Among the 13,000 fans who jammed the Centrum in Worcester, Mass., for Bruce Springsteen's first concert in 2½ years was a young man from L.A. who said he'd seen the Boss perform 147 times on three continents. Other devotees were seeing him for the 10th or 20th or 30th time. Yet, in a real sense, none of them had more than glimpsed the Springsteen they were about to behold at the opening of this (so far) six-week, 11-city tour: somber, introspective and relentlessly focused on the responsibilities of love.

That this would be no Born in the U.S.A. II seemed clear even before the lights went down. As all his fans know, Springsteen is now several things he was not when that album came out in 1984: He is a major folk hero with whom even the President tried to align himself in his reelection campaign; he is astoundingly wealthy ("Been paid a king's ransom for doin' what comes naturally," he sings on his latest album, Tunnel of Love); he is 38 years old; and perhaps most important, he is married to ex-model Julianne Phillips. All these things have combined to change his perspective. When Springsteen released Tunnel last October, it proved to be a lean, haunting record about men and women trying to tell the difference between their weaknesses and their need for each other. It hit No. 1 on the charts for only a week in November, and though it has sold more than two million copies and earned critical praise, it has yielded no throbbing anthem in the vein of Born in the U.S.A. The question remained, how would Springsteen build a concert around such challenging, intimate stuff?

Springsteen took the stage wearing a white dress shirt and an ivory vest with gold buttons. He looked grown up, and as grown-ups are wont to do, he got to the serious stuff right away. In the 75-minute first set, he wove five Tunnel Tunes around such perennials as Cover Me and Adam Raised a Cain. The set was itself a tunnel of love: dark, close and intense, lightening only at the end with rousing renditions of War and Born in the U.S.A. Then, in the second set, the Boss began to burn. He introduced I'm a Coward When It Comes to Love and the reggae-based Part Man, Part Monkey, launched into Dancing in the Dark and signed off thunderously with Light of Day, his theme song for the Paul Schrader film. By then he was down to a black T-shirt and soaking wet—drenched with sweat and the cups of water he'd poured over his head.

A three-minute standing ovation brought him back. "I forgot how much work this is," he said with a laugh. "One of the hardest things for me over the past 10 years has been trying to understand what growing up and being a man is all about, and trying to make some sort of home for myself, and then trying to hold on to it." Then he strummed a stirring, solo Born to Run, presenting it as a farewell to a part of his life he wished to move beyond but not to forget. When the song ended he seemed to have gone back in time, back to E Street. The encores kept coming, and Bruce kicked up his heels. He had earned the right to be a kid again for a time, and so had everyone in the hall.