ROCK / The highway man: Giles Smith goes the distance with Bruce Springsteen at Wembley and finds life in the old engine yet. Plus the hottest hip-hop

AT FIRST it sounds like booing, but it's not. It's the call of the Springsteen fan, a slow drone with ape-whoop undercurrents which builds until the entire arena throbs with it - 'Brooooooooce'. The fans do the call after songs and whenever Springsteen says anything. 'I always saw my job as a long distance drive,' croaked Springsteen near the end. 'I'm still driving, and I'm glad you're still along for the ride.' 'Brooooooooce,' said the fans.

It's four years since Bruce Springsteen's last British appearance, but the rituals are still intact - like the calling from the audience, and the car references from the stage. And like the length the concerts run to. Springsteen has always built shows as if they were some sort of physical endurance test. The present tour may be - to take up the metaphor - a mere bend in the giant highway of Bruce's career, but if you're along for the ride, you'll need a full tank of petrol. The concert runs in at about three hours and 10 minutes, not including the interval, nor the gap between the second part and the encores, which themselves last almost as long as the show they follow. And, though there is some danger of your dozing at the wheel midway, it's worth winding the window down and staying awake because (another Springsteen ritual) he saves his best until last.

With no unnecessary formalities (lights go down, band comes on, lights go up), Monday's show jump-started with a frisky version of 'Better Days'. But then we regressed immediately into the ponderous thud which is 'Born in the USA', a song intended as an ironic tilt at rock anthems, but doomed to become the thing it mocked. The best you could say for it was, it was nice to have it out of the way early.

Springsteen was in a largely unbuttoned, floppy blue shirt and jeans; but then, nobody was expecting a cape and hotpants. A formidable silver cross occasionally swung into view on his chest, his only concession to glitter. The stage was frill-free, too. A white, multi-layered affair, it looked like the deck of a ship and provided Springsteen with ample room for swaggering around with his guitar slung down around his knees or hoisted on to one shoulder and pointing down to the ground like a cowboy's rifle. Needless to say, he still felt compelled to burst the boundaries from time to time, using some PA speakers to lift himself closer to those people ranged at the sides, and also leaping down into the photographers' pit, where fans at the front could lean over to ruffle his hair, while bouncers hovered suspiciously.

Those who weren't so close were at least able to participate in the competition to recognise the songs before the band did. It took just one drag across the opening chord before people were on their feet acknowledging 'Darkness on the Edge of Town', and marginally less before everyone spotted 'The River', which Springsteen delivered legs apart, yanking his head back from the microphone between the lines with a stamp of the foot.

Still, for all the instant euphoria, you had to stave off the burdensome feeling that you had seen him do this all before and do it better. With the exception of Roy Bittan on keyboards, the E Street Band has dissolved off the scene, and with them has gone a good quantity of the group feel that Springsteen used to trade off. Early on, you appeared to be watching a set of disparate hired hands.

But as the show got older, the sound gelled and the band seemed to lock together - to such an extent that even the new material was sounding sparky. If Springsteen's career is a long-distance drive, then the most recent albums are widely held to be two of the most characterless Little Chef's he's ever pulled over for. 'Lucky Town' has typical faults - a scrap of a melody, a wafer-thin lyric, it's a real lay-by on one of life's B-roads. But performed live (he used it to open the second half), it somehow found a spring for its step. 'Leap of Faith' took off similarly, and '57 Channels' became a sort of miniature drama - all nervy percussion and slices of guitar, while Springsteen prowled the rim of the stage, looking for faces in the crowd to pin the lyrics on. In an unusual detour from the common run of things, the recordings were suddenly looking like demos for the live performances.

Back after the break, and now in a largely unbuttoned floppy red shirt and jeans, he stomped through a stormy version of 'Cover Me'. Then Patti Scialfa, his wife, sauntered on and joined him on guitar and backing vocals for 'Brilliant Disguise', which seemed the cue for the show to loosen up altogether. 'Glory Days' found him down in the photographers' pit again, this time leading the backing vocalists in a conga. The song stopped and then took off again something in the region of six times, working up to the traditional unfollowable climax. Which, for those versed in the rituals, was a sure sign that there was more to come - 'Hungry Heart', for instance, and 'Thunder Road' and 'Born to Run', and 'My Beautiful Reward'. And only then did he leave the stage - naturally enough, to rapturous booing.

(Photograph omitted)

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