Bruce Springsteen, still crazy good after all these years, brings almost none of the pompous, bloated stage dressings that characterize his still-touring peers. Monday night at Value City Arena, the stage was almost bare -- no backdrops, DVD montages, lazer lights or eight-story tapestries to adorn what looked, except for enormity, much like a back-alley bar on the south side of New Jersey.

Here's what he does bring: stage energy that made him famous; his ragged troubador persona; a continued fascination with dusty Americana; and one of the thickest back catalogues in history of American popular music. A set that lasted more than two hours included goodies from The Wild, The Innocent & The E. Street Shuffle (1973), Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), The River (1980), Born in the U.S.A. (1984), 2007's Magic and others.

He also brings the E. Street Band, a backing group that has shifted over the years but has always provided the necessary, rock-solid backbone for Springsteen's soaring, brassy pyrotechnics. The current incarnation included standout performances by Nils Lofgren (guitar), Steve Van Zant (guitar), Clarence Clemmons (saxophone) and Soozie Tyrell (violin).

Bruce Springsteen, still crazy good after all these years, brings almost none of the pompous, bloated stage dressings that characterize his still-touring peers. Monday night at Value City Arena, the stage was almost bare -- no backdrops, DVD montages, lazer lights or eight-story tapestries to adorn what looked, except for enormity, much like a back-alley bar on the south side of New Jersey.

Here's what he does bring: stage energy that made him famous; his ragged troubador persona; a continued fascination with dusty Americana; and one of the thickest back catalogues in history of American popular music. A set that lasted more than two hours included goodies from The Wild, The Innocent & The E. Street Shuffle (1973), Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), The River (1980), Born in the U.S.A. (1984), 2007's Magic and others.

He also brings the E. Street Band, a backing group that has shifted over the years but has always provided the necessary, rock-solid backbone for Springsteen's soaring, brassy pyrotechnics. The current incarnation included standout performances by Nils Lofgren (guitar), Steve Van Zant (guitar), Clarence Clemmons (saxophone) and Soozie Tyrell (violin).

In skin-tight tandem that seems to border on telekinesis, Bruce and cohorts ran through a range of material that included softer, acoustic ballads, hard-chargers, hits and hidden gems. The soaring, sing-along-ready road song "Born to Run" and the organ-drenched "Rosalita" were fantastic, as were recent singles "Radio Nowhere" and "Girls in Their Summer Clothes."

"The girls in their summer clothes, in the cool of the evening light," Springsteen sang in a gritty but steady voice, "the girls in their summer clothes, pass me by."

The world has always passed by Springsteen, who has stood for nearly four decades near the fringes, in the dives, along the roadside and from the windy mountaintop as America's crazy, wild, desperate and beautiful people thrived. He has always watched -- and he takes very good notes.

Even in more unfamiliar songs that populated the middle of the set, these characters came alive in the bold, bombastic sound that has become as evocative of our tumultuous, endearing heartland as a montage of waving grain. They are Springsteen's legacy -- the reason why fans from Cleveland passed around weathered, black-and-white photos of him before the show and shouted along in ecstasy as he pranced triumphantly across the stage, fiving outstretched hands.

Springsteen's enduring love of these characters -- and his ability to breathe fresh life into them night after night -- made the show the best I've seen this year.

[Set list] [Discography and bio] [Dispatch review]

(Dispatch photos by Jonathan Quilter)