Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, January 3 2019

For a couple of generations’ worth of Shore music fans, he’s a scene stalwart and a living landmark whose presence remains every bit as reassuring as a favorite club or neighborhood watering hole. To his fellow music makers, he’s the go-to man for all manner of sessions and sitting-in situations; a blues harp ace who can stake out harmonious common ground with acoustic old-schoolers, supercharged axslingers, roots rockers and alt-Americana songsmiths alike — or as local radio linchpin Rich Robinson said, “he could sit in with anybody like he’s played with them forever.”.

But perhaps above all else, Sanford “Sandy” Mack is the keeper of a weekly ritual that rivals any family’s most cherished Sunday-sauce tradition. At 4 pm, during every so-called “day of rest” on the calendar, an extended “jamily” of musical regulars, guest players, fans, friends, and drop-in passersby convenes inside the lobby lounge of the Asbury Hotel for a little gathering known as Sunday Jam— a lovably loose but enviably organized afternoon-into-evening that offers up a sonic smorgasbord of danceable Dead, concise classics, and some often wild workouts on things you’d least expect. All of it presided over by Mr. Mack, the patriarch of this Jamily and the founder of the feast that’s been an Asbury Park fixture for the better part of a decade.

“I’ve been doing Sundays around town for about eight years now,” says Mack, speaking amid the game tables, ultra-designey bar and conversation pit of The Asbury’s Soundbooth Lounge. “I started at Asbury Blues, and continued there when it became The Press Room…it was the first place where I ever did Grateful Dead music…and then (Stone Pony honcho) Kyle Brendle asked me if I would do a Wonder Jam event each week at the Wonder Bar.”

Those Sunday sessions at Lance and Debbie’s Circuit landmark became the stuff of latter-day legend in themselves; happenings that generated their own momentum, drew a fairly fervent fanbase, and soon had a whole lot of top-shelf talents expressing a desire to sit in. But when it came time once again to relocate the moveable feast, Mack was momentarily at a loss as to where to go next.

“I was curious about The Asbury…it didn’t look like my kind of place;; kind of upper crusty, you know…but I reached out to them,” he recalls. “They originally gave me three dates, to see what happens…that was a year and a half ago, and as you can see we’re still going strong!”

Sandy Mack will once more sit at the head of the figurative table this Soundbooth Sunday, January 6 — but before that, the harpist and a crew of his fellow Jam-mates will be performing a very special gig that’s required an unusual degree of rehearsal: a set paying tribute to The Allman Brothers, scheduled as part of A Celebration of Jam Bands.

Going up this Friday, January 4 at Asbury Lanes (where Mack and company were one of the first acts to play the reborn bowl-a-rama in a “soft opening” event last spring), the program further features the Grateful channelings of The Cosmic Jerry Band, as well as a Phish tribute featuring members of Secret Sound.

It also represents a return to the Duane/Gregg catalog for Mack, who teamed with Marc Ribler for a classic Allmans tribute a couple of years back. Joining in for the occasion will be Jam standby Mike Flynn, key man Arne Wendt, guitarist Big John Perry,  plus bassists Mike Caruso and Mike McKernan, drummers Kevin Johnson and Dan Donovan, and special guest Matt O’Ree. Stu Coogan of 90.5 The Night Brookdale Public Radio hosts the tenpins taproom throwdown, with doors at 7 pm and admission a positively spit-take-inducing five bucks.

The Mack-ster of Ceremonies presides over the Sunday Jam at the Asbury, with frequent Jam-mate Mike Flynn (DA Photography)

Here in a wintry interlude during which many Shore entertainment centers (and their audiences) tend to keep a low profile, the Friday night fracas is just one of several special events on the first page of Mack’s 2019 calendar. On January 11, the harp man returns to the Wonder Bar stage, to take part in an eagerly anticipated bill headlined by Jersey’s own Anthony Krizan  — with the Spin Doctors veteran ably supported by The John Ginty Band (recent tourmates of next-gen jamsters The Allman Betts Band), and Marcus Randolph (member of The Randolph Family Band, being a cousin to pedal steel powerhouse Robert Randolph).

Then on Thursday, January 17, the self-proclaimed “black sheep of the Light of Day family” sounds a keynote to that weekend’s Light of Day 2019 schedule, with a “Sandy Mack Wonder Jam Deluxe” that boasts The Cosmic Jerry Band, Waiting On Mongo, Karmic Juggernaut, Resurrextion, and Kevin from Secret Sound.

January 27 sees a special-edition return to the corner of Ocean and Fifth, for a Sandy Mack Wonder Jam event that’s set to commence at 3 pm, and that promises members of top Dead tributeers Splintered Sunlight, and the New Riders of the Purple Sage. Meanwhile, Marc Ribler sits in as host for  that Sunday’s Jam at the Soundbooth, with Mack hinting that it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility for the “have harp, will travel” musician to cover the one block’s worth of distance between the two venues.

None of which is to overlook the annual institution that is Harpin’ Help, the Mack-managed benefit concert that raises funds for the nonprofit Jersey Shore Jazz and Blues Foundation, as well as a collection of area food pantries — and that returns in April 2019 to Bar Anticipation in Lake Como, its home for nearly twenty years.

“I did the first one or two Harpin’ Help shows at the old Jason’s club in Belmar, but we outgrew the place,” says the musician who was first inspired to take up the harmonica by listening to rock-era recording artists like Paul Butterfield and “Magic Dick” of the J. Geils Band — and whose explorations of his chosen instrument led him to blues-harp virtuosos like Little Walter, Big Walter Horton, Sonny Boy Williamson, as well as lesser known masters like George “Harmonica” Smith and NYC-based Trip Henderson.

“I wanted to move the event to the Pony, but Bruce Springsteen came in wanting to do a party there, so…Bar A was glad to have us, and they’ve been great; taking care of everything.”

And even all of that doesn’t begin to touch upon the numerous Mack-connected projects that have been back-burnered of otherwise placed on hiatus for the time being. There’s The Sherman-Mack Band, the combo that showcased the “blue jeans vs. ballgowns” side of Lisa Sherman, the versatile vocalist whose sets of Broadway and pop standards are seen regularly at places like McLoone’s Supper Club (“we love each other…there’s real chemistry and camaraderie there”). Then there’s the Demolition Dogs, the project that teamed Mack with Ribler and Matt O’Ree (and which was forced to take a breather when O’Ree was tapped to serve as Bon Jovi’s tour guitarist).

Still, its Mack who feels “blessed” to have the career that he does — one that’s allowed him to record and collaborate with Krizan, rock-scene perennial Bebe Buell, and local-girl-made-good Nicole Atkins (“sitting in with her on the song ‘The Tower’ was one of my biggest thrills”).

There have also been West Coast jaunts and other “mini-tours” as a member of Dead On Live, Marc Muller’s tribute project that offers meticulous recreations of specific Grateful Dead concert setlists. It’s a method of operation that the jam master regards as “kind of weird, doing things note for note…because the Dead never did it that way themselves.”

“When you’ve played harp for a while, there are a lot of bad habits that you grow out of…but when you’re playing as someone like Pigpen (the late Grateful Dead charter member Ron McKernan), you kind of have to grow back into them!” he adds with a laugh.

While Mack’s slate of special events promises to keep the bandleader busy in the weeks and months to come, the veteran Shore music man is mulling a long-overdue return to the recording studio in 2019 (as visible as he’s been on the scene, he hasn’t released a CD of material under his name for nearly a decade).

And then there’s the Sunday Jam, the get-together whose foundations remain strong as family and twice as forgiving. Whether you’re one of the many familiar faces in the crowd, or a just-passing-through hotel guest who’s been lured in by an inriguing take on a favorite tune, there’s a sense of home to be had there — and a vibe that explores strange worlds beyond the Dead playbook too, like a sublime spelunking of Traffic’s “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” or a recent workout on “Big In Japan,” the Tom Waits/ Primus collaboration that was chased for the occasion with a fun anecdote involving Waits and a “pocket sandwich.”

“If you’re weird, you’re welcome,” observes the Mack-ster of ceremonies. “Just don’t be weirder than me!”