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BRUCE IS BACK. `Good to see you again, I missed ya'

BUYING tickets was a cinch for them - it was part of the act. All that the musicians had to do was walk up to the booth and buy their tickets for the ``Tunnel of Love.'' Then, one by one, the twelve of them took their places on stage and waited for their host-of-honor. Amid the amusement-park music, he appeared, dressed like a barker with silver-tipped black boots.

He stood at the edge of the onstage ``boardwalk'' and looked out at the rushing ocean of people before him. Frantic waves chanted his name, while screams echoed, reminiscent of tilt-a-whirls, funhouses, and arcades. Then he cast out a bouquet of roses and a song, and reeled in cheers.

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The song was ``Tunnel of Love,'' and the man was Bruce Springsteen.

Kicking off his first tour in two-and-a-half years, Springsteen and his EStreet Band played to a sea of 13,000 fans Thursday night here at the Worcester Centrum.

The ``Tunnel of Love Express Tour'' was a carnival of sorts, to which the attendees paid an energetic price. Tickets for all three of the Worcester shows sold out in two-and-a-half hours several weeks before, while scalpers and ticket services got as much as $700 a pop. But fans here agree, Bruce is worth whatever the price.

``He's for everybody, and he gives a lot back - and that's cool,'' said Paul Stanechewski, a 19-year-old from Hudson, Mass., who spent a night outside the box office in order to get 8th-row-center seats.

A group of live cupie dolls bubbled up exclamations of ``He's the ultimate,'' ``He's awesome,'' and finally, ``Seeing Bruce is like seeing the Pope, okay?''

``I think he's himself, he's a typical American ... he denotes the real blue-collar, rugged guy,'' says John Canty, a middle-aged Springsteen fan from Webster, Mass.

Represented in the length of his live concerts - nearly three hours of music alone - Springsteen stands for the hard-working man with a heart. His eight studio albums reflect the thoughts of someone who knows his roots and is trying to find a place in a world often dominated by human conflict. Sometimes it's exhilarating, sometimes it's depressing. But he doesn't underestimate the power of hope. His subjects range from relationships, street life, cars, and growing up to the plight of the working man, people in trouble, and Vietnam veterans.

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And of course, love.

After opening with ``Tunnel of Love,'' title track for his latest album, Springsteen and his extended EStreet Band (now with a five-piece horn section, compliments of New Jersey's La Bamba and the Hubcaps) played ``I'll be true,'' one of several obscure songs featured that night, then ``Adam raised a Cain'' and ``Two faces.'' The concert had moments of peace and frenzy, as Springsteen kept the crowd guessing by not spoon-feeding them hit after hit.

``Good to see you again, I missed ya,'' Springsteen told the audience halfway through the first set. Cheers and the familiar ``Bruuuuuce'' call signified that the feeling was mutual. He then went on to tell a story, one of the endearing qualities of Springsteen in the eyes of his fans.

Traditionally, at all his concerts, Springsteen talks of some past personal experience. Here, he relayed a story about a neighbor he had while growing up. Upon returning to his old street many years later, he realized that it had all changed, and so had he.

``The people in those houses were strangers just like me, doing the best they could to hold on to the things they loved,'' he recalled. This gave way to the end of the first set with ``Spare Parts,'' from his latest album, and ``War,'' appropriately followed by a bounding ``Born in the U.S.A.''

This year, Springsteen has turned more introspective. He addresses personal relationships and responsibility in his music, drawing on his Jersey-shore roots. This is due to two things, say critics: His recent marriage, and a reaction to the fanfare for ``Born in the U.S.A.''

Longtime fan Tom Marks has seen Springsteen perform about 40 times. ``He's mellowed out. I expected it - he's more mature now,'' said Mr. Marks, a 30-year-old truck driver. ``It's my life story - he sings it; he writes from the heart.''

Not to say the show lacked intensity. Performances of ``War,'' ``Dancing in the Dark,'' ``Hungry Heart,'' ``Glory Days,''and ``You're the One'' had the floor stomping. Two new songs were introduced: ``I'm a Coward When it Comes to Love'' and ``Part Man, Part Monkey,'' which Springsteen sang with his lantern-jaw smile.

Quieter moments collected respect from the well-behaved audience, on such songs as ``Walk Like a Man'' and the touching acoustic version of ``Born to Run.'' Springsteen reverently played guitar and harmonica, while the audience joined him in a soft sing-a-long.

The finale had Springsteen crooning Elvis's ``Can't Help Falling in Love,'' and dancing on the piano in ``Rosalita'' - ``The best love song I ever wrote,'' he said. The ride ended with the traditional Mitch Ryder ``Detroit Medley,'' every concert-goer's rave-up.

Springsteen has reached a lot of people since 1975, when he appeared on covers of Time and Newsweek in the same week. Critics say that his fifth album, two-record set, ``The River'' allyooped him from a street-wise hometown hero to rock superstar. The album ``Nebraska'' followed, then the blockbuster: ``Born in the U.S.A.'' which rocked 4 million people in concert and sold 18 million copies.

Asked about Springsteen's evolution, Milo Miles, rock critic of the Boston Phoenix, told the Monitor: ``Given the way that he draws heavily and reverently at times on the music of the '50s and early '60s and especially what he grew up with, it seems to me that he was not a breakthrough type of person, but an incredibly astute and probing explorer of the traditions of rock 'n' roll, the standards and what it should be all about.''

Ask Lisa Robert was Bruce Springsteen is all about, and she'll tell you: ``He cares about people.'' As for the $225 she paid to see him for the first time: ``I'd do it again in a heartbeat.''

Bruce Springsteen and the EStreet Band will be performing in Chapel Hill, N.C., tonight and tomorrow night; Philadelphia, March. 8, 9; Cleveland, 13, 14; Chicago, 16, 17; Pittsburgh, 20; Detroit, 28, 29; Uniondale, N.Y., April 1, 2; Landover, Md., 4, 5. Additional shows, mostly in the West, are expected.

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