Santa Claus comes to town but once per “kid year;” Cupid and the Easter Bunny are only as good as the next re-stock of the seasonal aisle, and the Great Pumpkin tends not to show up at all — but when you set your calendar to sync with Southside Johnny Lyon, you roll with the one who represents not one but two great holiday happenings.
No self-respecting year is blessed into being without a champagne benediction by Johnny, during any of the December 31 concerts that he and the Asbury Jukes have hosted for countless times at Red Bank’s Count Basie auditorium. It’s a tradition that should by all rights have allowed the Ocean Grove native to claim the mantle of “Mr. New Year’s Eve” from the long-gone Guy Lombardo and Dick Clark — but the shades-rocking musicologist with the sublime R&B pipes and the sardonic sense of humor has a warm-weather failsafe fallback, and this Saturday, the unofficial Toastmaster General of the Jersey Shore becomes Mr. Fourth of July (give or take a day or three), as he and the 2018 edition of the Jukes take their place once more on the Stone Pony SummerStage.
All of which confirms the fact that O.G.’s original-gangsta rocker and raconteur is all about the season of corn-on-the-cob and sparklers, every bit as much as the season of highballs and noisemakers. And whether it takes place on the Fourth — or, in this case, the Seventh — the Asbury Jukes soiree is a genuine destination attraction; a perfect cross between those Arthur Pryor Band concerts of a hundred years ago, and the sweatiest, most spontaneous session that ever pushed the envelope of an Asbury Park last-call.
It’s a happening that harkens back to those big beach concerts produced by the old WNEW-FM; to the “homecoming” shows that saw the onetime Stone Pony house band graduate to the Paramount and other larger regional venues — and to the era of those early albums on Epic, with their Boss-penned liner notes and their Miami Steve stewardship and their hall-of-fame guest stars and their sonic snapshots of a time when the spotlight shone briefly and bright upon the gritty bars and weathered boards of salty old Asbury town.
‘It’s just a celebration…and everybody is so UP going into it, that we don’t have to hit the stage with an airtight set list,” adds the bandleader, calling in before departing for California to “to help some folks who need cheering up…because I’m Mister Cheer, although my band might dispute that.”
With gates opening at 5 p.m. — and with the intriguing opening-act addition of Anthony “Remember Jones” D’Amato and his own supercharged take on the big-band template — the yearly event is one hide-bound tradition that finds fresh new ways to keep its audience delightfully off-balance each time out. Think back a few years to the last time that the Rolling Stones were on tour, and Johnny used his Pony platform to treat the audience to a surprise set of Stone standards (including an absolutely epic “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’”) that was naturally preceded by some choice potshots at the concept of 600 dollar rock concert tickets.
“Not everyone is into that sort of thing…some people can’t get past that we’re not just doing ‘Jukes’ songs,” says the “frontman of the freight train” who’s famously forged a long-playing career as an ace interpreter of songsmiths that have ranged from Solomon Burke, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, to Jackson Browne, Tom Waits, and that ole bluesman Bob Dylan. “But we’ve got so much material to draw from…and we like to honor people who we admire, like Gregg Allman and Tom Petty.”
The passing of faces from the past has been on John Lyon’s mind lately, particularly in the wake of Anthony Bourdain’s reported suicide. The globetrotting author and chef (who Johnny famously broke bread with at Frank’s Deli, in a 2015 segment of Bourdain’s TV series Parts Unknown) is remembered by the singer as “smart, funny, self-deprecating, down to earth…his death was as big a shock to me as Tom Petty’s…he had his demons, as we all do, but I get the feeling that he was a caring person who was simply dead tired, fatigued, exhausted.”
Asked to comment upon another recent passing — that of Robert “Butch” Pielka, co-founder of the original Stone Pony — Lyon allows that “we had our ups and downs, Butch and I…we had our screaming matches, but he was a colorful character who was good to us; who gave us our break, and it worked out well for all of us.”
While the Asbury Jukes lineup has morphed considerably from the 1970s/80s/90s era that saw some memorable contributions from the likes of co-founder Steven Van Zandt, Billy Rush, La Bamba, Popeye Pentifallo, Bobby Bandiera and the late Kevin Kavanaugh, the current roster has “been pretty solid for a number of years,” anchored by keyboardist Jeff Kazee and bassman John Conte (both of whom paid a recent House call to Asbury with their acclaimed tribute act Early Elton), and featuring the talents of guitarist Glenn Alexander, drummer Tom Seguso, and horn section Chris Anderson (trumpet), John Isley (sax), and Neal Pawley (trombone).
Although the album-a-year days of hard touring with a bigger-than-average band (“a money losing proposition even in the best of times”) are long past, the 21st century Jukes are still racking up the miles here in summer 2018; heading from the boardwalk to the boarding gate for a string of dates in Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark, then back to the States for another jaunt up and down the east coast (including an August 4 engagement at the Hard Rock Atlantic City), and even a stray September detour to the legendary Whiskey-A-Go-Go in West Hollywood. But it’s all keynoted, more or less, by that Asbury Park gig; a tradition that “used to happen on the actual Fourth…we’d stop the set for the fireworks show,” and one that’s gone off largely without a hitch, apart from the odd hurricane forecast or tornado warning.
If anything, it’s a good time to be the Asbury Jukes, with the essence of the band emerging stronger than ever after several trips through the spin cycle of the major-label music biz mangler machine. Dropping the occasional independently released album — and assembling like some jukebox Justice League, whenever their passionately patented wall of soulful sound is just what the doctor ordered — the core combo seems more comfortable in its musical skin than at any time in the preceding few decades. And, when he’s not riding that freight train, Lyon gets laid back in his “Old Kentucky Home” with Kazee, Conte, Pawley and John Putnam as Southside Johnny and the Poor Fools, the acoustic Americana stripped-down side project that’s allowed the veteran frontman to “do different material; trade off vocals and instruments, and play all kinds of rinkydink intimate places, including some really great churches…it’s relaxing, and at the same time much more terrifying than going out there with the big band behind you.”
All that terror notwithstanding, it’s not a bad existence for a guy whose private, borderline-curmudgeonly, wisecracking public demeanor belies a big-hearted commitment to charitable causes, and an unwavering affinity to the music that sparked his passion as an artist.
“You’d go into Newberry’s in Asbury Park and pick up a five-pack of records in a plastic bag,” recalls Johnny, citing one of the longest-running of the city’s discount department stores. “You could see the two records on the outside…some great R&B soul stuff, like B.B. King’s ‘Beautician Blues’ on the Kent label.”
“But the three in the middle were a mystery, and if you got lucky you’d discover some great stuff you never would have heard otherwise,” he continues. “For me, the ultimate ‘record in the middle’ was ‘Never Love Again’ by Little Tommy and the Elgins…so heartfelt and wrenching; just a mini-Ben E. King sort of revelation.”
Even as the likes of the old Newberry’s have given way to the millennial streetscape of the Cookman Avenue corridor, Lyon observes that “it’s good to see all this activity going on,” while allowing that the former incarnation of Asbury Lanes was “a brilliant place.”
“In a small city like this, though, it’s never going to be an easy ride…a lot of people have a lot of emotion invested in this place,” he adds. “But I have to say that watching the evolution of Asbury Park has been quite entertaining.”
And when he’s off that touring road, Southside Johnny isn’t shy about admitting that he reads The Coaster, telling us “it’s great to have a local paper like that; one that covers what goes on, and where the money actually goes…when I’m home, I like to go Bagel Talk, pick up a bagel with cream cheese, and The Coaster!”