Bruce Springsteen may have been hanging out with Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks last week, But on Friday night, he was just one of the guys again, participating in the Upstage Jam at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park.
The show did, indeed, seem like a real jam session, with musicians sometimes calling out a key and launching into some unrehearsed rock standard as the others figured out their parts on the spot.
“Here we are in Asbury Park, N.J., just like we were 75 years ago,” joked Southside Johnny.
The show, part of the Asbury Park Music and Film Festival, honored the after-hours nightclub where Springsteen and many other legendary musicians got their start in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and followed the screening of the new documentary about Asbury music and the city’s history, “Just Before the Dawn.” It was a once-in-a-lifetime event; unless you were at the Upstage itself, you’ve never had a chance to see these guys do this, exactly.
It was announced beforehand that Southside, Steven Van Zandt, David Sancious and Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez would be among the participants, as would lesser known figures such as guitar slingers Rick DaSarno and Billy Ryan, percussionist Richard Blackwell (who played on Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle album) and drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter (whose brief tenure in the E Street Band included exactly one studio performance, on “Born to Run”).
But when the curtain came up for the jam session, there was Springsteen, too, playing guitar as Van Zandt opened the show by singing “The Blues Is My Business,” a song recorded, most famously, by Etta James.
Like the other musicians in this show, Springsteen was onstage frequently but also sometimes off it. Lineups ranged from just two musicians (singer Nicky Addeo, using his falsetto to good effect, and keyboardist Jeff Kazee) for Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” to a full onslaught of about 25 (basically, everyone who was still around close to midnight) for the closing jam on Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven.”
Songs were generally other artists’ hits, old enough that they could have been played at the Upstage (and probably were). Only two Springsteen-written songs, “The Fever” and “Ballad of Jesse James,” made it into the show; Southside Johnny sang the former and Lopez the latter, with Springsteen playing guitar and adding backing vocals on both.
The lineup was not strictly limited to musicians who played at the Upstage; various current members of the Jukes and Van Zandt’s Disciples of Soul band played as well, as did photographer Danny Clinch (adding harmonica to “Not Fade Away”) and young musicians from the Lakehouse Junior Pros band at Asbury Park’s Lakehouse Music Academy.
Van Zandt appeared on only the first two songs of the evening, singing “The Blues Is My Business” and Berry’s “Bye Bye Johnny,” with Springsteen taking a verse of the latter.
Springsteen was onstage for about half the night. And, as has been the case at few other shows he has performed since the Upstage closed in 1971, he was happy not to dominate. Perhaps the most surprising moment of the evening came when the band started to play Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” — a song Springsteen has performed a number of times with John Fogerty himself – and Springsteen decided it was time to take a break, and walked offstage. (Kazee sang lead.)
Springsteen was back soon enough, though, roaring through Little Richard’s “Lucille” (which culminated with a sizzling guitar duel by him and DaSarno) and duetting with Southside on Chris Kenner’s gently funky “Something You Got.” The evening ended with a medley of “Stand by Me” and “I Don’t Want to Go Home,” sung by Southside Johnny, and then the “Johnny B. Goode”/”Roll Over Beethoven” medley, sung by Kazee, Joe Petillo and the ebullient Paul Whistler.
Sancious played guitar as well as piano and organ, and consistently awed with his inventive solos. Guitarist Marc Ribler had some dazzling moments, too, particularly on Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” (which he sang). Kazee, the evening’s music director, worked the hardest, and kept a show that could have descended into chaos running smoothly.
There was just so many different elements of this show it’s hard to touch on them all. I realize I haven’t even mentioned the stellar saxophone work by Ed Manion and Tommy LaBella … Southside and Kazee duetting on The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek” … yet another Chuck Berry tribute (a medley of “Carol” and “Little Queenie”) featuring Whistler, Petillo, Gerry Carboy, Albee Tellone and others … Southside paying tribute to the late James Cotton before “Got My Mojo Working” … Lopez singing Cream’s “Strange Brew.”
The show didn’t go till 5 in the morning, as some of those Upstage nights legendarily did. But it still represented a deep immersion in the music, and the spirit, of another era. One hopes a complete film was made — and can be shown at the next Asbury Park Music and Film Festival.
The film “Just Before the Dawn” set the stage for the concert well, featuring interviews with many of the show’s participants (including Van Zandt and Southside) and exploring the history of the Upstage itself. Other aspects of Asbury Park the film covered in-depth included the devastating race riots of 1970, the town’s embrace of LBGTQ culture, and the vital work that is currently being done at the Lakehouse Music Academy. But it was skimpy on other subjects, including the rise of the E Street Band and the huge role that alternative-rock has played in the city’s music scene from the ’80s to today.
The Asbury Park Music and Film Festival continues through Sunday. For information, visit apmff.org.
Here are some videos from the jam, posted by Mitch Slater and Sammy Steinlight: