WORCESTER, MASS., FEB. 25 -- He's baaaack!

After a 30-month concert layoff, the release of another double-platinum album and a flock of cameo appearances and club sightings, Bruce Springsteen opened his 1988 "Tunnel of Love Express Tour" here tonight before a sellout crowd at the Worcester Centrum. The show marked the first date on a projected four-month, 22-city tour that will bring Springsteen and his E Street Band to the Capital Centre April 4 and 5.

With the possible exception of Mario Cuomo addressing a Democratic National Convention, nobody generates more giddy anticipation among the faithful than the Boss on tour, and tonight's dramatic debut was no exception.

The first buzz of recognition swept through the audience with the appearance of Boston Celtics hero Kevin McHale. McHale, a longtime Springsteen fan, was besieged by autograph seekers and other well-wishers.

As members of the E Street Band walked onstage and pretended to purchase tickets at the Tunnel of Love booth -- a visual introduction to the evening's carnival theme, as well as a sly commentary on the difficulty of finding tickets to the show -- the anticipation built even more.

"Ready for a date?" Bruce asked, strolling to the mike and tossing a bouquet of red roses into the crowd. If crowd noise was any indication, they were more than ready.

With that he kicked into "Tunnel of Love," the show's theme song and one of eight he would perform from his most recent album.

Springsteen punctuated the show with some moving monologues and surprisingly theatrical pieces. Introducing "All That Heaven Will Allow," he sat on a park bench with longtime sidekick Clarence Clemons ("Hey pal, I ain't seen you in -- what? -- two years now") and reminisced about the days back in 1975 when they were both "watching the girls go by."

"I remember you bringing up this girlfriend you said you were gonna marry," he quipped to Clemons. " 'Course, you said that about all the girls you brought around."

Moments later, Springsteen added, "I met my own wife on TV. It's not as romantic."

Springsteen was relaxed and talkative throughout much of the 3 1/2-hour, 26-song set, at times sounding downright nostalgic.

At one point he said to the audience, quietly, "It's good to see you again. Missed you." He followed with a long monologue about a family that lived across the street when he was young. Bill, the father, worked in a meat-packing plant, and Audrey, Bill's wife, stayed home raising the kids.

"One night they got into a terrible fight," the singer remembered. "The next day I went over to Audrey's house and saw that her face was all bruised and cut up. At first she turned away but then she came back and stood at the screen door, like there was something she wanted me to see."

At that point Springsteen seemed to catch a sob and momentarily stopped. Recovering his composure, he talked about going home and finding "that old street wasn't mine anymore" -- then segued into a haunting version of "Spare Parts."

Indeed, the search for home and roots was a theme running throughout the program. But there were moments of levity as well. On "You Can Look but You'd Better Not Touch," from his "River" album, Springsteen was joined in a bit of high-stepping choreography by his five-man horn section and a vivacious blond who looked suspiciously like Mrs. Springsteen -- model Julianne Phillips.

Springsteen's last road trip, the 1984-85 "Born in the USA Tour," was a marathon affair: 15 months, 11 countries, three continents and 156 concert dates. Five million fans forked over $85 million in gross receipts as Bruce and the band took America -- and the world -- by storm.

While the tour was notable for its muscular music and the now-predictable hysteria over ticket orders, it also became a statement of Springsteen's personal concern for the plight of the disadvantaged. President Reagan himself at one point sought to hop on the E Street bandwagon by singling out Springsteen's "message of hope" during a New Jersey campaign stop in 1984.

That endorsement did not sit well with Bruce, who at a Los Angeles show shortly thereafter told his audience that "blind faith in your leaders in 1985 will get you killed." He then launched into a sizzling rendition of "War" ("What is it good for?/ Absolutely nothing"). He also donated an estimated $1 million along the way, most of it earmarked for local charities supporting the cause of the hungry and the homeless.

Springsteen last performed in this central Massachusetts city in 1984. The choice of Worcester to kick off the 1988 tour raised some eyebrows -- although the second-largest city in New England (population 165,000), it has only recently become recognized as a prime concert venue -- but it did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of devotees. All 39,000 tickets for the three Centrum shows sold out in a matter of hours at $20 apiece, and scalpers were fetching sums rumored to be in the $600 range for choice seats.

Local radio stations, meanwhile, fanned the flames of Boss-o-mania by doling out freebies to lucky callers and playing the Springsteen canon practically nonstop. WBCN, one of Boston's pioneer FM rock stations, declared it Bruce Springsteen Weekend in the Hub and gave away complete Springsteen CD catalogues. At WAAF in Amherst, station managers even hired a psychic to predict the exact day on which Springsteen tickets would be offered.

In addition to the usual throng of Bruce fanatics, some 50 members of the national and international press corps were on hand, at least one from as far away as Sweden. "It's never been like this before," said Marilyn Leverty, a publicist with CBS Records, Springsteen's label. "We've always had {press} coverage, but nothing this heavy at the beginning of a tour." More publicity has also meant more security as rumors of Bruce sightings (the Boss outside the Four Seasons Hotel; Springsteen pumping iron at a downtown Boston athletic club) whetted the public's appetite for more.

Joining Bruce onstage were the usual E Street Band regulars: saxophonist Clemons; guitarist Nils Lofgren; bassist Gary Tallent; Danny Federici and Roy Bittan on keyboards; Max Weinberg on drums; and Patty Scialfa on guitar and backup vocals. In addition, this tour features a five-piece horn section made up primarily of members of the Jersey-based band La Bamba and the Hubcaps.

Fully half of the night's repertoire came from Springsteen's last two studio albums, but there were other chestnuts as well -- from the semi-obscure B-side singles "Be True" and "Roulette" to inspired renditions of "Adam Raised a Cain" and the set-closing "Light of Day." One of the evening's biggest surprises: an acoustic guitar and harmonica version of "Born to Run," which he characterized as "my song -- but as I get older, I don't want it to be."

"I wish you luck on your trip," he smiled at the enraptured audience. Clearly this version of the 1988 Bruce Springsteen trip was just starting to unfold.