After two years on the road with the E Street Band, it was probably inevitable that Bruce Springsteen would eventually make amistake. "Good evening, Ohio!" Springsteen shouted on November 13th. The problem? He was in Auburn Hills, Michigan. "I was like, 'That's it — this crowd is about to rebel,'" says guitarist Steven Van Zandt. "I just grabbed him and said, 'You don't realize it, but you're saying Ohio, and we're in Michigan.' He was like, 'What!?'"
It was a rare error on an epic tour that included 190 shows in 16 countries — and wrapped on November 22nd, in Buffalo, New York, with a planned full-album run-through of Springsteen's debut, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. When the trek kicked off in September 2007, the group was playing a tight two-hour set that varied little from night to night. By this fall, the show had morphed into a rollicking, three-hour-plus free-form party. "Bruce has decided he has to work out constantly, take care of his health, bang these energy drinks through the show and just push himself to exhausting levels," says guitarist Nils Lofgren. "Mix in good genes, and it just turns into a beautiful live show that is as good as anything out there."
Starting in mid-2008, Springsteen began regularly playing requests off signs held up by the audience — from punk covers ("I Wanna Be Sedated") to soul ("Sweet Soul Music"). By the end of the tour, Springsteen had added a new nightly ritual: tackling a classic album in its entirety. "It's surprising what effect this has had on the songs," says Van Zandt. "They tend to take on a different context when you play them in sequence."
For decades Springsteen refused to play the Super Bowl halftime show. This year he not only agreed but played festival gigs for the first time — headlining Glastonbury and Bonnaroo. "Some nights we see a definitely younger crowd — especially up front," says Springsteen's manager, Jon Landau. "In Europe, they're even younger."
The band was also shocked by the death of E Street Band keyboardist Danny Federici, who left the road in late 2007 to receive treatment for melanoma. (He was replaced by Springsteen's Seeger Sessions band-mate Charlie Giordano.) He joined the group for an emotional version of "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" in March 2008 — less than a month before he died. "One of the reasons we got into rock & roll was to create our own world," says Van Zandt, "but sometimes the outside world intrudes, and those were two cases of it."
According to Landau, Springsteen's plans for 2010 include a live DVD from this tour and a deluxe edition of 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town — which he says is "93 percent completed."
But the future of the E Street Band is less clear. Saxophonist Clarence Clemons, 67, who has had difficulty walking after knee- and hip-replacement surgeries, has flirted with the idea of retirement — while drummer Max Weinberg's commitments to The Tonight Show took him off the road for portions of the tour (his son Jay stepped in). "I hope this isn't the end," says Van Zandt. "It's just a matter of what happens to everybody physically if we take two years off. But if we do come back, believe me, we'll only be thinking about one thing: How can we do it better?"
This story is from the December 10, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.