After spending almost five years in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Jake Clemons has clearly learned a thing or two about showmanship. Headlining the main concert of this year’s Light of Day festival, Jan. 14 at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, he capped his set with a slow, sincere reinterpretation of his late uncle Clarence’s 1985 hit “You’re a Friend of Mine,” singing and playing acoustic guitar without amplification, as his bandmates and Light of Day board member (and performer) Joe D’Urso formed a semi-circle around him and sang backing vocals.
An anthem of concern and connection, “You’re a Friend of Mine” seemed perfect for Light of Day, which has raised more than $4.5 million for Parkinson’s disease research in its 17 years. And it was nice to see a performer such as Clemons honoring the past while also interpreting a familiar song in a fresh way. Performing without microphones — rarely attempted by anyone in a such a large theater, with the notable exception of Tony Bennett — compelled the audience to really focus, and listen.
Another thing that Clemons — who released his first full-length album, Fear & Love, on Jan. 13 — seems to have learned from Springsteen is how to build variety into a show. While he only performed a handful of songs, he took the audience on a ride, with moments of tasteful restraint, but also some feverish rock ‘n’ roll. It was his first time headlining the main Light of Day concert, as well as his biggest show ever in New Jersey (outside of E Street Band gigs), and he demonstrated the same poise and confidence he has always showed with Springsteen.
Clemons was one of 19 performers at this show, which began shortly after 6 p.m. (with the Fireplaces, from Italy, offering spirited takes on Americana classics such as Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya”) and ended after 1 a.m., with Joe Grushecky leading a stage full of Light of Day performers and volunteers through “Twist and Shout” and “Light of Day” itself. In between, there were sets by veteran Asbury Park performers such as Ed Manion (who played a solo saxophone version of the Gene Pitney hit “Town Without Pity”) and Bobby Bandiera and relatively new faces like Remember Jones and The Battery Electric, plus Light of Day mainstays such as Willie Nile, Jesse Malin and James Maddock.
During his set with his Houserockers band (featuring Manion), Grushecky announced that Springsteen was not going to appear; The Boss had shown up at 11 of the past 16 Light of Day main concerts, and audience members were hoping that he would do so again. Grushecky added that he had talked to him, and Springsteen had asked him to thank everyone for coming out, and told him to play “some Jersey music” at the show.
Grushecky then performed the Springsteen-written ballad “Hearts of Stone.” A little later in the set, he added another Springsteen-written song, “Savin’ Up,” with lead vocals by J.T. Bowen — who sang on the original recording, by Clarence Clemons’ Red Bank Rockers band — and backing vocals by many of the evening’s other performers, plus an epic sax solo by Manion, who played while strolling down one of the theater’s aisles.
Other anthems that also got group treatment, throughout the evening, included Nile’s “One Guitar” and D’Urso’s cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World”; there was a strong sense of community and camaraderie throughout the event. Rob Dye basically turned his short over to Taylor Tote, backing her on two songs.
The dependably dynamic Malin played his entire set — featuring originals such as “Outsiders” and “She’s So Dangerous” as well as covers of The Clash’s “Rudie Can’t Fail” and Springsteen’s “Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart” — with explosive energy. And while not all of the performers who played short, acoustic sets between the band sets made a strong impression — it’s a tough task for anyone — one who definitely did was Jeffrey Gaines, whose solo set included two of the evening’s most inspirational numbers, his own “Hero in Me” and a cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Much of the credit for the growth of Light of Day, over its history, should go to Springsteen. His appearances really put the festival on the map in the first place, and the possibility of more continues to boost ticket sales. This show sold out before its lineup was even announced, and Springsteen’s history with Light of Day definitely had something to do with that.
Even without him, though, it was a fully satisfying event. And, for the eternally hopeful, there’s always next year.