Bruce bounds on stage, unfairly energetic for a man a year short of his seventh decade, and says something about being "here in the victorious city of Manchester!" An imperceptible murmur of ambivalence rises up from the audience at Old Trafford, but before it might register, he's off into "No Surrender", the opening salvo of a set whose momentum is sustained through deft segues linking songs into batches of three or four, and any local rivalries are swept away in the surge of goodwill.
It's a good choice of opener, a declaration of sustained principle that chimes well with an audience mostly on the grey side of 50, but still young enough to believe; and, if anything, lines like "There's a war outside raging/ It ain't ours any more to win" have a greater resonance today than they did when the song was written a quarter-century ago.
As the song builds to its climax, Springsteen and his guitarist cohorts, Miami Steve and Nils Lofgren, come together at the front of stage to ring out the unison hook, the warhead of a musical missile powered by one of rock's most explosive rhythm sections. Then, before the crowd has time to applaud, the dying chords slip into the opening figure of the rabble-rousing "Radio Nowhere", and we're off again.
That's the agenda for the next two hours, a series of two- or three-song broadsides occasionally punctuated by the assured patter of a consummate showman who seems effortlessly to bridge the gulf between himself and his fans. No other stadium-filling stars of Springsteen's magnitude – not U2, not Radiohead, certainly not Prince or Madonna – would take the kind of risks Springsteen does tonight, as he lopes along the stage's runways into the crowd, shaking hands as if with old mates, and even falling to his knees as their hands paw over his body and guitar.
As he sets out for the first of many such jaunts, the big screens at the side of the stage suddenly switch from landscape orientation to double-sized portrait to show two colossal Bruces ambling along, a startling trick of magnification that brings home just how massive a blue-collar presence this man wields.
"Hold up your signs, and we'll try and do some requests," he says, then during "Darlington County", as the drizzle lays a fine mist over the stage-front audience, he walks about collecting the soggy posters, stuffing some into his back pocket as he delivers them to the drum riser. It's a perfectly judged pose: with his blond Telecaster slung at his side, and the people's papers sticking out of his jeans, the twin giant images are irresistibly reminiscent of the sleeves of both Born to Run and Born in the USA.
As the song draws to a close, he picks up a poster reading "Hard to be a Saint" and brandishes it at his band, who slip smoothly into the song from his debut album. If the sign is a plant, it is slickly devised; if it's genuine, it enables a stunning demonstration of the E Street Band's lock-tight ability to turn on a dime and change direction at a moment's notice, an impressive combination of spontaneity and solidity. The song climaxes with the singer and Miami Steve getting into a contest, swapping bursts of ever-more frantic lead guitar; both, however, are trumped during the ensuing "Because the Night" by dapper little Lofgren, who winds up the song with a dazzling, show-stopping demonstration of six-string gymnastics, which ends appropriately enough with him spinning around on one foot like some electrified whirling dervish.
Save for a "Devils and Dust" that retains its moving intimacy even at stadium-size, it's one long string of crowd-pleasing rockers from then on, reminding one of just how many infectious anthems Springsteen has written. At one point, he accepts a proferred Man Utd shirt – his son, he reveals, is a little Red Devil, and so he realises he's playing on "hallowed ground" tonight – and waves it to the audience.
But his energy and commitment are unrivalled in rock: to develop the football theme, if one were to apply to pop performers the now-familiar tracking technology that tells us how many kilometres a player has run during a game, Springsteen would be out there on his own, a real box-to-box dynamo whose legwork is made possible only by the size of his heart. Man of the match, again.
Bruce Springsteen plays the Emirates Stadium, London N5, tonight and tomorrow, and the Wales Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on 14 June (www.brucespringsteen.net)