Having cut his teeth as a member of the late Upstage co-owner Margaret Potter’s house band, the Distractions, at the mythical Asbury Park venue, Upstage Jam Band co-founder Joe Petillo has made his dream of 40 years come true with the local star-studded release of “Long Journey Home.”
It is extremely rare when a record grabs me in the first 10 seconds and doesn’t let go, but that is the case with Joe Petillo‘s Long Journey Home. The veteran Asbury Park singer-songwriter-guitarist’s long-awaited record has completely and refreshingly taken me by surprise, and so I just had to review it.
Meticulously yet warmly produced by Petillo, Long Journey Home is the R&B, rock ‘n’ soul and roots music developed in the late ’60s at the mythic Upstage nightclub, honed into the Sounds of Asbury Park, and ripened here with age and a blend of jazz-inflected sophistication, exotic ethnic groove and occasional sweet pedal steel guitar. Some might call Petillo easy listening, but to others, he will recall mellow, lyrically strong singer-songwriters such as James Taylor, Loggins & Messina, Cat Stevens and Dan Fogelberg.
In an age when Asbury Park is powered more by indie rock, DJs, hip-hop and punk rock, Petillo might seem a relic, but if you listen closely, you’ll hear that he is an extremely talented and expressive songwriter who can sing his ass off and who has produced a lovely record culled from more than 40 years of original material.
There are a whole bunch of friends who agree and appear on Long Journey Home. Holiday Express bandmate BethAnne Clayton turns “Hiding Out From Love,” a folk-rock tale of star-crossed lovers, into a soulful duet that also features pianist Andy McDonough, bassist Chris Plunkett and drummer Bob Boyd, who play throughout Long Journey Home. A country-rocker known for the Queen of Hearts band, Clayton also sings backup on “Somebody Tell Me,” a country pine for a long-distance love that gets lost along the way.
The always impressive Marc Mueller lays down some fine pedal steel and mandolin playing on that track, while fellow Upstage great Sonny Kenn complements him hauntingly on guitar. Kenn also contributes nicely to “Dangerous Love,” the most upbeat-sounding (albeit lyrically dark) song on the album. The dichotomous, rollicking, slide-driven roots rocker recounts the troublesome one night stand of a truck driver.
Sought-after saxophonist Tommy LaBella plays a big part on “First Time in Love” — a heartfelt tune Petillo wrote when his first daughter was born, anticipating her first breakup — and “Somebody Soon,” one of a few pretty, sensual love songs on the LP. I love the extra effort LaBella makes in the last gasp of that song, which momentarily speaks volumes to say, you don’t get older, you just get better.
Offering tight, textured percussion throughout is crafty engineer Steve Jankowski of Wall-based Jankland Studios, where most of Long Journey Home was recorded. Other collaborators include fiddler Garry Olear, vocalist Corey Wagar, guitarist Jim Celestino, drummer Joe DeAngelo and guitarists Mike and Pat Guadagno.
Despite all these excellent contributions, my favorite track is Petillo’s powerful solo number “The Vision,” a spare Paul Simon-like acoustic prayer and dream about a father’s love for a daughter that is fulfilled in the birth of a grandchild. The imaginative “The Last Cowboy” also stands out. The rootsy story-song in the tradition of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” and “Mr. Bojangles” is about a homeless cowboy recalling his last roundup while sleeping on a river bank and riding the rails.
The painstakingly produced beauty of Long Journey Home made me cry not only because of the touching sentiments expressed and stirring music created, but because of the toll of hard work and personal sacrifice made by an artist who refuses to let his dream die. There’s something about being involved in music in Asbury Park that makes it very difficult to give up. Perhaps it’s the wonder of the boardwalk when we were kids before the devastating race riots of 1970 shattered our innocence. Or those rowdy days in nightclubs packed with sweaty passion before the Internet ingested us into our cell phones.
In Petillo‘s case, there are epic memories of magical Upstage jams into the wee hours of the morning that turned Springsteen, Southside, their original bandmates and othes from teenage garage rockers into professional talent. Whatever it is that makes Asbury Park a magnetic music mecca, we all should be glad that the old-timers keep rockin’ AP and connecting a rich history to today’s resurgent scene, and that rather than give up, Petillo made a record everyone can enjoy if they give it a chance.
See Petillo live when the Upstage Jam Band, also featuring Paul Whistler, Vini Lopez and John Mulrenan of Dawg Whistle, guitar great Billy Ryan and several others, close the Makin Waves 30th Anniversary Party on March 31 at the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park. Petillo also will play March 16 at Val’s Tavern in Rumson.
Bob Makin is the reporter for MyCentralJersey.com/entertainment and a former managing editor of The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And like Makin Waves at facebook.com/makinwavescolumn.