By Ken Tucker
March 29, 2012 at 05:06 PM EDT

Bruce Springsteen played the first of two nights in Philadelphia on Wednesday. If the news headline is that he pointedly directed his audience to hear his 2000 song “American Skin (41 Bullets)” now as a parable for the fate of Trayvon Martin, the music story of this show is that Springsteen has broken through to a new level of interest in beats, rhythms, and ways to keep his old music fresh, for himself and for his fans. There was a three-song run in this show — “Jack of All Trades,” “Atlantic City,” and “Easy Money” — in which Springsteen opened up the melodies to flood the arena with a cascade of guitars, horns, and drums. Springsteen has a new hand gesture since the last time I saw him perform, a wrist flick to the beat, arm raised over his head. Whenever he wasn’t looking out at the audience, searching for faces that understood, he was often looking down, as though thoroughly immersed in the way the big band (an E Street-plus ultra ensemble) had discovered ways to make grand-gesture arena-rock signify in precise, particular ways. The other thing Springsteen is doing onstage sometimes is using his hands to count off every syllable as he sings them — it’s a gesture hip-hop has made common, and suggests, as I said, the way Springsteen has located renewed interest in emphasizing the beat.

It also helped, of course, that he had Max Weinberg supplying an almost super-human degree of drum emphasis, less merely thundering (anyone can sound loud in a large hall) than spraying his drumming across any given song with thrilling accuracy. This was perhaps most evident in an absolutely titanic rendition of “She’s The One.”

And how does one interpret the fact that the Philadelphia audience — and, reportedly, other cities’ audiences on this tour — cheer when Springsteen gets to the “Jack of All Trades” line, “If I had me a gun I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight”? I’ll tell you how: People really like to hear otherwise mannerly rock stars talk tough, especially after many of those people have had a few beers. Now, as to whether a black rock star could utter those words and not get certain elements of the political spectrum calling for such a singer’s arrest to incite murder? That’s a different question, one that you can bet Springsteen thought about in writing that line.

About mid-way through the show, Springsteen ran to the center of the Wells Fargo Center, leaned back and tossed himself into the audience. Not exactly a punk crowd, the fans here took a helluva long time to get the whole pass-the-star-back-to-the-stage thing going. About three-fourths of the way through, Springsteen clambered up into the stands and started walking across one aisle of gaspingly happy fans, pausing to collapse into someone’s seat, saying he needed and rest, and seemed to take a pull on someone’s cup of beer, or at least hold it up in salute. These were the fun moments the crowd lives for. And Springsteen found himself topped, much to his own delight, when he pulled a girl who looked not much more than 12 years old onstage to dance with him, and she pulled sharp, wiggly moves that had Springsteen yelling, “I need those shoes!” and pointing to her glittery boots.

Springsteen played one of his earliest songs, “Seaside Bar Song,” framing it with a memory of seeing Bo Diddley in a small club decades ago. Its delightfully cheesy organ hook was cranked up to squall-warning level, its Frankie Ford/”Sea Cruise” rhythm hilarious and exhilarating. So, too, were the soul oldies he didn’t rip through, but instead nestled down into, as though they were warm and comforting places — in other words, re-locating what “soul” means in soul music such as “The Way You Do The Things You Do” and “634-5789.”

The concert, as much as the album Wrecking Ball, is a marvelously diverse creation, drawing upon and uniting so many American periods and styles of popular music, that it creates a very effective tension: Springsteen’s lyrics may speak of despair, but the music testifies to a bottomless ingenuity, invention, and exhilaration.

Twitter: @kentucker

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