TAMPA — A few songs into his Thursday gig at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, Out in the Street to be exact, Bruce Springsteen decided to mingle, meet the people, slap a few trembly hands.
He sauntered among the 15,000 here, his face bemused, calm, our faces a melange of warm familiarity and holy (bleep). We didn't so much rush him as warm our hands in his aura. It was respectful, kingly adulation, reverent yet pleasantly contained. We've met before, it seems.
Later, the Boss, 64, by now obviously a superhero among us mere mortals, opted for a longer walk, this one during brassy stomp Pay Me My Money Down. In fact, leading a Crescent City party line, he found his way to a bar out by concessions. He came back with a beer. On stage, wife and bandmate Patti Scialfa simply shrugged her shoulders at her silly hubby.
These are loose, more curious days for the blue-collar bard, his three-hour-plus shows all things to all people, including himself. He plays for the newbies (Badlands, Born to Run), for the diehards and rabid set list hunters who come to his shows praying for rarities (Brothers Under the Bridge), for his own well-worn, needy soul (a screaming cover of Them's Gloria).
His shows are still epically long, sweaty, comprehensive, but it's a different feel now. There is nothing left to lose; he's earned the right to do whatever the heck he wants. With Springsteen, he won't scale down until he's 100; then he'll drop down to, like, two-hour shows. But let it be known that he no longer feels the need to prove anything. He'll still deliver a message: The show started with a nod to International Workers' Day, celebrated with folk staple Joe Hill and a raucous cover of the Clash's Clampdown. But great chunks of the set list are almost totally driven by fan-made posters bearing requests. Bruce needs the juice.
Perhaps the most significant sign that Springsteen has entered a devil-may-care phase of his career, a reboot of his signature sound, is the presence of Tom Morello, the psychedelic guitar slinger formally of Rage Against the Machine. There are 17 members of the E Street Band now, the wily veterans (wee Nils Lofgren, drummer Max Weinberg) mingling with relative rookies (sax stud Jake Clemons, nephew of the late, great Clarence "the Big Man" Clemons). But no one is as vital as Morello, whose ringing tone and siren intensity injected oomph into songs such as High Hopes and, especially, The Ghost of Tom Joad, during which he slapped, tapped, caressed, strangled and unplugged his guitar all to generate noises aimed at making your head explode. Kaboom, kersplat. Awesome.
Oh, that loopy set list: Bruce prepped for his upcoming stop at JazzFest in New Orleans with several Pete Seeger-approved tracks, including Jesse James. There was stuff that 21-year-old college kids are discovering just now at happy hour: Darkness on the Edge of Town, No Surrender. He grinned throughout Light of Day, so pleased with his ability to still rock almighty; he led the charge during bootstrapped modern gem Wrecking Ball, one of my five fave Bruce cuts ever.
He made it all fresh and modern and wild; fun for you, fun for him. He chased a buzz and, in Tampa Bay, he found it. "You surprised me," Springsteen said before the encore. "I don't know what the (bleep) is going to happen when I come out here. We absolutely made it all the way to the bar out there. Someone actually bought me a drink in the middle of a song. That's a first, my friends. That's a first."
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.