Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes (Carolina Theater of Durham, N.C.)
Feb 15, 2013
You’re expecting to see some celebrities at the show, but when Dennis Hopper and Sean Penn come strolling onstage at Durham’s Carolina Theater Friday night, it’s a bit disconcerting. But as soon as the music starts, you realize that the sounds coming out of the Hopper lookalike’s mouth could only belong to Southside Johnny, and the Penn clone is the Asbury Jukes guitarist Glenn Alexander.
The voice is unmistakable, smooth soul shot through with grit. He doesn’t waste any time, getting right to work banging out Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want To Be With You,” a great ragged soul vocal with only Jeff Kazee’s B-3 backing him, then breaking out into a trot with the full band behind him. He dips deep in the soul barrel for Springsteen’s Van Zandt’s “Love On The Wrong Side Of Town,” and “Baby’s Gone For Good.” He’s worked up a sweat, and stripping off the shades and glasses,the Hopper resemblance is gone. Clad in a t shirt and jeans, he looks like the guy you call to come to your house to fix damn near anything. He’s got plenty of attitude, and it’s justified. Fronting a rough and tumble bar band for three decades and still sounding like a smooth soul man is feat few singers have been able to pull off, but J still does it effortlessly.
The only concession to age comes when he announced “Harder Than it Looks” as a song he wrote three weeks ago. “Its been three years,” Kazee reminded him. “Oh my,” Johnny said. “Where did the time go?”
Johnny is as much fun to watch as he is to listen to, lurching about the stage, mugging at the audience, directing the band with finger wigwags and arms that shoot out erratically like he’s stepped onto a 220 volt cable. But this bunch has no trouble interpreting his gesticulations, shifting volume,tempo, genre at a waggle from J.
“Walk Away Renee” packs much more punch than the 4 Tops version, featuring John Isley on a big man sax solo worthy of Clarence Clemmons with bassist John Conte and organist Kazee on smooth backing vocals.
The crowd seems surprised at the “Talk To Me” position in the set list. Shouts of “its early” can be heard, which may have thrown J off. He shuts down the song a few bars in. “I wasn’t ready,” he sez. Looks like he didn’t wind up hard enough, but by the second try he’s ready,all puffed up, arms windmilling, standing on tiptoe, energy coming off him in waves as he pours out his soul into the mic.
His version of Aretha Franklin’s ’74 cut “Without Love” sounds as smooth as it did back in ’77 when he first recorded it.
“Woke up This Morning” from 2010’s Pills and Ammo, is down and dirty blooze, a mix of Chicago, Memphis and Asbury Park: Chicago style harp, boilin’ Memphis guitar and Jersey attitude, drums pounding away like the grandaddy of all hangovers.
“Bottle of white/ bottle of red,/help get me outta my head/bowl of gumbo and some mustard greens /take me down to New Orleans ,”Johnny chants before breaking into the second line strut of “Umbrella In My Drink,” bassist Conte serving up some greasy N.O. funk with Tom Seguso tossing some fatback drums in the gumbo.
There’s lots of between song banter with the band. Johnny pulls money out of his pocket and asks Kazee why his pix is on the bill. “You like carrying me around,” the organist says.. “I’ve been carrying you for years,” Johnny fires back.
The horn section has doing some Rockette style choreography behind him when Johnny turns and catches them at it It’s the Pips,” he cries, referring to Gladys Knight’s singers who had slick dance moves, He tries to get the band to play a few bars of Knight’s big hit, “Heard It Thru the Grapevine , but they fumble it and Johnny quickly waves them to halt. “We ‘ll have it worked up next time,” he promises.
“I have 25 albums,”Johnny announces, “none of em any good.” That’s his way of introducing his upcoming shows February 22 and 23, 2013 at the Stone Pony, only playing requests from fans, who can request tunes for the shows online at his website. J laments the fact he has to relearn 2- 300 songs. “My head’s like a sponge but it’s all dried out it. But,” he chuckles, “if it don’t work, f*%k it!” as the crowd cheers lustily.
J’s head Roadie comes onstage to tell him he’s got 15 minutes left, prompting J to tear into “I Choose To Sing the Blues” and get the band pounding so hard that dust from the ceiling is sprinkling down like snowflakes onstage.
“I don’t care if we haven’t been here in 32 years,” sez J, challenging the crowd to remember their part to sing Springsteen’s “Fever” with him. They oblige too well for him. He tries to stop them, but the crowd keeps repeating the phrase “Oh, baby, you’re my sun in the morning/And my moon at night” like a mantra, getting louder with each repetition, paying no attention to J’s efforts to shut them down. “Gawddammit, I’m the lead singer,” he shouts in mock outrage, but the crowd keeps on till J waves the band to a halt. “I hate you,” Johnny snarls at the crowd, who love him even more for the ‘tude.He get more crowd interaction on “Little Stephen’s “I Don’t Wanna Go Home,” hands shooting up in the crowd when he gets to the line “Listen, baby I know we had to try /To reach up and touch the sky.”
He leaves the stage, but nobody here’s going home, and they ain’t gonna let him go either. The first encore kicks off with “It Ain’t The Meat,” a ’50s era by the Swallows that sounds like a Cab Calloway jump blues number that has J directing traffic as the horns scramble for upfront mic space for solos.
“Real!” J bellows and the bands slams into “This Time Its For Real,” and it sure as hell is. Johnny still has plenty of energy, as he spins, hops and bounces his way through the tune.
It’s 1975 again as he croons “Hearts Of Stone,” his grizzled soul vocal still powerful, the fact that it’s just a little rough around the edges making it even better, the crowd as quiet as if they were in church.
Aaron Neville’s “Tell It like It Is” kicks off the second encore, with Johnny singing it as a straight soul testimonial, no wiggly yodeling like Neville’s roller coaster version. The band segues into Sam Cook’s “Havin a Party,” banging it out Jersey shore bar band style with plenty of rockin’ soul.
“Do da twist,” J shouts at one front row female resident wiggling to the beat,then tries to demonstrate, but the girl crawls up on stage as soon as his back is turned. He tries to dance with her, dips her and drops her, then falls on top. “I wish my mother was here,” he says. “I think she is,”Kazee fires back, as J drops to his knees laughing. The girl is oblivious, bellowing into the mike off key, then getting a death grip on his shirt, clinging so tightly he can’t sling her off in spite of several spins. A roadie finally grabs her and leads her off. The lights come up and whether you want to go home or not, that’s really the end of the nostalgia—till next time. Here’s hoping he doesn’t make us wait 30 years to see him again.
photos and text by Grant Britt