Bruce Springsteen, NEC, Birmingham <!-- none onestar twostar fourstar fivestar -->

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In 1974, Rolling Stone claimed that it "saw rock and roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen". Well, tonight the 57-year-old from Freehold, New Jersey, has thoroughly drifted into the past, as evidenced by one of his opening numbers, the hoary "Old Man Tucker", an antique fiddle tune that's been played at square dances since 1843.

The two-and-a-quarter-hour gig - Bruce has always been a generous performer - is devoted to reinterpreting traditional songs, all of which are linked to Peter Seeger, the granddaddy of US folk, for whom Springsteen's latest album, We Shall Overcome: the Seeger Sessions is named.

Once the bard of blue-collar America, Springsteen's material has shifted dramatically from gloomy odes to Cadillacs and highways, to perkier ones about mules and 19th-century railroads. The "new" songs are jaunty and exuberant, but lack the joyous bombast of old. The Boss jerks about the stage, rather than leaps, and his voice has developed into a raspy, husky twang. There's less of the hollering. He's more protective of that famous larynx and his much-exercised hips. These days, he's more born to swagger than to run.

So gone are the four hours of pumping, un- ironic rock with the E-Street Band and Clarence Clemons' sax histrionics and in its place is a plethora (we counted 17) of folk musicians who wouldn't look out of place in a Cajun hoedown in Lafayette or a tourist trap on Bourbon Street. There are fiddles, screeching accordions, banjos, an upright bass, washboards and backing singers. They make a beautiful racket.

As always, Springsteen displays his liberal sensibilities on his sleeve, and his love of the American underdog. The Seeger Sessions number "Mrs McGrath" is a powerful ballad from the Easter Rising. And "John Henry" is the poignant ode to a 19th-century American folk hero.

Henry, in a bid to save the jobs of his railroad workers, challenged the inventor of a steam-powered hammer to a contest, Henry vs the hammer. Henry won, but in the process he suffered a heart attack and died. Springsteen is morphing into a US historian before our eyes.

Seeger once said "any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple" and the Boss seems to have taken on this advice wholesale. This is an uncomplicated experience, which lacks the depth and passion of the Boss's own majestic material.

There's very little tonight of his more poetic material from the Seventies and Eighties. No "Thunder Road", "Racing in the Streets", "Cover Me", "Born to Run". Nothing from his landmark album Nebraska, arguably the first - and greatest - consciously lo-fi album ever recorded.

The only concessions we get are an appallingly jolly rendition of "You Can Look But You Better Not Touch" from The River and, thankfully, the delightful "Bobby Jean" from Born in the USA. It's slim pickings, though.

A lot of the dialogue with the audience has also been vanquished. Gone are the wry anecdotes about his old man. But, clearly, the man himself is in a happy place, surrounded by a huge ensemble. And the crowd seem happy for him, too. The last third of the gig feels like a revivalist meeting.

It's goes positively Pentecostal with a raft of spiritual numbers - "Jacob's Ladder", "When the Saints Go Marching In" (didn't we get enough of this at Scout camp?), and the admittedly sublime "O Mary Don't You Weep", a song adopted by black Pentecostal churches and used by the civil rights movement.

Ultimately, it appears that the Boss has semi-retired from rock and he's clearly cheerier for it. But this concert, especially the last third of it, was a bruising experience. The sheer vigour, vim and jollity of it all was tiresome. Where was the introspection of old? Where was "Atlantic City"?

It made you realise just how sublime Springsteen's own material is, and wonder if the future of rock'n'roll was really meant to end up here.

The UK tour ends at the Hallam FM Arena, Sheffield (0114-256 5656) tomorrow

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