For the first time in more than 30 years of writing about Bruce Springsteen, I can use his name and the phrase “laid back” in the same sentence. Because he appeared as an unbilled guest at the Laid Back Festival at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, Sept. 21, to the utter delight of the large crowd.
I say “unbilled” and not “surprise” because it seemed pretty likely that he would show up. Headliner Jackson Browne is a longtime friend and the second-billed Steven Van Zandt (appearing with his Disciples of Soul band) is practically a brother to him. Peter Wolf, who also performed, is a friend as well. The fourth act on the bill was Allman Brothers Band drummer Jaimoe and his Jasssz Band; Gregg Allman, who died in May, co-founded the Laid Back Festival in 2015, and this year’s five shows are officially being presented “in his spirit.”
Springsteen first took the stage at the end of Van Zandt’s performance, for “It’s Been a Long Time” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out.” Neither song was originally a duet. “It’s Been a Long Time” was first recorded as a three-way collaboration between Springsteen, Van Zandt and Southside Johnny, and Springsteen usually sings “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out” alone. But they were both performed as gruff but warm duets at this show, with Springsteen and Van Zandt standing close to each other, sharing a microphone and sometimes putting their arms around each other’s shoulders.
Browne’s set ended with a medley of “Take It Easy” (which he co-wrote with the late Glenn Frey of The Eagles) and his own “Our Lady of the Well.” The songs were stretched out into a surprisingly long jam, with Springsteen and members of Browne’s backing band taking solos.
Both Van Zandt and Browne took the opportunity to pay tribute to Allman by singing his songs. Van Zandt’s set included a stunningly intense version of Allman’s “It’s Not My Cross to Bear”; Browne’s, a winsome version of Allman’s sweet ballad, “Melissa.”
Van Zandt also invited Wolf to be part of his set; he and the Disciples of Soul backed Wolf on a boisterous version of the J. Geils Band hit, “Freeze Frame.” And, later, Browne invited Van Zandt back to the stage for a duet on the Van Zandt-written “I Am a Patriot.”
Browne began his set with “You Love the Thunder,” which he recorded live at the PNC Bank Arts Center (back when it was the Garden State Arts Center) for his 1977 Running on Empty album.
“It’s still the Garden State Arts Center, right?” he joked after finishing it.
For information on the other Laid Back shows, visit laidbackfestival.com.
Here are seven videos from the show (four of them posted by Mitch Slater):
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