Twenty years ago this month, Joe Grushecky and his band The Houserockers celebrated the release of his American Babylon album with a Stone Pony concert. “It seems like yesterday,” he said at the Asbury Park nightclub, Friday night, at the first of two shows at which he celebrated this pivotal album in his career by playing it in its entirety.
Bruce Springsteen — who produced the album, played guitar and sang on it, and co-wrote two of its songs — performed at that 1995 show, but wasn’t able to make it this time around. (Wisely, he shared that information with fans in advance, so that no one was expecting him). But Grushecky benefited greatly from the presence of Springsteen’s current sax player, Eddie Manion, in the Houserockers; Manion wasn’t on the original album, but added dynamic riffs to songs like “Chain Smokin’ ” and “Talk Show” on Friday. And the participation of Grushecky’s guitar-playing son, Johnny Grushecky, in the band, brought an extra level of poignancy to “What Did You Do in the War,” a song made up of questions Joe imagined Johnny asking him, back when Johnny was young.
Grushecky talked a little about the making of the album, saying that he was in the middle of a depressing gig at a Mexican restaurant in his hometown of Pittsburgh — he just couldn’t get the crowd interested in the music, he said — when he got the news that Springsteen wanted him to come to California for a recording session. An another point, he told another, funnier story about having to lie to the principal of the high school where he was working, at the time, in order to be able to make it to another recording session.
The band was at its best on brawny material like “Dark and Bloody Ground,” “Never Be Enough Time” and “Only Lovers Left Alive.” It did lose a little focus, though, in the second half of the American Babylon portion of the show, which features some songs that Grushecky hardly ever plays live. That’s par for the course for a full-album show, and perhaps these numbers jelled a little bit more on Saturday (both shows were taped for a future live album).
Grushecky opened with two non-American Babylon songs, “Everything’s Going to Work Out Right” and the Springsteen co-write “Code of Silence.” After American Babylon, he announced “I wanna play some Jersey shore music for ya,” and did just that with “Hearts of Stone” and “Savin’ Up” (Springsteen-written songs associated with Southside Johnny and Clarence Clemons, respectively).
Then set ended with a medley of “Down the Road a Piece” and “Wipeout,” and opening act John Eddie returned for encore versions of “Let it Bleed” and “Mony Mony.” Grushecky then played one of his own gritty signature songs, “Pumping Iron,” before returning to the classic-rock vibe with “Like a Rolling Stone,” and then capping the show with a two-song duet segment with Manion featuring Grushecky’s own poignant “When the Crows Go Crazy” and feel-good singalong closer, “I Don’t Want to Go Home.”
I know fans were disappointed when they learned that Springsteen wouldn’t be there. Needless to say, I was disappointed too. Anyone would be.
But the club was full (though not as packed as it would have been if a Springsteen appearance were possible), the performances were strong, and the audience fully engaged. Grushecky has come a long way from that Mexican restaurant.
Here is the Friday night setlist. Asterisks denote the American Babylon songs.
“Everything’s Going to Work Out Right”
“Code of Silence”
“Dark and Bloody Ground” *
“Chain Smokin’ ” *
“Never Be Enough Time” *
“American Babylon” *
“Labor of Love” *
“What Did You Do in the War” *
“Comin’ Down Maria” *
“Talk Show” *
“No Strings Attached” *
“Billy’s Waltz” *
“Only Lovers Left Alive ” *
“Hearts of Stone”
“Down the Road a Piece”/”Wipeout”
“Let It Bleed” (with John Eddie)
“Mony Mony” (with John Eddie)
“Like a Rolling Stone”
“When the Crows Go Crazy” (Grushecky/Manion duet)
“I Don’t Want to Go Home” (Grushecky/Manion duet)
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