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It was vintage Boss at the Frankfurt Festhalle last week, where Bruce Springsteen led a nearly three-hour, stirring performance that kept the dancing-room-only crowd bouncing on their feet.

Springsteen played an even assortment of songs from his recent dual release of Human Touch and Lucky Town and his collection of thematic hits from the '70s and '80s.

True to his blue-collar image, Springsteen's show focused on the core of the music, as opposed to four-story video screens, a multitude of dancers or a laser show.

Not that Springsteen didn't allow a little self-indulgence. After playing for 2½ hours, the band stopped in mid-song so the Boss could strut slowly around the stage, staring intently at his howling fans. This was the Boss. And the capacity crowd of 12,000, filling even the second balcony, screamed and chanted and clapped in appreciation.

Never mind the concerns from skeptics that the Boss had sold himself out after dismissing the E Street Band three years ago; that he had moved from his New Jersey roots to Beverly Hills, Calif.; and that he had divorced actress Julianne Phillips and later married his backup singer, Patty Scialfi.

For Springsteen, the upheaval of his personal life in recent years has been a change from groping in darkness to finding the light in the Tunnel of Love. His :new songs reflect his internal discoveries just by scanning a few of the titles from both albums: Better Days, The Living Proof, Leap of Faith and Roll of the Dice, for example.

While the message is not as broad as it has been in years past — as John Mellencamp has been the voice of the farmer's plight, so has Springsteen been for the blue-collar worker — it is as passionate and strong as ever as he sings about a young man finding himself. And Springsteen's new band, though clearly not the E Street Band, still lived up to its predecessor's reputation as one of the best bands in America.

Springsteen opened the concert with Better Days, a hard-driving song that apparently comments on the improvements in the Boss' own life, fl hen, after an electric guitar prelude of the national anthem, Springsteen drove right into Born in the U.S.A. where the Boss had to compete with the crowd for lead vocals.

Springsteen, 42, but playing like a much-experienced and excited teen-ager, often spoke to the crowd between numbers. Those breaks, if not for the Boss, at least gave the lively audience opportunities to catch its collective breath.

"If you've followed the man over the years," he said apparently about himself, "you'll find the man in the next song."

The Boss imparted a few words in German, making sure to hit on the key words such as freundschaft, liebe and danke.

Opening with a harmonica, Springsteen played If I Should Fall Behind from his Lucky Town album, the album he recorded at his own studio (playing all the instruments except the drums} in 1991 after Human Touch was finished.

Before his next song, Springsteen talked about inner-city violence and the L.A. riots. Then he played 57 Channels (and Nothin' on), which is as close to Springsteen comes to rapping in a Midwestern drawl.

Springsteen spoke again later, telling the crowd that it's been four years since he's been on the road. He mentioned his two babies and questioned what their legacy would be to their children. He dedicated the next song, My Hometown, from his kids to the German kids.

While Springsteen seemed to dwell on his recent albums — 13 of the 27 songs were from those albums — the Boss still reached back to play some of his old numbers, including Darkness on the Edge of Town and a truly captivating version of Thunder Road.

Missing from his two hours, 50 minutes of playing were Dancing in the Dark and his '70s anthem, Born to Run. That was hardly noticed, though, as Springsteen and his band rocked the night away.

Springsteen was joined for two songs — Brilliant Disguise and Human Touch — by Scialfi, who apparently now has a bigger role backstage as mother to their two children.

This tour answers any doubters who may questioned Springsteen's commitment to his music. While the faces around him have changed, the music is as exhilarating as anything from his past.

And, indeed, Bruce Springsteen is still the Boss.


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