is a liberal-minded, warm-hearted organic farmer who believes in truth, love and the American way. Springsteen the rock star wilfully whips his stonewashed army (the odd wildcard aside, the vast majority of the crowd look like they are no strangers to caravanning holidays or soul weekenders) to fever pitch, leaving his soft, sensitive side at home while giving the stadiums of Europe and America a show to set the pulses racing with anthems of defiance.

Still the band are in great shape, with Little Steven, Nils Lofgren and the(ir) boss trading guitar licks; the rhythm section pounding every song into submission; Clarence Clemons parping away like Lisa Simpson in a bad mood; all set against the very welcome yang provided by Springsteen's wife, Patty Scialfa, on haunting backing vocals, and the incredible violinist Soozie Tyrell.

The majority of the set is from The Rising and the audience greets songs such as "Waitin' on a Sunny Day", and "Meet Me at Mary's Place" as old favourites - which is just as well as these will be few and far between over the course of the next three hours.

And - as I'd been promised by those who understand this artist in a way I never will - Springsteen's showmanship is immaculate, his energy awe-inspiring (even before you realise this is a 53-year-old father of three) and his shows veritable marathons of barnstorming rrrock. Never mind that the songs seem to divide neatly into three types: the angry stompy (say, "Badlands"), the celebratory stompy (like, "Dancing in the Dark") and the gentle ones with hymnal tunes (no prizes for guessing my preference).

It is this last category that provides all of the spine-tingling moments that make tonight worthwhile. "Empty Sky" starts off gently and never feels ashamed to carry on that way - and when a low-flying Jumbo drifts over the stadium slap-bang in the middle of the last chorus, you can't help but truly feel again the horror of the day that "inspired" it. "City of Ruins" says it all without the aid of overhead props. There is no "Born in the USA", no "Hungry Heart", no "Rosalita". There is the obligatory (though tonight slightly perfunctory) romp through "Thunder Road" and "Born to Run", the truly cringy "soul" revue-style introduction of the band, and then Springsteen is off and he and his fans can troop home tired but happy.

So has the experience changed the way I feel about stadium concerts or Bruce Springsteen? Well, all I can say is that together they make a perfect sort of sense.