Pop: If you believe in rock'n'roll



BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN & The E Street Band returned in triumph to the UK for the first time in almost a decade and a half when they played to a packed house at Manchester's Evening News Arena on Saturday. Performing a set that drew heavily on vintage material from the band's classic era - the period spanned by the albums Born to Run and Born in the USA - he seemed to be genuinely moved by the response, stopping several times to let the audience sing entire verses of songs such as "Hungry Heart" and "Thunder Road" for him.

Age does not seem to have withered Springsteen; indeed, he looked unnaturally fit for a man who will turn 50 this year, chunkier and more muscle-bound than most fans will remember, boasting something of James Caan's rugged appeal. Alongside him, the saxophonist "Big Man" Clarence Clemons seemed even bigger than ever, hugely elegant in tied-back dreadlocks and suit, while the tiny guitarist Nils Lofgren, by contrast, seems to have shrunk even further. Most of the band, in deference to encroaching maturity, opted for the casual-but-smart, suit-but-no-tie look preferred by ageing rockers - though the guitarist Miami Steve Van Zandt appeared as if cryogenically preserved since the Seventies in his bandanna, leather waistcoat and long red shirt. Springsteen himself managed to cover both sartorial angles, removing his suit jacket after a few numbers to reveal that what had appeared to be grey suit trousers were in fact made of some more durable, denim- like material; instantly, he was transformed from rough-diamond dinner- party guest to rugged roustabout, shooting from the hip with his battered old blond Telecaster.

The set opened with "My Love Will Not Let You Down" and "Prove it All Night", twin statements of faith which he proceeded to fulfil in a set only 10 minutes short of three hours long. The street-operatic splendour of the E Street Band remains undimmed even after more than a decade in mothballs, with the two keyboard players operating like Bruce's portable Spector Wall of Sound, studding the songs with majestic ostinatos and triumphant bells, while Springsteen works on a grittier level entirely. The dignity of labour remains his perennial theme, with "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and a new number called "Land of Hopes and Dreams" demonstrating that he can still turn out heart-piercing songs to rival such previous blue-collar sagas of disillusion as "The River".

Though stopping some way short of the exertions of his mid-Eighties stadium shows, Springsteen's stagecraft was impressive throughout, and particularly effective on "Out in the Streets", for which he strode the length of the enormous stage, saluting the audience, before counting in the song and executing a perfect tiptoe-drop while hanging on to his microphone stand. The song went on to become something of a demonstration of his R&B faith, as an extended call-and-response section incorporated elements of both The Impressions - Bruce essaying a creditable impression of Curtis Mayfield's falsetto - and Bobby Womack.

"The Ghost of Tom Joad" also demonstrated the flexibility of his band and material, expanding from a plain acoustic-guitar intro through the addition of double bass, accordion and gentle synthesiser washes, subtle accretions of sound that matched the song's swelling emotions.

The most significant change, however, was reserved for "Born in the USA", the song that marked the peak of Bruce Springsteen's mid-Eighties appeal.

Mortified when Ronald Reagan, among others, misconstrued it as a breast- beating nationalist anthem, he stopped performing the song for a while, but it's now returned to his set revamped as a solo slide-guitar blues number, dark, sullen and introspective. Stripped of its former band bombast, there's no possibility of its being interpreted as anything other than a Depression song; it's an extraordinary feat of de-imperialisation for an artist to inflict on his own work, but it testifies to Springsteen's commitment to his constituency. As he explains in the mock-revivalist- preacher section of "Light of Day", he continues to serve the "ministry of rock'n'roll", to raise the souls of the "downhearted, downcast and downsized", simply because "it's my job".