Southside Johnny on Cream, Springsteen, and James Brown
It’s a common remark – and sometimes a boast – of music aficionados worldwide: “That was the best concert I have ever seen.” Those glowing words, though, can mean a lot more when they come from the mouths of experienced musicians.
Some performers find it difficult to name the best concert they attended as a spectator because they have played in and watched so many incredible shows during their careers. Others love to address the topic like any excited fan, and their memories and insights are precious.
This is the first of a regular No Depression column titled “Best I’ve Ever Seen.” Each column will feature the unique memories of one or more artists who will tell us not only their favorite concerts but also the most influential. Readers are welcome to join in on the fun and comment about their greatest concert experiences.
What better way to kick off an inaugural column than to go to the Jersey Shore and hear from Southside Johnny – an exciting, tireless performer with deep respect for his roots, who always covers other musicians’ songs onstage?
Johnny, who is still delivering his blue-eyed soul music with The Asbury Jukes 39 years after their debut album, vividly recalls his “best concert”: Cream at the 375-seat Café au Go Go in New York City in 1967.
“Ginger Baker looked like an escapee from a lunatic asylum,” he remembers. “Eric Clapton rarely glanced up from his guitar and Jack Bruce wailed like a whiskey-soaked wild dog. It was loud but glorious, and you could hear every nuance. Indelible memories.”
Johnny points to a James Brown concert in the early 1960s at the Asbury Park Convention Center as his second favorite. The concert “made me want to get up on stage and sing and perform – and have girls scream my name,” he says. “It was the whole show package: TV Mama, The Fabulous Flames, a comedian, the band doing 20 minutes by themselves and then James destroying all notion of civility and decorum.
“Heady stuff for a small-town teen,” says Johnny, whose most recent album, 2013’s Songs from the Barn, was recorded with his spin-off band The Poor Fools. “I later got to play on that stage, and it overwhelmed me for a minute before I went on. Half a century ago, and I can still hear the screams, both the girls’ and James’s.”
The most influential concerts Johnny attended that helped shape him as a musician are numerous, but one, in February 1975, involving Asbury Park friend Bruce Springsteen stands out. It was at the Main Point, a small coffeehouse outside Philadelphia in Bryn Mawr, PA.
“He was so on, so loose, and so much fun that I rethought how I would go about my stage work. I stopped trying to be a serious musician and started to just let myself be on stage.
“Then I saw Iggy Stooge at the Hullabaloo Club in Asbury Park, and realized I could be anything I wanted: funny, crazy, angry, goofy. Those guys freed me from the blues pedant crap that was part of the music scene at the time. And I thank them for it.”