NEW YORK — Southside Johnny’s June 4 concert at the Blue Note wasn’t just good. It was surreal.
His regular group The Asbury Jukes is known as “The World’s Greatest Bar Band” for a reason. Even in a concert hall, or a large outdoor venue, they retain some of their bar band roughness and rowdiness, and you can count on the crowd being as boisterous as the musicians.
But imagine a Southside show at which the entire crowd sits still, intently focused on the music. Where you can hear every note of every instrument and Southside’s voice; where you can hear a pin drop, between songs, as the crowd stays respectfully quiet; where the drummer, Shawn Pelton, sometimes plays with brushes, in order to make the sound even softer and more delicate.
As I said, surreal. But that’s what happened at the Blue Note.
The two shows (there was an early and a late one; I attended the late one) were presented as part of the annual Blue Note Jazz Festival, and followed the release of Southside’s 2017 album, Detour Ahead: The Songs of Billie Holiday. The setlist (see below) was, in fact, devoted entirely to songs from that album, after an opening instrumental during which band members soloed, prior to Southside taking the stage.
Comments by Southside — as well as by saxophonist John Isley, an Asbury Juke who put the band together and wrote elegant, atmospheric arrangements for the songs — made it clear that this was not just another gig for them, but a really big deal. Not just Southside’s first full-length jazz gig, but an opportunity to play before a packed house at one of the world’s most prestigious jazz clubs. On his Facebook page, Isley later called it “one of the more sublime and uplifting experiences of my career.”
When asked about the album in interviews, Southside has often talked about how his parents used to play music by artists like Billie Holiday, and how deeply he feels those musical roots. But it’s one thing to be able to appreciate something, as a listener, and another to be able to follow in the same vein, as a performer. And this show felt like a culmination of something.
“You don’t know what love is/Until you’ve learned the meaning of the blues/Until you loved a love you had to lose,” he sang on “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” It’s the fifth song on the album but he performed it last at this show, and it belonged there, summing up what the project was all about.
There was some hoarseness and raspiness to his voice, as there often is. But that only made it sound more appropriately weathered, for Holiday’s often world-weary material. Southside has always been able to sing with great power, obviously. But I’ve never heard him sing with such absolute command — such restraint and subtlety — not trying to power past the limitations of his voice, but using those limitations as a tool.
Indeed, if he ever tried that kind of approach at one of his usual shows, it might be lost on the crowd. But it wasn’t lost in this setting, and with these songs. When he introduced “(In My) Solitude,” for instance, he talked about initially hearing the song, in his youth, and not really understanding — deeply understanding — what it was about.
“And now I do,” he said.
Lucky for him that he finally got the chance to tackle this material, in such a hallowed setting, as a fully mature artist capable of doing it justice. Lucky for us, in the crowd, that we got to hear what may turn out to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. (There are currently no announced plans for him to do this again.)
Here is the setlist from the show:
“Ain’t Nobody’s Business”
“Crazy He Calls Me”
“I Thought About You”
“These Foolish Things”
“Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me”
“(In My) Solitude”
“You Don’t Know What Love Is”
And here is the instrumental lineup:
Southside Johnny: Vocals, harmonica
John Isley: Tenor saxophone, flute
Chris Anderson: Trumpet, flugelhorn
Ronnie Buttacavoli: Trumpet, flugelhorn
Neal Pawley: Trombone
Allen Won: Flute, clarinet, alto saxophone
Ken Hitchcock: Alto flute, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone
Glenn Alexander: Guitar
Steve Count: Bass
Shawn Pelton: Drums