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Bruce Springsteen was back at the Verizon Center for the first time in two and a half years last night to bind up our nation’s wounds once more. Also to send us home with our ears ringin’, our back achin’, and our sexual organs stimulated, to paraphrase some of the stage-patter he repeated from the prior show on the tour—-which I, being no casual fan, road-tripped up to Philadelphia for on Thursday.

So that stuff probably all scrolled by on his teleprompter, along with the line he’s been using to acknowledge the absence of E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who died last June: “If you’re here and we’re here, then they’re here.” (Long-serving multi-instrumentalist Danny Frederici died four years ago, midway through another long tour.)

The days when a skinnier, shaggier Springsteen would launch into long, easily parodied tall tales during performances of “Growin’ Up” haven’t come back since he reconvened the E Street Band in 1999 for a reunion that’s now lasted nearly as long as their original 1972-1988 tenure. But he still came up with some new chitchat to introduce the medley of “The Way You Do the Thing You Do” and “634-5789 (Soulsville, USA)” he’s been playing this tour—-maybe the only thing he could do to make himself seem even fogey-er.

It sounded great.

Those, plus “Seaside Bar Song” and “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd St.?”—two deep cuts from Springsteen’s salad days, way before he was a crowd-surfing, knee-sliding, age-defying health nut—represented the lightest, most nostalgic end of a three-hour, 26-song set. Eight of the songs came from his new album, Wrecking Ball, which was largely written before the Occupy protests began, but which has ridden that zeitgeist wave. Half the set comprised material released since 2000. A third of it was made up of songs he didn’t play at the show I saw three nights earlier. That sounds like a silly, absurdly specific boast, but how many of Springsteen’s boomer contemporaries—he’s 62—can make it? How many arena acts are willing to go off-script to the degree that he is?

America, I say unto you that the answer rhymes with “hero.”

(Yeah, I know there are bands out there that only play all-new material in concert. Get jobs, hippies! All of you!)

“We’re here to put a whup-ass session on the recession,” Springsteen thundered in preacher voce, during one of the best and churchiest performances of the night, “My City of Ruins.”  Written before 9/11 and unreleased at the time, it was the song Springsteen chose to play on the hastily organized relief telethon just days after. Enlarged last night by the additional singers and horn-players who have swelled the E Street Band’s current lineup to 17 members, it felt reverent and consoling.

Another highlight was “American Skin (41 Shots),” a song he wrote after Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant, was shot and killed on the steps of his apartment building by four plainclothes New York City police officers in 1999. All four were tried and acquitted. Then-NYC Mayor Rudolph Giuliani condemned The Boss for performing the song, and the NYPD revoked Springsteen’s police escort out of Madison Square Garden on at least one occasion, but as with “Born in the U.S.A.,” the song is easily misread if you only pay attention to the chorus. It’s come out of mothballs at recent concerts as a comment on the killing of Trayvon Martin, though Springsteen did not mention Martin’s name from the stage last night.

There were the usual features of Springsteen’s D.C.-area performances: An appeal for donations to the D.C. Central Kitchen, a contingent of veterans “from Walter Reed,” said The Boss, although the hospital actually closed last summer. Springsteen used some prepared patter to introduce the new “Jack of All Trades.” Like all of Springsteen’s most enduring work, it’s a song of dignity and perseverance, but not like “Born to Run” or “Badlands.” This one sounds like it was written by a weary, no-longer-middle-aged man who nevertheless has a responsibility to continue with whatever work he can find.

Had Springsteen not been so smart about how he’s managed his career—“44 years’ performing experience!” he shouted during the funny, James Brown-style intro he gave himself at the top of the show—he might now be living a version of that story. Breaking up the E Street Band for a decade at the end of the ’80s may actually have helped to sustain him, in the long haul.

I saw people under 30 and even non-white people at the show, though the majority fit the profile you’d expect. The middle-aged folks behind me who yapped through all the quiet songs like they were at a goddamn movie theater or something were seated, they told me, in front of some “wounded warriors” (I saw their Wounded Warrior T-shirts) who couldn’t stand for long periods. When they asked us to move aside so as not to obstruct their view, we happily obliged. Later, when Bruce started playing “We Are Alive” and the woundeds started hollering out for “Born in the U.S.A.,” I wondered if they were among the many who mistook the tune for a brainless declaration of patriotic zeal, or if its tale of a veteran who returns to civilian life after fighting in Vietnam to find his job gone and his prospects diminished was one that resonated with them.

Springsteen fandom is a big tent.

For more of Erica Bruuuuuuuuuuce’s photos see the gallery.