Review: Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes: Two Nights at the Stone Pony, 2/27-28/2015

Tenth avenue Freeze South heheheh

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes performed two special shows at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park this past weekend. Friday night was billed as “Rare Jukes: All the Non-Hits, All The Time” and night two was the Music of Bruce Springsteen. Both nights were two and a half hours of well-rehearsed, impeccably curated material.

The effort that went into putting these two nights together was obvious from the first note. The musicians had to learn, and rehearse, a lengthy set of material, the majority of which they’ll likely never play again. You can tell when a band has bothered to practice, and when they’ve run through a set of material once or twice.

I enjoyed the musical performances immensely, even if I thought a particular arrangement or rendition or execution was less than successful. I like watching musicians take chances and attempt things they are less than successful at. If that sounds like a diss, it’s not at all. Both nights were utterly fascinating. It’s one thing to watch Southside lead the band on the core material, but watching him pull it together on songs they hadn’t played before was amazing. It was also interesting to watch the songs that he felt more comfortable in, the ones he could wear as well as “Trapped Again” or “This Time I Know It’s For Real”. (Not surprisingly, on night two that was the River material.)

And then on top of all of this was the between songs patter, the stories he chose to tell. I am not anywhere close to a Jukes diehard, but I found myself very moved by Johnny’s narration night one, his stories about why certain songs meant something to him, listening to him talk about Elmore James or how “Fannie Mae” was the first song he learned to play harmonica to, naming the label and the year of release. If I was an enormous, ride-or-die Jukes fan, this would be my idea of heaven on earth.

Night one I was surprised that it was less Jukes deep cuts than a handful of those matched with carefully chosen and curated covers. It’s hard to beat the Jukes on a set going from “Cry To Me,” “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” into the Mad Dogs & Englishmen arrangement of “The Letter”. There was Elmore and Clarence Carter and Marvin Gaye and all I could think was, my god, this is the Southside Johnny Lyon master class on influences. I was floored. It was amazing to watch and listen and be there for this.

Night two was the Springsteen night, and like with night one, the effort and the enthusiasm was highly evident. But it was definitely not as consistent as the previous night, and overall didn’t work as well as I would have thought it would. That said, there were arrangements that I thought were superior than the E Street Band ones (c.f. “Johnny 99,” which wasn’t that different, but just felt better), and I loved every second of “Sherry Darling”. Just when I was thinking, “I’m surprised there isn’t more keyboard virtuosity,” South and Jeff Kazee duetted on a stripped-down “Fade Away” which was just superb. “Nebraska” and “Jack of All Trades” were the most surprising choices, and executed with aplomb. “Kitty’s Back” was less surprising, but pretty ballsy. That was absolutely a natural for Southside, inhabiting the jazz hipster narrator vibe intuitively.

Bobby Bandiera joined the band in time for “Murder, Inc.” and acquitted himself more than admirably. (And of course the thought pattern in my mind went to, what would our world look like now if Bobby had been the one to join E Street all those years ago). “Sherry Darling” was phenomenal, and I was ready to explode over the fact that the sound system ate the vocals at the start of “Where The Bands Are”. To be honest, as much as I loved that particular choice and rendition, it was a little rough around the edges, but it was also the perfect end to the main set.

Southside and Bobby! Murder Inc!!

Like the night before, I appreciated the song choices. I appreciated the careful curation. I appreciated the three additional horn players and percussionist brought on for the evening. And when Southside started telling stories, I never wanted him to stop: about Bruce and Steve helping him with “Trapped Again” (“If they want to help you with a song, you just say THANK YOU”), imitating Bruce’s Muttley voice intonation in the story about giving him “Fever,” and “Why you want to give that to me, Bruce? That’s a hit!” and most notably, Southside telling his story about the band in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”.

The encore was, delightfully, “When You Dance,” “This Time It’s For Real,” and “Hearts of Stone,” the perfect cap to the evening, ending with Jukes classics written by Bruce (and Steve), but still, Jukes classics, Southside coming out and saying that they didn’t know any more Bruce songs, cautioning us that if he sang “Hearts of Stone” it would have to be the last song. There was room to dance at this point, and despite aching back and feet (that uneven concrete floor has not gotten better with the years), I was so happy to do it one more time, thinking, not unreasonably, that I don’t know how many more times I’m going to hear Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes play those songs at the Stone Pony, how much I love those songs, how happy I am that I am here, that these songs are part of my musical history. Southside would allude to this, that he had been playing in this club since 1971, that when he died, he wanted to be buried right in the middle of the dance floor, where people could dance right on top of him.

So all of this is what was great and good and wonderful about the weekend. That’s because the music and the musicians and the performances were absolutely above reproach. The audience and the venue, however, were the complete opposite.

Admittedly I haven’t been to a busting-at-the-rafters capacity show at the Pony in decades, but I go to A LOT of concerts in a lot of clubs, and cannot remember the last time I was this miserable. I don’t know what the legal capacity of the Pony is, and I am not saying that the venue was above capacity, but ‘capacity’ probably accounts for the cafe around the corner where you can’t actually see the show and maybe the smoking area in the tent out back, and not the entire capacity crammed into the show room in front of the stage. I arrived at 7:45 both nights. Night one it was reasonable; night two it was unbearable. People who arrived later had to go in through the cafe because there was literally no room at the entrance. I tried to head towards the door during the karaoke version of “Tenth Avenue” night one and I literally could not get there. Night two, I was on stage right (again, because literally there was no more room) and just before show time was grateful that I was close to an exit.

And now I come to the crowd. I would like to think that the people who show up to see a show billed as RARITIES actually want to listen to rarities, but this was in New Jersey, which is the worst goddamned audience for the music that comes from this state, whether it’s Bruce or Southside or even Gaslight Anthem. People would not shut the fuck up for one goddamned minute. The level of chatter was unreasonably loud, constant and incessant. I go to club shows multiple times a month. This was not a normal, expected level of club chatter. This was a “I am drunk and I don’t give a fuck and when is Bruce going to show up” level of chatter. Then, there was the asshole factor. I could write an entire post about this and it’s just going to bum me out, so I won’t. Too much alcohol, too few brain cells, zero regard for the fact that the club was packed, the people obviously there with their eyes glued to the stage door who were obviously bored by what was actually happening onstage.

I think that the Jukes underestimated the demand for this weekend. I think they could have easily charged more and played at a theater, which would have been more comfortable for everybody. There would have been more room for the band. No one would have had to line up in the cold to get a decent spot (and it’s not just cold, it was ridiculously cold). The sound would have been better; I was enormously frustrated by the lack of horns in the mix the first night and the second night the mix was just god-awful for most of the evening. From the way Southside continually gestured at the monitor engineer both nights, it wasn’t much better onstage either.

There were cameras in various places and I hope that all of this comes out officially or unofficially, because they were ultimately very special performances that everyone who couldn’t make it would enjoy. These were undeniably interesting, challenging evenings and hats off to the musicians for their work in putting these shows onstage.