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Chris Armbruster was standing in line to buy Moody Blues tickets when he heard Bruce Springsteen was coming to town.

Armbruster didn't know much of Springsteen's music, but he'd heard great things about Springsteen's live shows. On a whim, he bought a ticket and went to the concert, at the old Capital Centre. Springsteen pinballed from one side of the stage to the other, firing up the crowd and tearing through his tunes.

"He was an unbelievable performer," Armbruster said. "Even if you didn't know the songs, you were on the edge of your seat."

That was in the fall of 1978. Now, more than 30 years later, Armbruster has seen about 30 Springsteen shows and owns all his albums. Armbruster took his wife, Carol Benson, to her first Springsteen show (she cried when Springsteen played the song "Lonesome Day"). And when his daughter, Natalie, saw her first Springsteen show at age 7, "she became a Springsteen nut," said Armbruster, a 48-year-old who lives in White Hall.

Stories such as these are common when it comes to Springsteen. Even among A-list musicians such as Billy Joel, Elton John and Paul McCartney, few performers have a magnetism and mystique quite like Springsteen. As Armbruster and thousands of other fans have discovered, there's a reason why they call him The Boss.

"Bruce is just one of those performers who needs to push himself a little harder and a little further than his peers," said E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren. "That's just his nature. After 40 years on the road, there's nothing you can fake. Either you push yourself or you don't."

Friday, Springsteen and the E Street Band will come to 1st Mariner Arena. It's their first show in Baltimore proper since opening for Chicago in 1973 - at the 1st Mariner Arena (when it was the Civic Center). More than 14,000 tickets for the show sold out in a mere 20 minutes, officials said.

At 60, Springsteen is having one of the best years of his career. He performed at President Barack Obama's inauguration concert in Washington. He and the E Street Band played the Super Bowl, and he headlined the first of two nights at Madison Square Garden celebrating the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame's 25th anniversary. Next month, Springsteen will be honored by the Kennedy Center for his career of "honest songs that speak to the everyman."

Springsteen has long been lauded for his blue-collar appeal. He might be a millionaire many times over, but he still connects with the working men and women in his fan base. His secret? He doesn't need a secret, according to Lawrence Kirsch, the editor and publisher of two Springsteen books, "The Light in Darkness" and "For You."

"The mystique of the man is, there's no mystique," Kirsch said. "This guy is a regular, everyday person who just so happens to write amazing songs with very deep meanings. He has a connection with his fan base like no other, and he treats that fan base extremely well."

Springsteen's current tour, which has taken him and the band to Europe and back, is technically in support of their latest album, "Working On a Dream." But the tour took on a whole new dimension this fall, when Springsteen announced he would be performing classic E Street Band albums such as "Born in the U.S.A." in their entirety in certain cities. Friday, they will take on "Born to Run" from start to finish.

With Springsteen reaching deep into his catalog, the spectrum of his music has rarely been more noticeable. During Friday's show, he will go from "Meeting Across the River," a dark song with sparse instrumentation, into the epic "Jungleland."

"There are real peaks and valleys, and he fully inhabits them on both sides," said Chris Phillips, editor of Springsteen fanzine Backstreets Magazine. "The way he brings them all together in one show ... that really astounds a lot of people. That makes his art really powerful."

Earlier this month in New York City, Springsteen performed "The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle" and "The River" during a two-night stand at Madison Square Garden. When Springsteen made the announcement several days before the concert, his fans were delighted. His band was a little more hesitant.

"To take on those two records back to back in New York City with almost no notice is crazy," Lofgren said. "I didn't quite make it to college, but for those four or five days [before the shows], I really felt like I was studying for my big college exam."

At the beginning of their tours, most big-name bands - such as U2 - iron out a list of songs they want to play and stick to it. Springsteen keeps his shows fairly fluid, routinely swapping songs in and out. Fans know to bring signs with song requests, because during each show, Springsteen will scan the crowd and play a few of the suggestions. Occasionally, he will launch into cover songs the band has never played before.

Since no two shows are the same, it inspires fans such as Ideen Barimani, a 30-year-old who lives in Abingdon, to see Springsteen multiple times on each tour. Barimani has friends who keep spreadsheets on their computers, tallying how many times they've seen Springsteen play each song, broken down by album.

"You get obsessed, because they don't do the same set list every night," Barimani said. "You have a little checklist in your head."

Barimani first saw Springsteen in October 2007 at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia. He's going to the Baltimore show Friday, which will be his 15th Springsteen concert. He doesn't have a ticket yet, but one way or another, he'll get in, he said.

"I've got to restrain my jubilation," Barimani said. "There may not be another band on his level. Once you see him, everything else comes down a notch or two."

Clarence Clemons, the E Street Band's saxophonist whom Springsteen lovingly calls "The Big Man," said the reason Springsteen has been so successful is pure love for what he does.

"He is a genius, and he sticks to what he believes in," Clemons said. "People seem to feed on that. They see it, they recognize it and they enjoy it. It's the strength that gives all of us the power to continue to do what we want to do, and shows us that we can do it and how to do it."

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