“It’s really taken on a life of its own,” says Joe Grushecky of the Light of Day WinterFest, at which he annually has a prominent role. He plays with his hard-working, Pittsburgh-based band The Houserockers. And it’s a tradition that at the festival’s main, star-studded concert, he leads the entire ensemble in the grand finale: the Bruce Springsteen-written song, “Light of Day.”
And if Springsteen himself shows up — as he sometimes does, though never with any public announcement beforehand — Grushecky and the Houserockers become The Boss’ backing band. Grushecky and Springsteen, after all, have been friends and occasional collaborators for the last 35 years or so.
This year, in addition to performing with the Houserockers at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, Jan. 19, and the main Light of Day concert at The Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, Jan. 20, Grushecky will perform solo at the 6 p.m. Jan. 21 “Songwriters by the Sea” concert at Tim McLoone’s Supper Club in Asbury Park.
For information about all Light of Day shows, visit lightofday.org.
Light of Day — which began as a birthday party for Bob Benjamin, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease — has grown into a multi-week, multi-city festival, with related activities at other times in the year. Over the years, it has raised close to $6 million in the fight against Parkinson’s disease and related disorders.
I spoke to Grushecky by phone last week.
Q: With Light of Day, I wanted to ask you, since you have so much history with it … obviously, it’s primarily a charitable thing, but it’s become so much more, for a lot of people. What does Light of Day mean for you?
A: Like you said, it started off as a charity event, but it’s developed into … it’s one of our high points of the year, coming to New Jersey … for us, in Pittsburgh, to be accepted by the community there. Being a community effort is really, I think, what makes Light of Day so special. It’s the involvement. Everybody’s been there for so long, and it’s actually more than a concert, you know. Like you said, it’s a cause. And it’s been self-sustaining for all these years, and really deep friendships have formed from it.
Q: Are there any moments that stand out over the years, for you?
A: I could name a zillion of them. But always when Bruce comes and plays with us, it’s kind of special. Even when he’s unable to play, there’s still very special nights. We’ve had an array of great talent play with us over the years and we just became really good friends with Willie (Nile) and James Maddock and Garland Jeffreys and all the rest of the guys. And all the promoters. And Danny Clinch. It’s just been great. And this year, we’ll be missing one of our guys, Jesse Malin, because of his terrible predicament. But it’s really taken on a life of its own, and I think one of the reasons that it’s been so successful over the years is because people look at it as more than just another show.
Q: It also comes at a good time of the year, because there’s not much else going on right now. So it gives people something to look forward to, very early in the year.
A: It’s always an adventure for us getting through the mountains here: We’ve got to get through the mountains of Pennsylvania. But it’s just been so well received over the years, and it’s built and built and built.
It started off with Bob Benjamin having this idea: “Hey, I got Parkinson’s but I’m not gonna let it define me and I’m gonna fight back, and what can we do?” Just a bunch of guys.
He was managing us at the time. He called me up and said, “Hey, can you help me out?” And I said “Sure” and, you know, Bruce and I have worked a lot together over the years, so I gave Bruce a buzz and he was gracious enough to come down and it started from there. The first time we did it was at The (Stone) Pony, I believe. And then it just took off from there. Obviously, having Bruce involved in the first several was a huge boost to the whole thing. But it sustains itself now, you know.
Q: I think there were shows early on at The Tradewinds in Sea Bright, too.
A: Yeah, we did one at The Tradewinds. I believe he came down and played with us. Gary U.S. Bonds was there at that one. It was the first time I actually met Gary, so I remember that. The Houserockers couldn’t make it that night. They had a prior commitment for something: Some of the guys couldn’t make it. So I had to put a band together. It wasn’t one of our shining moments. I heard a tape of it. We actually did “The Peppermint Twist.” I think somebody said it was the first and only time we ever played “The Twist” by Chubby Checker. With Bruce and Gary. Then we played at that club, a couple of years after that, before we switched back to Asbury Park.
Q: The Starland Ballroom?
A: Yeah, the Starland. I think we did two years, or three. I can’t remember. Bruce played with us one once there. Marah played at that one. And then, you know, once we moved back to Asbury, it started really taking off, expanding the days and artists and events and the venues. Now it’s more than just the Light of Day show. It’s the Light of Day WinterFest.
Q: Of course, you always lead everyone in the song “Light of Day.” Has that become a real favorite of yours?
A: Yeah. You know, when we went out to do the promotion for (Grushecky’s Springsteen-produced 1995 album) American Babylon … which was Bruce’s idea, by the way. I can’t believe it, to this day. He said, “Hey, let’s, go out and do some dates.” So when we were rehearsing, our first date was at The Pony, and we had a rehearsal the night before, and I said, “Man, we’ve got to learn a couple of Bruce songs.” So he said ” ‘Light of Day.’ ” And then the whole event eventually took its name from that song. So he taught us “Light of Day.” And it became the signature song of the whole event. We played it every year that I’ve been there, and I think I’ve been to them all. By hook or crook, it gets played somehow.
We did two Bruce tribute albums over the years (1997’s One Step Up/Two Steps Back: The Songs of Bruce Springsteen and 2003’s Light of Day: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen) and I did two different versions of “Light of Day,” because they wanted to keep this song in both compilations. One is the traditional one you hear now, and one was more of a John Lee Hooker boogie-type song, acoustically. So I’ve got two different versions recorded of it. And when people ask us to play it, we’re more than happy to. We always felt like it was part of what we do. We don’t feel it’s that much of a cover song, because we’ve played it so much and it’s identifiable with the cause.
Q: Another aspect of Light of Day is that it gives you a chance to do these songwriter showcase shows. It’s not all big rock shows.
A: It’s two different animals, playing acoustically and playing electric, with the band. I was always a band guy, and over the years, I feel a lot more comfortable playing acoustic. But it was not something I initially set out to do. But now, I enjoy that just as much as the electric nights.
Q: So what else do you have coming up this year?
A: Well, I’ve got a compilation — an anthology — in the works, coming out. And I’ve got a new record that we’ve been sitting on for a while. We signed a contract with Omnivore Records. They’re doing the anthology and the new record, and at some point after that, we’re going to re-release Blood on the Bricks, which is the record we did in Los Angeles with Steve Cropper (in 1981). It’s never been out on CD. We’re sitting on that. We’re just waiting to get all the business stuff in order before we’re able to give dates on when everything’s coming out.
And I’ve got a play called “East Carson Street.” A gentleman named Jon Rosenberg fashioned a musical using all my songs and the characters of my songs and the themes I’ve been writing about for years. I think the world premiere of the show is going to be in Jersey, in May. (NOTE FROM JAY LUSTIG: Grushecky did offer more details on the production but I think I should hold off on publishing them until they are officially announced. I’m sure I will write more about this in the future. Or you can stay up to date on it at eastcarsonstreetmusical.com.) Hopefully, if it’s successful, they’ll extend the run a bit, and I hope to get that here in Pittsburgh, after that.
So that’s a lot of activity. Since mid-November, we’ve been sort of taking it easy waiting for this stuff to be ready to unleash on the public (laughs), but we look for a big year coming up. We’re excited about stuff. I think the new record is probably the best record this particular band has ever done. I think it’s the best thing I’ve done since American Babylon. It’s a defining-type record. And we’re just real excited about everything.
Somebody asked me to describe the play … we did a reading (of the play) here in Pittsburgh — like, a workshop, a little bit more than a reading — and there was this young girl, she was the stage manager, and I asked her, “How did you like the play?” And she said, “I invited my mom and dad to see it, and I never saw my dad cry, and he cried three times during the play.” So that’s what I tell everybody. It connected with him, anyway.
It’s a family story. Jon fashioned a story about a Pittsburgh family over a 20-, 30-year time period, using all my music. So I’m pretty excited about it, to tell you the truth. We’ve got a good crew.
Q: Did you actually consult on the play?
A: Yeah. Jon Rosenberg approached me. He was a big fan for years. And he said he was a playwright. He worked on a play called “House of Dreams.” It’s about Gold Star Studio, the one that had The Wrecking Crew. They’re refashioning it for Broadway now. He’s a West Coast guy. It had a very successful run out there. It had one great song after another, from “Summertime Blues” to “La Bamba” to “Good Vibrations” to all the Phil Spector stuff. They got the rights, because one of the partners was the son of the co-owner. So (Rosenberg) approached me to fashion a play, using my music. He wrote the first act and sent it to me and, to be honest, I was very cautious about getting involved, but I thought it was very good. So a theater guy here in Pittsburgh named Patrick Jordan and I helped Jon sort of tweak it, and do his rewrites. It is very authentic about Pittsburgh. We’re actually at times trying to make it not so Pittsburgh, because we want the rest of the world to relate to it. So we got involved somewhat in the writing, and all the music’s mine.
I’ve been getting more involved as it goes on, let’s put it that way. I started out being a sidewalk pedestrian on it, but now I’m in, with both feet, in the pool. I jumped in the deep end.
Q: So, anything special planned for this year’s Light of Day? Have you thought at all about those shows?
A: Well, we’re thinking about the shows. We’ll be working on them this week. We’re hoping to play some of the new stuff. You can’t plan too much because the time slots are so limited. We’ll get 20 minutes on the main event. If Bruce comes, we’ll play more, but usually 20 minutes — like three or four songs. Boom, boom, boom, you’re done.
You try to walk the line between keeping it fresh … I know when I go to see a band, I want to hear some of my favorite songs. I don’t want to hear everything totally new. So we’re trying to fashion … you know, like a wedding: something old, something new, some borrowed, something blue. But it’s always fun. And once we get there … whoever shows up, we start planning and conniving about who’s going to play what with who, and all that kind of stuff. It’s always pretty loose. Nothing about Light of Day — on our end, anyways, especially being here in Pittsburgh — nothing is ever 100 percent rehearsed or plotted out before we get there.
Q: Yeah. And with the Bruce thing … obviously that helped put Light of Day on the map. But at this point, I don’t think people really expect it. I mean, it’s become rarer over the years …
A: Well, they always hope he’s coming. But that’s not the reason people come. They come because of the event, and the cause, and because of the comradeship.
I know some people say (complainingly), “Well, they get the same people every year.” But that’s part of the beauty of it. The same people come and add their talent every year, because they believe in this event. And I think the people in the audience feel that.
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