Little Kids Rock honoring Steve Van Zandt

Many words will be written about this night in its entirety, but right now I just want to talk about the highlights for me, personally. I was up in the balcony, which had to be 80% die-hard Southside fans, if not more, reminding me of the old adage that you can tell a Southside fan because they hope that Steve (not Bruce) will show up.

I was never a Southside diehard, I owned the records and loved seeing the Jukes live, but it was just not my thing as much as it was for some of my friends. But I loved the songs — who wouldn’t love those songs? What feeling person would not just fall in love with the melodies and the words to those songs? — and one of my favorite parts of E Street history is the story about Steve singing the parts to the horn section and Bruce saying, “He’s hired.” (When I got to watch him conduct the horn section at the Carousel House, it was about as close as I would ever get to witnessing that live.) It seems improbable now, that this is all still going, that we still listen to this, that it is not dead.

I was thinking, also, of the day I found Men Without Women at J&R Music, back before every single move an artist made was transmitted with absolute clarity. They were literally unpacking the boxes and I stood there impatiently waiting for them to finish, bought the record, and ran home as fast as I could to listen to it, stopping to call friends: “Did you KNOW about this? It’s out! Steve has a record out!” And being able to go see him, and the Disciples of Soul, and all of those songs and all of those shows.

I was at that show, not because I had any idea that Bruce would be there, but because Steve was playing in New York. It was like that. Bruce was so big at that time and it was the last thing anyone expected, at all. People went to see Steve because of Steve. There was so much energy and it was always big and interesting and loud and full of life. There was a show at the Pony that was being taped for something, and at the end, during “Undefeated,” I pulled out a bottle of bubbles and started blowing them because it felt like New Year’s Eve, it felt like a party, and everyone, audience and band, was laughing and smiling and caught up in the sheer celebration of it.

(Truthfully, I could have done without the years in which every dork in the Tri-State area felt they had to bring an American flag to the show and wave it all night, with poor Steve saying, “Thanks, but could you put the flags down now?” But even that is at least an amusing memory.)

It is good to think about these things on a night when a bunch of artists are paying tribute to another artist. You get all retrospective-y. You remember (or are reminded) of what you know and what you have seen and get to go through it all again.

As for the show itself, the highlights for me (besides the obvious Bruce/Steve and Bruce/Steve/Johnny moments, coming up) were Jesse Malin and Tom Morello. You could pretty much count on those two bringing their A-to-infinity game to this night, and yet, they managed to surpass that. Jesse Malin completely tore the house down with “Lyin’ In A Bed Of Fire,” which HAD to be played. (He also could have done justice to “Forever,” which I am surprised was omitted and was desperately hoping for.) He stalked the huge stage like a panther, with that band behind him doing that glorious song justice every second of the way. He even pulled a typical Jesse moment by going down into the audience and climbing onto one of the tables, which woke people up and raised the energy in the room.

If you’d asked me what I’d wanted to hear, besides anything from Men Without Women, would have been “Sun City.” I try to explain to people who weren’t around then how major that record was, how important that movement was, how it opened up and made accessible not just South Africa, but activism as a whole — these were exactly the points that Tom Morello touched on, coming out and reading from a sheet of prepared remarks, telling the story about creating a mock Soweto shantytown in Harvard Yard when he was in school there – and then – then! “Sun City”! The perfect song for him to do, the song that absolutely could not be excluded if we wanted to represent Steven’s activism and impact of that activism. Tom also got the energy up, invoking his usual routine of instructing the crowd that they were going to get up and respond and sing one more chorus of ‘na na na na na na, na na na na (hey) (hey) (hey)’s, and they did.

[I was then later reminded that I had, actually, seen “Sun City” previously, at the Ritz show above, and also at the Conspiracy of Hope show at Giants Stadium. (I invoke the ‘I am old, I have seen a lot of live music’ clause in my defense.)]

The speeches–Bruce honoring Steve, Steve speaking–were worth the price of admission alone; I tweeted as much of the substance as I could for the Backstreets account tonight, and there are notes for a later, longer piece for the magazine, but the stories and the tall tales and the love and affection was heart-stopping. I want to hear every story, told by Bruce and Steve, in their words, in their voice, for as long and as often as I can. But of course this makes sense, because we all want to hear the great storytellers tell their tales.

The end of the set could have been called by anyone who knows this music, but it was still glorious to hear and watch Steve and Bruce duet on “Before The Good Is Gone,” for Southside to join them for “It’s Been A Long Time,” for the finale to be “I Don’t Want To Go Home.” It was like church, it was like singing hymns, it was shared memory and communal emotion and just, you know, Our Songs. Our guys singing our songs, together, with us. It was a moment where it didn’t matter that half the floor was full of people in evening dress playing with their iPhones, because it was for us. All of it was, but those songs especially.

[Personal to dude at Table 31, the only guy rocking out — and who clearly knew every song — all the way back on the floor, surrounded by people chatting and checking their email, I salute you.]

The other artists were also good, don’t get me wrong here: Gary Bonds was in fine form, Darlene Love is always spectacular, Southside picked a somewhat–esoteric–number, Elvis Costello was spot on (and then after going into the audience to say hi to Steve, just sat at his table for the rest of the night, still wearing his guitar). Everyone else meant well and were there for Steve and for the charity, but I cannot get excited or interested in Broadway stars or American Idol singers, I just can’t. But it didn’t matter, because it was a spectacular evening, and raised a lot of money for a fantastic charity. I’d say “The Big Man would be proud,” but I’m pretty sure he was there the whole time.