Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes filled The Dakota for two nights and proved why The New York Times called them “The Ultimate Bar Band”. They proved it all night long.
John Lyon, aka Southside Johnny, was at the forefront of a bustling rock and soul scene that sprang from the South Jersey Shore beginning in the early 70’s. No small wave, this. There are few sounds more readily identified than that which came from the southern environs of New York City down to Philadelphia, about a 90 minute car ride. On a good day. It was the ultimate blending of Stax soul with hardcore rock and roll.
In the early days, the E Street Band’s Miami Steve Van Zandt was playing guitar with Johnny. Springsteen, himself, along with nearly all the members of his own band, as well as artists like Jon Bon Jovi were part of an ever evolving line up. Lyon proudly proclaimed during last night’s show that over 100 artists had rolled through the band at one point in time. In many respects, Johnny was the John Mayall of the Jersey Sound. Anybody who was anybody wanted to play in that band. With good reason. Guys learned what he had to teach and went on to stardom.
The modern Jukes are comprised of Glenn Alexander on guitar, John Conte (bass), keyboard whiz Jeff Kazee, drummer Tom Seguso and the Memphis horns of John Isley, Neal Pawley and Chris Anderson. That line up has remained basically intact for at least a decade.
I was in college when Springsteen broke. Two of my roommates were hardcore music heads from Long Island. They would tell anybody who would listen that you couldn’t have The E Street Band without Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes. A lot of The Jukes was spun on our stereo. It was, and remains, great stuff. When you listen to early recording from both bands, it’s tough to tell which was the chicken and which was the egg.
One wonders at the vagaries of fame and fortune. Certainly, Springsteen had a few things going for him. The young Boss was devilishly good looking, he wrote great songs and was relentlessly focused on managing his career. Running mates Van Zandt and Clarence Clemmons ultimately settled in his band. So while The Jukes remained the house band at the legendary Stone Pony, The E Streeters launched across the globe. It could have been the other way around.
Walking into The Dakota is one of life’s pleasures. On the one hand, it doesn’t get as amped up and wild as a number of the other venues around town do. By the same token, anybody who takes the stage in this intimate venue is truly world class. For years, The Dakota has enjoyed a reputation as one of the nation’s premier jazz venues. But to simply think of it as a jazz club is to sell it short. Rock, R&B, Soul, World Beat. Everything comes across that stage. When the rock names come across that stage, they tend to be musicians’ musicians. The type who wrote the brilliant songs that everybody else covers. People like Nick Lowe, Alejandro Escovedo and Willie Nile. And Southside Johnny.
The evening opened with a very pleasurable set from the witty New England singer/songwriter Ezra Adam. This was Ezra’s first time in the Twin Cities and he was quick to point out that he’ll be returning to The Parkway Theater with his full band this summer. He boasts a big, throaty voice filled with nuance. To close the set he informed the audience that he was in love with a very strict Catholic girl. He admitted to worrying about how someone like him, a late night rocker, would be accepted by her family. He shook his head and said: “I’m telling you, I go to midnight mass and shit like that!” That served as the introduction for his closing number Steal Your Daughter which I thought the highlight of the set.
Southside Johnny took to the stage with an intro that gave a nod to the previous night’s Final Four. The first words out of his mouth were: “Guess what? We’re gonna get loud!” Tucked beneath my plaid flannel was a t-shirt which proclaimed LOUD IS GOOD. Just what the doctor ordered.
The 7 piece Jukes wasted no time proclaiming who they were and where they were from. Sax player Isley stepped to the front and wailed out a solo Clarence Clemmons would have loved. Johnny leaned up against him and images of Scooter and The Big Man from Born To Run flashed through my memory.
So what is it that makes a band “the ultimate bar band”? What separates a great bar band from somebody making a living in auditoriums? I think a bit of it is simply ego. You know you have a job to do. It isn’t about preening for legions of high ticket priced buying fans. Your job is to entertain that working stiff who comes in to drop some of his or her hard earned cash with friends at their favorite club at the end of the work week. It’s not about using your stage as a platform for just your own songs in an attempt to generate more record sales. There’s a purity to the effort, a connection to the audience which goes deeper than most.
To do that, you play music the people will love. You play the music that influenced you coming up. You spin on a dime and react to the shouts from the audience. You play the songs in a manner befitting that particular night and locale. You keep it fresh; laugh at the mistakes and take joy in the new. If you compare tonight’s set list to last night or last week, you wonder if it’s a different band. And like Stevie Van Zandt once advised, you play songs better than anything you’ve written. You make people dance. Because any band that can’t get people to dance is never going to make it.
Last night’s set featured a handful of covers which were brilliantly selected. Three were Springsteen numbers, although they were written specifically for The Jukes and are closely identified with the band: All The Way Home, The Fever and Talk To Me, from the encore. I absolutely loved the band’s take on NYC’s Left Banke’s1966 baroque-pop masterpiece Don’t Walk Away Renee. To the dirty low down blues of Tom Waits. To the late, great Willie DeVille’s She’s a Mixed Up Shook Up Girl. Along the way the band dipped into War’s Low Rider as well as a masterful version of Traffic’s 1973 classic Can’t Find My Way Home. The main set closed with their version of Sam Cooke’s We’re Havin’ A Party; a song that’s become synonymous with The Jukes and had the crowd on its feet.
Johnny had a lot to say about The Dakota and Minnesota in general. He claimed to love the food and the way they were treated. He talked about loving Minnesota. In the spring, the summer and the fall. He made a point of letting us know how early they’d be on the tour bus the next morning to get the hell out of Dodge before the next blizzard hit.
The bottom line with Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes is that they bring it. The sound is fat and rolls over you like a tide. Johnny works up a sweat and tells it like it is. He interacts with the audience and changes course when the spirit moves him. He’s not shy about complimenting somebody on their voice or asking who let Godzilla in the joint when he doesn’t. Every night is a Friday night. It’s a night of drinking, singing and laughing with friends. It helps when the self-consciousness wanes and you know the words to the song.
I’m not quite sure on how The Dakota does it. It’s formal. It’s seated and it’s by no means inexpensive. But now and then, like last night, the place let’s its hair down and parties. I love it when it does and can’t wait until it happens again. I’ve written before, and still believe, that a monthly trip to The Dakota is good for your marriage or relationship. Just keep in mind you need them more than they need you. Tickets are almost always in scarce supply. The regulars keep track of what’s coming to the stage and they buy quickly. There’s no shortage of world class music. But if you snooze, you’ll looze.