Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band may have sold out fewer shows at MCI Center than at New Jersey's Continental Airlines Arena--12 fewer, to be exact--but the musicians were still welcomed as hometown heroes last night at the first of three concerts here. After all, guitarist Nils Lofgren is a Washingtonian, and this city was one of the first to embrace Springsteen some 25 years ago, when he filled the Childe Harold rather than a hockey stadium.

Considering the number of triumphal gestures during Springsteen's nearly three-hour set, the setting seemed appropriate. Although at times the singer attempted to turn the arena into a storefront gospel church or union hall, most of his performance was characteristically athletic. And if the sound was a little shrill, it was reasonably crisp for a sports palace hosting a nine-piece rock band.

With wife Patti Scialfa and both Lofgren and original E Streeter Little Steven Van Zandt joining him on guitar, the Boss seemed guilty of featherbedding--especially since he proved able to take many of the guitar solos himself. Still, the instruments seldom blared in muddy unison. The crowd roared every time saxophonist Clarence Clemons took the "big man" stance, but in fact he played only occasional and usually short solos.

If Springsteen is still something of a hot dog, he also behaved like an eager kindergarten teacher, making sure everyone got involved. During the course of "Prove It All Night" he engaged in vocal and instrumental duels with Clemons, Van Zandt and drummer Max Weinberg, the band's infallible engine. Later he led much of the band up the risers at the back of the stage so they could face the fans whose seats were behind the drum kit, organ and piano. This was just one of many foolproof gambits in a high-powered show for a high-powered audience that included Vice President Gore, Mayor Anthony Williams and Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening.

Most of the bits involved Springsteen's familiar shtick, adapted from James Brown and Al Green and revived for the E Street Band's first tour in more than a decade. If the stage business was well loved, the material wasn't the singer's best-known. He avoided his biggest mainstream hits for a set list that owed as much to Woody Guthrie as to such early role models as Van Morrison and Roy Orbison.

Still, Springsteen kept returning to "Born to Run," the 1975 release that forged his legend. The singer's recent work has abandoned that album's Wagnerian heroics--and lost a lot of faithful fans in the process. But last night's versions of "Thunder Road," "Jungleland" and the LP's title tune showed that Springsteen has no intention of letting that legend fade.

CAPTION: Springsteen at last night's sold-out MCI Center concert.

CAPTION: Bruce Springsteen, letting loose last night at MCI Center.