I’m not sure how a 17-year-old northern Indiana girl in the seventies stumbled across Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, the quintessential New Jersey bar band. I suspect I must have read a review, possibly in Rolling Stone, of their great album Hearts of Stone. The review would surely have mentioned that Bruce Springsteen had written a couple of the songs and that Miami Steve Van Zandt was prominently featured. I was a big Springsteen fan by then, so that would have been enough to send me to the record store to pick up the album. And I was hooked from the first time I spun that disc. Phenomenal songwriting, impeccable arrangements, passionate performances. I played that sucker over and over, especially “Trapped Again” which was simultaneously propelled and restrained by a super funky bass line, straining against its own architecture.
But the Jukes didn’t get radio play in Indiana, and they didn’t tour here, and I didn’t have any friends who were into them – so I lost track of them for many years. They never broke as big as they deserved to, and I suppose there are all kinds of reasons for that, few of which have to do with the quality of the actual music they kept making. Personally I think some good rock writer needs to do a biography on Southside Johnny. It would be a fascinating look at the Jersey Shore music scene, and at someone who neither hit it big like his colleagues Springsteen and Bon Jovi nor bombed out completely and quit the business.
Anyway, the rise of social media & my connection with the international network of Springsteen fans put them back on my radar a few years ago. They’ve had a lot of personnel changes over the years, and a lot of cross-pollination with other bands including E Street, Bon Jovi, the Max Weinberg band on Conan O’Brien’s old show, etc. There’s a lot of Jukes and ex-Jukes running around out there, though Southside has always been at the helm. They tour, but hardly ever in my neck of the woods; Chicago now and then, but the dates never quite worked out for me. Plus, to he honest, there are a lot of bands out there touring on their past glory with most of the original members long gone off to greener pastures, and sometimes it is just not a good concert experience. So I was a little nervous about committing a big chunk of time and money to catch a show.
Fast forward to this year. I really, really wanted to make an epic early-autumn road trip out to the Jersey shore. I’ve never been, and so much of the music I love comes from there – plus I just plain haven’t seen the ocean in a few years. I schemed and plotted but between finding a good time to take that much time off & the financial thing, it started to become clear that this wasn’t the year for me and Jersey.
So I started looking around for something I could do on a three- or four-day weekend. Chicago, Louisville, Nashville, Cleveland, St. Louis… Cincinnati. I scoured the tour schedules of every artist I could think of that I liked enough to drive for, knowing that the road trip itself was half the goal. And there it was. Southside & the Jukes, at Bogart’s in Cincinnati on a Saturday night. I dithered and fussed. I tweeted. @msaleski tweeted back that the Jukes were killin’ it on this tour. And whoever runs the Jukes’ Twitter account pointed out:
Which I thought was a very good point.
So yeah. I bought a ticket and booked a hotel room. Decided to stay two nights so I could do a little sightseeing in a city I hadn’t set foot in for many years. I planned my ass off, like I always do, making a Google map and reading endless hotel and restaurant reviews. I spent more time planning than I was actually going to spend in Cincinnati but that is half the fun of it for me.
Finally the weekend came. I enjoyed kicking back in my hotel room Friday night, sleeping in on Saturday (it’s my vacation and I can sleep if I want to), and spending a few hours at the zoo Saturday afternoon. As often happens, serendipity got me to Bogart’s at the perfect time; there were maybe half a dozen people waiting outside about half an hour before the doors were scheduled to open, so I knew I’d be able to snag a great spot on the floor. I chatted with folks as we waited and was pleased to find out I was neither the only one who’d driven in from out of town nor the only longtime fan who’d never managed to catch the band live.
I ended up smack dab in front, leaning on the barrier separating the audience from the stage, not too far off center. Not having people in front of you makes a huge difference when you’re 5 foot 1. I killed time chatting with the folks around me, sharing music recommendations. I love the anticipation before the show almost as much as I love the show itself.
As for the show itself? They flat-out killed it. I was looking forward to the show, but it exceeded my expectations by a fair margin. Very loose, very high-energy. What got played was pretty radically different from the written setlist, with Southside Johnny and former Cincinnati resident Jeff Kazee (who got a lot of the spotlight that night & was clearly relishing his return to his old stomping grounds) kicking into songs and letting the rest of the band catch up. A little ragged at times, but in the best way – and you gotta love an unexpected Elvis medley, not to mention THREE encores.
If one were a purist, one could argue about whether the current touring band is really the Asbury Jukes. It’s true that the only guy in this lineup who appeared on Hearts of Stone is Southside Johnny himself. But it’s not like the band was the same core group of guys for decades and now it’s a bunch of ringers; the lineup has always changed frequently. As noted in the Wikipedia article about the band, more than 100 people can claim to have been Jukes. Sure, you can make the case that when they play the older material, the current group is basically a cover band fronted by the original singer. But you know what? These guys sounded GREAT and I pretty much couldn’t stop dancing all night. And to me, that’s what matters. Great music played well, with humor and heart and energy. And you gotta love Southside for putting it all out there on the stage, playing a longer show (I didn’t time it, but definitely over two hours) than lots of guys half his age, leaving the audience sweaty and exhilarated. (One mark of a great rock show, for me: my feet hurt like hell when I got back to my room.)
Musical highlights for me: “Till the Good is Gone” (which is just a great great song), “Talk To Me” (featuring a hilarious interlude in which Southside tried to get one of the security dudes at the front of the stage to sing along), and – the third encore, the one song I didn’t dare hope to get that night, one of the cornerstones of 17-year-old Anne’s soundtrack – “Trapped Again.” But really, it wasn’t the individual songs as much as it was the whole sweaty, exuberant evening, which reaffirmed everything about why I love this music, why I love going to concerts, why it’s worth the 340-mile round trip (would have been less if Einstein here hadn’t booked a hotel way the heck up in Blue Ash, but oh well), and why I need to remember that if there’s ever any doubt I should always, always, always just buy the damn ticket and go to the show.
Setlist for October 5, 2013
Bogarts, Cincinnati, OH
(list via Natalie Ellis, as posted on the Asbury Jukes’ Facebook page)
I Only Want to Be With You
Lead Me On
Keep On Moving
I Played the Fool
You’re My Girl
All the Way Home
This Time It’s For Real
Till the Good Is Gone
Love On the Wrong Side of Town
Walk Away Renee
You Don’t Know Like I Know
Drown in My Own Tears (Jeff Kazee vocal)
Shake ‘Em Down
Don’t Be Cruel
One More Night to Rock
Stand By Me
I Don’t Want to Go Home
Talk to Me
Hearts of Stone
Better Way Home