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The spirit moves him

Life can be hectic when you're on tour with Bruce Springsteen: the endless travel, the lack of sleep, the hotel food, the days and towns that blur together.

Of course, Michael Hayes isn't exactly on tour with Springsteen. But he might as well be.

The Southern California-based Bruce fan has criss-crossed the country since August, catching almost every U.S. concert on Springsteen's The Rising tour _ 26 of the 29 to date.

And Hayes, 49, plans to be in Tampa this Sunday, in his usual spot near the front of the stage, where he has become a familiar face to the band.

"A lot of people go to church 52 Sundays a year, so if I go to 49 shows in a year, I'm doing about the same thing," he says into his ever-present cell phone, waiting in line at Kentucky's Rupp Arena last week. "This is my church. It just happens to be in a different city each night."

Hayes knows his passion for being at Springsteen shows might strike some as "off center." But he explains that his job _ he's a self-employed custom furniture maker _ allows him flexibility. Besides, the music makes him feel alive and renewed, even if the cost of all the hotels and driving is a financial pinch.

"I'm deep in debt right now, and I'm getting deeper, but it's worth it," he says. "Every show is different, and if you miss one show, you may miss a really special moment or song. I missed the St. Louis concert, and that was the one night he played Downbound Train, which is one of my favorites. So to keep that from happening, I try to go to every show."

Hayes is well-known among the cadre of Springsteen concert diehards, many of whom travel from show to show, standing in line for two days for a chance at a late ticket and sometimes a great seat.

Two years ago in Asbury Park, Hayes helped originate the "G.A. Line," designed for people holding general admission tickets. Rather than making everybody stay in line without leaving, a roll-call system was implemented. It assigns ticket holders a number, allowing them to be present just at various check-in times.

The setup used the same rules of the pre-existing Springsteen "Drop Line," where fans without tickets are assigned a number matching their place in line, as they wait to buy tickets released the day of the show.

Hayes and other veteran Springsteen fans police the lines and keep them orderly. For the most part, the lines are sanctioned and much appreciated by venue officials (though in August, Madison Square Garden security caused near chaos by refusing to recognize that the line was official until late in the game).

Fans with the best spots in the G.A. line secure the best spots in the standing-only pit section, facing the stage _ where Hayes finds a home.

"With the exception of New York and Detroit right after, the lines have kept working virtually flawlessly," he says. "It's getting more familiar, so (venue officials) are more aware of what's going on."

Hayes has been thrilled by what has been going on inside, since the tour's second leg began Sept. 22.

"I consider that whole first leg of the show a rehearsal," he says. "There was a two-week break, and then the whole feel changed in Denver. Bruce started mixing things up with surprises, different arrangements. The energy just keeps increasing."

Hayes notes that he played Kansas City in Kansas City, Dirty Water in Boston, I Fought the Law with Don Henley in Dallas, among many song list changes.

The best moment for Hayes came in Milwaukee Sept. 27. Hayes was in the front row, when a father further back in the pit asked if his 8-year-old daughter, Megan, could stand with Hayes.

"Bruce played to her most of the night _ he held the mike out to her and she sang along a capella "I'm waiting on a sunny day.' That was magic. At the end, Patty Scialfa (singer and wife of Springsteen) kissed her hand. Max Weinberg gave her a drum stick. Bruce and Little Stevie gave her guitar picks."

He ran into the dad again last week in Cincinnati, and at that show, Megan and her sister, Taylor, joined Hayes in front of the stage.

"The same thing happens _ Bruce and the band loved it," he says. "At one point, Bruce clasped hands with Megan for like a minute during Mary's Place. Moments like those are what makes being at these shows so special, and why I keep coming back."