Southside Johnny and Bruce Springsteen first met in the late ’60s. They jammed together, started bands and, by the mid-’70s, were established as the two most important frontmen in the Jersey Shore rock scene. Their careers have been intertwined: Musicians have gone back and forth between the E Street Band and the Asbury Jukes, and Springsteen has written some of Southside’s signature songs. When these two share a stage, at a benefit or another special event, it becomes obvious that they share a warm friendship.
For the first time ever, Southside Johnny performed an entire night of Bruce Springsteen songs, Saturday at the Stone Pony. Springsteen didn’t show up; the club had announced ahead of time, in fact, that he wouldn’t. But still, Southside and the Jukes put on a first-rate show, including many Springsteen songs they have never performed before.
Southside’s between-song comments alone lifted this show beyond the realm of an ordinary tribute show; introducing “You Mean So Much to Me,” for instance (recorded as a duet with Ronnie Spector on the Jukes’ 1976 debut album, “I Don’t Want to Go Home”), Southside reminisced about hanging out with Springsteen and Spector in the studio. It was also great to hear so many songs that Springsteen rarely performs in concert himself, including “Cover Me,” “Something in the Night,” “Stolen Car” and “Fade Away.”
But ultimately, this show was an opportunity to marvel not only at the genius of Springsteen’s songwriting, but of the ongoing vitality of Southside Johnny and his band. His voice held up well throughout the show, and even though he flubbed a word here or there (completely understandable given the sheer number of songs he was performing for the first time), you could tell by the way he emphasized certain words — not always the same words Springsteen emphasizes — that he had spent a lot of time with the material, and worked out a personal approach to each song. The Jukes — featuring a five-piece horn section and percussionist Joe Bellia in addition to drummer Tom Seguso — were equally sharp throughout, with keyboardist Jeff Kazee adding vital, earthy backing vocals, and guitarist Glenn Alexander taking songs such as “Cover Me,” “Trapped Again” (a Springsteen/Southside/Steven Van Zandt co-write), “You Mean So Much to Me” and “Jack of All Trades” to another level with his dazzling, gracefully melodic solos.
During “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out,” Southside cleverly changed “I’m gonna sit back right easy and laugh/When Scooter and the Big Man bust this city in half” to “I used to sit back right easy and laugh/I watched the Scooter and the Big Man bust this city in half.” Scooter is Springsteen, of course, and the Big Man is Clarence Clemons; the change put Southside just where he should be in Springsteen’s autobiographical song, watching the action from a ringside seat.
Southside had the band switch to an unplugged format for a particularly haunting “Nebraska,” and performed “Fade Away” with just Kazee on piano and backing vocals. Former Jukes guitarist Bobby Bandiera rejoined the band for the final eight songs of the night, including “Murder Incorporated,” “Sherry Darling,” “Where the Bands Are” and the only non-Springsteen song in the setlist, the Van Zandt-written “This Time It’s for Real.”
Southside praised the band several times for putting in the work needed to do a completely new show in addition to learning or relearning material for the band’s Friday night Pony show, devoted to Jukes rarities.
The club was cramped, and hot, and people talked during the slow, quiet songs, as they usually do at nightclubs. It might have made sense to do it in a bigger venue — a seated theater perhaps — but for poetic reasons, it had to be at the Pony, where the Jukes were the original house band (the show was, in fact, part of the club’s 40th anniversary celebration).
This show will surely be remembered fondly by Jukes fans for years to come. Here’s hoping that they do it again, at some point, or at least work some of the songs they’ve never done before into their regular concerts.
Though the show was about the past, Southside did make two announcements about the future, saying that he is planning to have a new album out by the summer; and that he will be performing at the Pony again, in his annual outdoor show there, on July 3.
Here is Saturday’s setlist:
“Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?”/”Rosalita” medley
“All the Way Home”
“Something in the Night”
“Tenth Avenue Freeze-out”
“Prove It All Night”
“Waitin’ on a Sunny Day”
“You Mean So Much to Me”
“Jack of All Trades”
“Murder Incorporated” (Bobby Bandiera joins band for this song and rest of show)
“Talk to Me”
“Where the Bands Are”
“When You Dance”
“This Time It’s for Real”
“Hearts of Stone”