ROCK / He's still Boss class - just

SINCE Bruce Springsteen last played here, he has moved, with new wife and family, from his mythic New Jersey to a mansion in the fleshpots of LA, dumped all but the keyboard player of his revered E Street Band, and made a couple of albums nobody seems to like. This is not thought to be a good thing, but why on earth should he continue to live out an ideal of frustrated everyman nobility if he doesn't feel like it?

'It's a sad funny ending/To find yourself pretending/A rich man in a poor man's shirt,' he croaks soulfully in his opening number 'Better Days', pinning down with engaging candour the contradiction some people found so hard to take in the old Springsteen. For hard-core fans, this divestment of illusions must be pretty hard to take. To those not familiar with Boss ritual, the primitive low bonding moan of 'Broooooooce' that rumbles around the Wembley Arena is unnervingly like booing. For all his swagger - the strangely feminine strut and glide, guitar slung round his back with the deceptive abandon of a Comanche papoose - Bruce knows the crowd has to be, if not won over, at least reassured.

Early on, there is some stumbling in his heartfelt introductions, and sometimes - 'This one's for my children, and your children, too' - he comes across as the stranger who accosts you on the bus and shows you pictures of his family. Vital landmarks such as 'Born in the USA', 'Darkness on the Edge of Town' and 'The River' drift by without him really seeming to notice. A new song, 'Roll of the Dice', which concludes the first half, gets the biggest production, which is strange because it is a piece of awesome triteness. But his performance never loses its appealing staginess. When he throws himself into the crowd after a rousing 'Badlands', their unspoken doubts seem to clear.

He grows in confidence and strength throughout the second half, which begins with a thunderous 'Cover Me'. The music tightens up, too, as the guitars find themselves and the absent saxophone becomes less conspicuous. The choice of newer material wisely inclines to Lucky Town, much the stronger half of Bruce's rather light-fisted double whammy; the compellingly specific 'Souls of the Departed' points a way forward from the unfocused yearnings of yesteryear. By the end, with the help of a flash of chemistry from his sweet-voiced wife Patti Scialfa, Bruce is even singing the old ones like he means them. As the last chords of 'Born to Run' fade into the night, Springsteen is no longer just the working man's Bob Dylan, or the thinking man's Billy Joel, or both; he is, quite simply, Springsteen.

One of The Boss's most illustrious former compadres, Nils Lofgren, turns up the next night at the Hammersmith Odeon, as just one of a hatful of axe-luminaries in Ringo Starr's All Starr Band. Also present are Dave Edmunds, Joe Walsh and Todd Rundgren, and that's just the people you may have heard of. Excitement is running high. It's not often you get the chance to see a band featuring two people whose names end in 'gren'.

This sort of occasion shows why Spinal Tap were only funny for a moment. Why waste energy playing along with make-believe rock absurdity when the genuine article is so much more fun? The sight of five lead guitarists struggling for room to express themselves would be fairly amusing even without the personality overload. Nils wheels and leaps about the stage like Chris De Burgh on Ecstasy. Joe Walsh, splendid in fawn suit and fedora, sprints back and forth, repeatedly looking at his watch in a bizarre impression of the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, which as subconscious drug references go is pretty funny. Best of all is the genially lofty figure of Rundgren - whom you can accuse of many things but never sanity - sporting knee- length leggings, a mop of hair with a white bit on top, sunglasses which keep falling off and a ripped-up jumper covered with orange paper tassles.

The music is mostly no laughing matter, though most people (audience sometimes included) seem to enjoy themselves. Ringo takes a back seat, as a great drummer should, while the others take it in turns to show off. He does step up to perform a couple of apologetic selections from his new album Time Takes Time, and he also gives us 'Yellow Submarine'. This is a moment of extreme weirdness, as one by one the crowd rise and stand stiffly to attention, aware of being close to the fount of all pop greatness, but not quite close enough.

Springsteen plays Wembley (081- 900 1234) tonight and tomorrow.

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