[12 June 2008]
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes have been considered the second best bar band to come out of southern New Jersey ever since Bruce Springsteen blew in off the boardwalk. Johnny’s trademark rough and gruff vocals always made him sound like a sincere soul man who has suffered for his art, even when he sings a happy song. And the blaring horn and pounding percussion sections of the Jukes turned every tune into a life and death match for the heart of the listener. These cats didn’t make just music. They went to war.
Times have changed. Band members have come and gone. Johnny’s gotten older. But that doesn’t seem to have mattered. Or as Johnny sings, “Some Things Just Don’t Change”. The essence of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes remains the same. Close your eyes and listen to this live double-disc set and you’ll swear it’s still 1970-something. (The music was actually recorded at the Opera House in Newcastle, UK back in 2002 but just released on CD. It was previously available only on DVD.) You’ll feel the sweat of the person next to you and hear her pounding heart. You’ll smell the stale beer spilled on the floor and thirst for a fresh one. Goddamn, it feels good to go back.
Johnny sings some old songs and belts out new ones with equal verve and passion. It doesn’t always matter what the words are. He croons out obscure classics by Tom Waits, Carole King/Gerry Goffin, and the Boss mixed with those by Little Steven and himself with equal delight. The feeling’s always the same one. It’s you and me against the world, baby. Hold on tight. Life is a hard road. There are lots of bumps, twists and turns. We might never get to where we are going, but it’s one helluva journey.
The repartee between Johnny and the crowd reveals the intimacy they feel for each other. He addresses them as partners, telling them that they don’t want to hear the slow songs when the groove is tight or cursing them to make a point. And people in the audience aren’t shy about shouting requests or even asking what he’s drinking. This isn’t heckling. It’s the kind of response made between friends that care for each other and show that they are paying attention.
There’s a bitter irony in the fact that this album of pure American music is only available in the United States as an import and performed in front of an enthusiastic British audience. In an age where UK imports like Amy Winehouse and Duffy sing retro soul to enthusiastic young American audiences, veterans like Johnny and the Jukes find salvation across the sea. Oh, these guys are still heroes in Jersey and nearby environs, but the rest of the country couldn’t seem to care less about them. Check out the band’s tour itinerary on the web. They play up and down the Eastern seaboard and then fly to Europe. That’s been the basic pattern for many years. As Johnny sings twice here, once with the Jukes and once by himself, he may not want to go home (re: “I Don’t Want to Go Home”), but home is where the heart is. In this case, it’s in England.