If Bruce Springsteen and later Jon Bon Jovi took the sound of New Jersey into the stadium-filling mainstream, both worshipped at the altar of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, who may never have reached the same commercial heights, but for 40 years have patented the ‘Jersey Shore’ sound that has inspired a whole generation of imitators.
Though I’d seen them a couple of times many years ago, I’d never been a huge fan, but my personal impetus for wishing to catch them again came from another New Jersey rock n roll hall of famer in Little Steven. His superb Bluesfest show last year at the Indigo featured a generous chunk of Southside Johnny numbers, most of them penned by him, and the rapturous way they were received made me think I should check them out again. Luckily John Lyon and co are regular visitors to the UK and their dedicated following, many into their sixties, filled the Forum on a stiflingly hot June night.
Even support band Hardwicke Circus looked and sounded like young Asbury Jukes protégés, with a horn section and lead singer Jonny Foster, one of two brothers, coming over like a young Mick Jagger or Van Morrison, long-haired and loose-limbed with a rough-edged R n B voice. It was therefore something of a shock a few songs in when he introduced the band as from Carlisle as I had assumed to that point they were New Jerseyites.
Songs like ‘Heartless Woman’ and ‘Nobody Does You Like I Do’ impressed alongside a cover of ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, the musicianship was very tight, and while very sixties influenced, they showed enough freshness to be marked as an interesting sounding band potentially going places.
In contrast after their long career Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes had little to prove, and the opening duo of ‘Love on the Wrong Side of Town’ and ‘This Time Its for Real’ showed off all their trademarks- uptempo R and B with a prominent horn trio, topped off by the gritty, gravel voice of Johnny, now 68 but in good shape and looking remarkably trim, though with the on stage fan blowing his hair in unpredictable directions. He was neatly complemented throughout by the harmony vocals of keyboard player Jeff Kazee- after I initially did a double take as he bore a distinct resemblance to the E Street Band’s Roy Bittan.
An early highlight was ‘ All I Needed Was You’, a typically superb song from the superb early nineties comeback Better Days, while ‘Passion Street’ had a prominent sax solo from John Isley. The band took a detour into bluesy R and B with a lengthy jam on ‘Living in the Blues’, while ‘Harder than it Looks’ saw them rock out with cowboy-hatted guitarist Glenn Alexander let off the leash.
However while in other ways a great venue, I have always found the sound at the Forum poor, and this was another frustrating night. At times certain instruments cut through the mix too strongly and Johnny’s voice was also up and down, which also made it harder for me to understand his between song banter, delivered in a thick Jersey drawl.
The crowd burst into spontaneous song at the start of a lengthy reworking of ‘Walk Away Renee’, while former Squeeze drummer Gilson Lavis guested on the old blues standard ‘ Key to the Highway’ and gave it a jazzier swing.
The ensemble playing was as tight as you would expect from a seasoned group of musicians and called to mind their friends and contemporaries the E Street Band. The jamming did go on rather long for my liking but was partially atoned for by the obvious camaraderie on stage, Johnny deliberately bumping into any of the horn section when they stepped forward for a solo. Theirs is very much good-time music and Johnny raised a chuckle when he said there was no need for the lyricism of a Springsteen or Dylan, only words like ‘baby baby baby’.
There were even a brace of new songs from the ‘Soultime’ album in ‘All I Can Do‘ and ‘I’m not that Lonely‘. Not having most of the albums, I wouldn’t have noticed, but they sounded in classic Jersey sound mode and it was admirable that a band with such a long back catalogue could seamlessly slip in new material.
‘Ride the Night Away’, which I associate with Jimmy Barnes’ cover, was the rockiest song of the set, though Johnny seemed to be struggling to hold the tune, while ‘Fever’ became a long, lazy jazzy jam. Finally came the moment I’d been waiting for in the Southside anthem ‘I Don’t Wanna Go Home’, as I joined in with many others at the ‘Reach Up and Touch the Sky’ lyric, but mid-song it segued into a joyous cover of the Boss’ ‘Sherry Darling’, which suited the band perfectly.
The first encore ‘Together Again’ had a traditional country feel, but the closer of course had to be another cover the band have made their trademark, in ‘Having a Party’ which lived up to its name as the Hardwicke Circus were invited back onto a crowded stage to jam with their heroes.
It ended a value for money, if not quite E Street-esque, 2 1/4 hour set which, with a late start, took show time to nearly half eleven. Spontaneous and relaxed, yet not deviating far from a winning formula, it was easy, as a relative Southside novice, to see why the Jukes’ devoted fans come back over and over again.
Review and Photos by Andy Nathan
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