Wrecking Balls: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at First Mariner Arena, Nov. 20

| Image by Frank Hamilton

Bruce Springsteen opened his show at Baltimore's First Mariner Arena Friday night with "Wrecking Ball," which may well be the best song he's written in 22 years. Wearing a black vest over a tight gray T-shirt, the short, muscular singer bellowed, "I was raised out of steel here in the swamps of Jersey."

He was ostensibly singing as the voice of Giants Stadium, the steel edifice scheduled to be demolished at the end of this football season, but it was clear he was also singing about himself and his longtime audience, a baby-boomer generation similarly afflicted by rust, defeats, dwindling time, and yet another Republican recession. "Hard times come, hard times go," he sang, "just to come again."

The song boasted one of Springsteen's best rock'n'roll guitar riffs and one of his best mixtures of jokes ("the Meadowlands, where the mosquitoes grow big as airplanes") and angst ("all our youth and beauty, it's been given to the dust"). In the midst of that inevitable decline, the singer-representing the stadium, himself, and his audience all at once-remained defiant: "Bring on your wrecking ball," he shouted.

The song articulated the dilemma Springsteen faces in 2009: how to do justice to a long past and a foreshortened future without being swallowed up by either. Coming off the weakest album of his 36-year recording career (Working on a Dream ), he had reason to be worried about the tricks that time can play. But in his willingness to wrestle with such challenges, he liberated the arena rock show from the snares of formula and empty ritual and redeemed it as genuine theater.

The drama was heightened on this occasion, for it was his first show in Baltimore City since he opened for Chicago in 1973 at the Baltimore Civic Center (later renovated into the First Mariner Arena, but still worthier of demolition than Giants Stadium). It was also the next-to-last show on the current tour, presaging a long layover for the E Street Band.

Springsteen acknowledged his long absence from Baltimore with a story about hecklers at the Chicago show and by allowing the crowd to sing the opening verse of "Hungry Heart": "Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, jack; I went out for a ride and I never went back." He acknowledged the looming layover by refusing to leave the stage; he kept adding unplanned numbers, and a show designed to be 26 songs long eventually ballooned to 30 tunes and nearly three-and-a-half hours.

One of his innovations on this tour has been performing some of his best-loved albums in the original sequence as the record. It sounds like a good idea, but because everyone knows what's coming next, it robs the shows of their greatest asset: their unpredictability. On this night, the revisited title was Born To Run, his most overrated album, though that's admittedly a minority view. But the more the band tried to pump up the historic importance of these songs, the more the tunes creaked beneath the weight. It was no coincidence that the highlight of this mini-set came on the coda from "Backstreets," when Springsteen lowered the volume and whispered forlornly, dramatically: "After all this time to find we're just like all the rest."

The other innovation for this tour has been much more successful. Springsteen has invited the audience to bring home-made signs requesting their favorite songs; he plucks them from the crowd and holds them up to the band to cue the next song. This led to some delightful moments on Friday: a simmering instrumental version of Booker T. and the MGs' "Green Onions," which led to a boiling-over rock'n'roll version of "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town," the rarely heard Latin-soul number, "The E Street Shuffle," and a solo-piano version of "For You."

The Arena floor was chair-less, and the standing crowd was divided by a walled-off walkway that allowed Springsteen to jump off the stage, strut down the walkway and climb a riser between two seas of extended arms. At the end of "Hungry Heart," he fell backward onto those arms and allowed them to ferry him back to the stage.

But the real drama occurred during the encore. After a blistering version of "Ramrod" (another unplanned request), Springsteen tried to resolve the contradictions of the past and future by reaching back beyond his own time to a pair of 19th century songs: Stephen Foster's own recession hymn "Hard Times" and the ancient African-American spiritual "This Train" (rewritten by Springsteen as "Land of Hope and Dreams"). Here was a reminder that the twin themes of frustration and hope in American music were there long before Springsteen came along and will still be there long after the wrecking ball has won its battle.

In the meantime, though, there is still room to celebrate what we have. Springsteen and his longtime bandmates did just that with "American Land," another recent, impressive composition, a successful attempt to imitate a Pete Seeger song, an acknowledgement that as often as the American Dream disappoints, it can also satisfy. That led to two more odes to the American Dream: Springsteen's story-song about signing with Columbia Records, "Rosalita," and Jackie Wilson's 1967 giddy depiction of true love, "(Your Love Is Taking Me) Higher and Higher."

In case that sounded too romantic or too idealistic, Springsteen came back for one more song, one more chance to laugh at himself and his aging audience. "Time slips away," he sang with a huge grin, "and leaves you with nothing, Mister, but boring stories of glory days."