Rock and pop: Still E Streets ahead

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Bruce Springsteen

Manchester Arena

My Love Will Not Let You Down" has almost everything you could want from the end of a rock concert. It's a charged-up singalong anthem, long enough to have its chorus repeated half a dozen times, with room left over for a drum solo. The guitarists are lined up in a row, as if they're ready to take a bow. And the singer's face, on the video screens which flank the stage, is grimacing with concentration as he sums up one last climactic burst of energy. It would be the archetypal rock finale if it weren't for the absence of fireworks and streamers. That, and the small detail that the song was at the beginning of the show.

At and the E Street Band concerts, almost every song could be a finale; they nearly all have the heightened intensity which is generated by an audience united in elation and by nine people on a stage playing at full blast. The irony is that the actual finale threatens never to arrive. The Boss's concerts are legendarily lengthy, so if you're not a die-hard Springsteenybopper, the start of the show can dredge up the guiltily mixed feelings you get when you face chapter one of a six- volume Georgian novel. You know you have a work of the finest quality in front of you, but frankly you'd rather be flicking through something less edifying.

Luckily Springsteen is not as young as he used to be, and last Saturday he played just 26 songs in a mere three hours. There is only so much burly, full-on, pull-out-all-the-stops rock'n'roll that the human ears can bear. And there are only so many humourless songs you can endure about Billy, Bobby, Eddie, Cherry, Terry and Mary workin' real hard at the refinery down by the railroad tracks, and then drivin' my old man's '67 Chevy down Highway 13 to the roadside bar on the edge of town, so put a ribbon in your hair, darlin'. This was Springteen's metier from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. It made him one of the world's biggest stars, but his small-town chronicles ended up less like a voice for the voiceless and more like the obsessive voyeurism of a man feeling guilty about his own fame and fortune. Grim as his protagonists' lives invariably were, Billy, Bobby and friends were always noble and stoic. Springsteen viewed them from above, through clouds of mythologising.

In 1989, he laid off the E Street Band, and this seemed to be a symbolic farewell to headbands, checked shirts, pumped-up biceps and the good ol' rock'n'roll of his buddies. He turned to less self-conscious, more self-revelatory material; the best songs of tonight's show were those he wrote after he moved out of E Street: "Streets of Philadelphia", "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and, most moving of all, a hushed, devotional rendition of 1992's "If I Should Fall Behind". In short, the highlights were the non-finales.

This being the case, I'd call the E Street Band's reunion a dubious reason for celebration ... or I would if the show weren't so damn celebratory. The audience was ecstatic to see all these great musicians together again - and quite right, too. Especially affectionate cheers were reserved for Clarence Clemons, "the Big Man" on saxophone, but all of his colleagues were just as deserving. Each of them has his own distinctive style, from Roy Bittan's fat, octaval piano chords to Max Weinberg's hammer-and-anvil drumming to Danny Federici's slithering, gospel organ. Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren have played guitar in separate versions of the Band; on this tour they appear together.

Springsteen is an unusually inventive guitarist himself. But his main role is that of entertainer, and he's a natural. Last Saturday, he cast himself in James Brown mould and turned the show into a soul revue. Mercifully, he didn't attempt the dance steps, but during "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" and "Light of Day" he was a preacher of the "ministry of rock'n'roll". "I cannot promise you life everlasting," he testified, "but I got somethin' better: life - right now!" And he delivered. The concert was a party, and my only wish was that Springsteen's records were lightened by such spirited fun.

Even that reservation may soon be out of date. The concert's last song was a new one, named "Land of Hope and Dreams", and it marked, said Springsteen, "the rebirth and rededication of our band and our commitment to serve you". It was another anthem, but this time Springsteen allowed himself to be straightforwardly positive and to express sympathy for the underdog without pretending to be the underdog himself. Instead, he is the rock'n'roll redeemer. "This train carries the broken-hearted," he sings. "This train carries misfits and souls departed." On backing vocals, Clemons and Van Zandt each has a hand raised in salute, as if being sworn in. It's a grand finale ... and a grand new beginning.

Birmingham NEC (0121 780 4133) 16 May; Earl's Court, SW5 (0171 373 8141) 18, 19, 21 & 23 May.