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Stripped-down Springsteen still cranks up the excitement

WORCESTER -- ''Due to the intimate nature of the show," the announcer said before Bruce Springsteen took the stage last night, there would be no photographs allowed.

But the restrictions didn't end there. A card handed to each member of the audience as they entered the DCU Center detailed the evening's house rules -- no searching for seats during songs, closed lobby curtains throughout the performance, closed concession stands during the duration of the performance, and everyone had to be ''seated by the start of the first song."

Whew! No wonder they call him the Boss.

Still, few were likely complaining once Springsteen began performing on this stop along his solo and mostly acoustic ''Devils & Dust" tour. This was a quieter Springsteen without the E Street Band bombast, but he was no less captivating or intense. He opened with ''Idiot's Delight," singing the song he wrote with Joe Grushecky into a bullet microphone, which distorted his vocals for a sound reminiscent of a scratchy old 45.

Springsteen, 56, has been long recognized as one of the greatest singer-songwriters in rock music history, but the sheer poetry of his lyrics is sometimes lost when he's in full-on veins a-poppin' arena mode. There were no such distractions last night, as his only accompaniment was various guitars, harmonicas, and keyboards.

It also helped that the DCU Center was sectioned off with black drapes to give the cavernous space a much cozier feel. It had the same effect on his songs. The underlying bitterness of ''Brilliant Disguise" became more solemn and circumspect. He played banjo on ''I'm on Fire," and the song's restlessness now hinted at the kind of rangy lust that cajoles a man to violence.

For more than two hours, Springsteen sketched out his lengthy career, in a mix of hits and obscurities. He even went back to his 1973 debut, ''Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.," for a chilling version of ''Lost in the Flood."

And despite his penchant big-shouldered anthems, Springsteen showed how stripping songs like ''Long Time Comin,' " ''Darkness on the Edge of Town," and ''The Rising" to their core can reveal even more flesh and muscle. Unadorned and plaintive, it's also the ideal backdrop for the incorrigible romantics, lost men, and stubborn dreamers who have populated his music for more than 30 years.

Between songs he was in a jovial mood, introducing ''The Fever" as one of those ''annoying fan favorites," then unexpectedly delivered it as a smoky blues. He even playfully admonished the more rhythmically challenged in the audience whose off-beat clapping during his songs was driving him ''[expletive] crazy."

''Check what's going on around you, and fall in line," he said with a smile. ''I appreciate your spirit, but cut that [expletive] out."

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