Two tributes to the late Joe Cocker, who had died earlier in the day of lung cancer, at 70, helped make the seventh annual Hope Concert at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank a truly remarkable evening.
First, Jon Bon Jovi, appearing as an unannounced guest, sang “The Letter,” the Box Tops hit that Cocker had a hit with in 1970. Bon Jovi sang with lots of passion (though he didn’t really try to sing like Cocker), and the band used the Wall of Sound arrangement that Leon Russell provided for Cocker’s version. (Bon Jovi actually performed “The Letter” at Hope Concerts in 2011 and 2012, so he could have been planning to perform it even before learning of Cocker’s death.)
Much later in the evening, Southside Johnny led the show’s entire cast through “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Once again, the band did it the way Cocker did it, not the way it was originally done (by The Beatles). And Southside did a good job of singing it like Cocker did, too, and nailed the number’s climactic scream. (He also talked about seeing Cocker’s “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” tour at Convention Hall in Asbury Park, in 1970.)
You could say that the spirit of that legendary tour permeated the entire evening, since the musicians, almost uniformly, played with a real sense of abandon from start to finish. Primary credit should go to Bobby Bandiera, who organizes the Hope Concert series and leads the house band; he kept everyone loose and engaged from start to finish, and though it was a big band, the sound never got muddy. It was also a fast-moving show, without any of the long delays that can hinder a multi-artist event like this one.
Bandiera tours in the Bon Jovi band, and Jon Bon Jovi has performed at some past Hope shows (as has Bruce Springsteen, who didn’t make this one). So you had to figure there was a good chance Bon Jovi would be there, even though he wasn’t on the official roster. He took the stage early on, singing “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” and “I Wish Everyday Could Be Like Christmas” before “The Letter.” He wore an NYPD T-shirt and, just in case anyone didn’t notice, told the audience that he wore it to “show a little solidarity for my brothers in the NYPD.”
John Eddie performed next — joking that no one told him, when he agreed to do the show, that he’d have to follow Bon Jovi — and performed two originals with a strong country flavor: “Same Old Brand New Me” and “Happy New Year.”
The backing vocalists in the house band were featured next, with Jillian McCoy singing “Maybe I’m Amazed,” Reagan Richards singing a over-the-top rock version of “Baby It’s You,” and Layonne Holmes tackling Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.”
Sue Mansour took over for “Be My Baby” and “Rockin Around the Christmas Tree.” Then Nicole Atkins sang “Maybe Tonight” (an original with a strong retro flavor) and “Sleigh Ride” (with the Ronettes’ arrangement).
Gene Cornish of ’60s hit-makers The Rascals showed he’s still a garage-rocker at heart, playing guitar and singing backing vocals on rowdy versions of The Rascals’ “Come on Up” and “Good Lovin’.” Marshall Crenshaw daringly started with a new song, “Red Wine,” but then did a crowd-pleaser: Bob Seger’s James Brown-inspired “Sock It to Me Santa.”
John Cafferty sang his Springsteen-like hit “On the Dark Side” as well as “Tough All Over.” A New Englander with a strong Jersey Shore following, he doesn’t often get invited to perform at shows like these, and seemed grateful for the opportunity.
Gary U.S. Bonds sang “Baby, Baby It’s Christmas” and “This Little Girl” before bringing his old friend Southside Johnny out for a jazzy version of “White Christmas,” with Southside crooning a lounge lizard-like part, and Bonds gliding up into a falsetto, with fake snow falling from the rafters. The two then sang the Coasters’ “Yakety Yak” together, and clowned around a bit, with Tim McLoone handling the bass vocals and Joey Stann perfectly re-creating the original’s famous sax parts.
“You know I hate Christmas,” said Southside Johnny after it was over, “but I love doing this.”
Instead of singing another Christmas song, though, he stayed focused on R&B, with Ray Charles’ “Night Time Is the Right Time” (sung with Bonds and Holmes) and Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances” (sung with Bandiera) before closing with “With a Little Help From My Friends,” sung with just about everybody.
Proceeds from the show will go to Horizons (a summer and after-school enrichment program for low-income children) and the Count Basie Theatre’s arts education and outreach programs. Past Hope concerts have raised more than $1 million for various causes.