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Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, Wellmont Theatre, Montclair, NJ: Still havin’ a party May 7, 2010

Posted by Anton A in American music, Southside Johnny.
Tags: , , ,

A couple of weeks ago I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to go see Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes at The Wellmont Theatre in Montclair. I’ve been rained and snowed out of too many shows that I’ve paid for way in advance, so I was holding off for this one. With no major storms on the horizon, I went on line and made the fateful click.

It proved a fine decision. The venue is an easy 20-minute drive over to a town I know well. I arrived early enough to savor a few pleasant minutes at a local cafe just up the hill from the theater, sitting at a sidewalk table with a cup of their superb coffee, checking out the stream of passersby all duded up for Friday night, and watching the sunset colors play across the sky above Bloomfield Ave.

Feeling well refreshed, I strolled down in time to catch most of the opening set by the Bob Polding Trio, who also hail from the current Jersey Shore scene. They are Polding singing his songs and playing acoustic guitar, Peter Wood on guitar, and the very talented Gary Oleyar on fiddle & harmony vocals. Most of the songs seemed to be some variation of G-Em-C-D, but the guitar textures were rich, Polding has a good voice, like a deeper Jon Bon Jovi, and Oleyar kept it interesting. I enjoyed everything they did.

Johnny & the Jukes showed up a few minutes after 9:00. They played for 2 hrs & 20 minutes. It’s impossible not to have a good time when they’re on stage. Some excellent cover tunes – a Solomon Burke number, Walk Away Renee (total showstopper), Up On The Roof, Happy, Hard Day’s Night – were sprinkled among a cavalcade of Southside Johnny classics. There were four new songs, which sound as strong and gutsy as anything in his back catalog. These guys straddle the intersection of 60s & 70s soul, R&B, pop and rock, and add that distinctive Jersey Shore touch (please, don’t even think about the TV show in this context); in the course of an evening they cover a huge swath of our popular musical heritage.

This version of the Jukes is, to my ears, crisper than the group I saw backing him six years ago. Much to my surprise, who should turn up on rhythm guitar but Andy York from John Mellencamp’s band. Fans of the great Ian Hunter know Andy very well. Andy always gets himself into interesting situations when Mellencamp is on hiatus; he also plays on Johnny’s new CD, to be released in June.

A very skilled fellow named Glenn Alexander does most of the lead work, but Andy & the unnamed bassist really anchor the band’s sound. Jeff Kazee, on keyboards, has a strong tenor soul voice. He could easily front his own band; his high harmonies make for some thrilling vocal textures.

An excellent drummer & 4-man horn section round things out. They all get a couple of solo turns as the night progresses.

Johnny paces the stage like a cranky old lion, shakes and quivers when it’s time to squeeze every last drop of emotion out of a lyric, cadges drinks from the audience, brings the band up and down with quick gestures: the quintessential front man with a heart full of soul.

It can seem like a genially ramshackle show. You sometimes get the feeling that Johnny is making up the set list on the fly. It was amusing, watching them trying to get Hard Day’s Night off the launching pad. Andy hit the opening chord & went into the song with Johnny hopelessly off key; they tried that twice. Johnny then said, “No, I’m not finding the key, I’m not like you, I can’t just change the position of my fingers on my throat. You start it off and I’ll follow.” Andy hit the chord a third time and belted out the first lines; Johnny quickly found the key; they delivered a ripping version of the song, complete with terrrific three-part harmonies.

Johnny uses his years of experience and strong sense of stagecraft to lead the band through one crescendo after another. It’s an inspiring show. I won’t wait six years to see them again.

P.S. This is funny: throughout the show I was thinking how much the bassist looks like New York Dolls guitarist Steve Conte.  After writing the above, I went to Southside’s website and learned that he is, in fact, John Conte, Steve’s younger brother.



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