Just around the corner from the Light of Day 2011

Off in Asbury Park, NJ again, just in time for the 11th Light of Day fundraiser, which climaxed at the Paramount theater Saturday night with a with a two-hour set by local musician Bruce Springsteen plus Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers.

A wonderful surprise, that 16-song set from Bruce. But the whole evening had been pretty spectacular (two words: Alejandro Escovedo. Plus also Jesse Malin, Willie Nile, Garland Jeffreys, more and more). And we’re not even getting into Sonny Kenn.

Asbury Park’s original rock star. The musician every other Asbury Park musician wished they could be. Inarguably the best guitar player in New Jersey. And stylish beyond the bounds of what should be true. May I draw your attention to his pompadour? A vision in tonsorial perfection. So perfectly cut, combed and finessed that it belongs (really) in the Museum of Modern Art.

But what you really want to do is hear the guy play guitar. Because he’s fast as hell — a kind of metallic blur, when he wants to be — but not in the technique-over-guts way. Sonny can play the blues with real gutbucket feeling, slink and stomp through a rockabilly tune and surf through Dick Dale’s terrain with a speed and finesse that goes in so many directions at once it feels, somehow, psychedelic. You didn’t think it was possible, but think again: next time you walk through the doors of perception could be a guy with a shiny robin’s-egg-and-chrome guitar standing there.

And what if Sonny were sharing the stage with four of Asbury Park’s other crowning guitarists? With Vini Lopez on drums? Then you’d have the Asbury All Stars, a pick-up conglomeration (virtually all of them veterans of the Upstage Club from the late ’60s/early ’70s) that somehow also included the six-string majestics of Ricky DeSarno (amazing speed and wildly articulate phrasing). The guys get together to jam on the standards once in a blue moon, and play without any rehearsal. But at the Wonder Bar on Saturday afternoon you’d never have known. They’ve been doing this with and/or around each other for more than four decades. Nothing left to talk about, I guess.

Lots of great bands playing around the boardwalk this weekend — including a great Sonny Kenn set at the Stone Pony on Friday night, among many others — lots of surprises, revelations, great times.

But Bruce. I’d heard he was a big if, up until yesterday morning, but maybe my source was misinformed. Or misinform-ING. No worries, I was eager to hear everyone else. But then the great night…including the expected Bruce duets with Malin, Nile and Ecovedo. And tht en the announced Grushecky set began, somehow, with Bruce alone with his acoustic guitar, leaning into the rarely played “Your Own Worst Enemy,” from ’08’s “Magic” lp. Then a lightly re-worked “This Hard Land.” Then came Grushecky and the Houserockers and the fireworks got going.

hit Read More to rock on…

Go to ‘Backstreets’ for the setlist and the song-by-song descriptions. Watching from  the side of the stage I was tracking Bruce’s bandleader moves. Particularly interesting w/ a band he doesn’t play with all the time…they obviously know the tunes, but it ain’t the whirring machine the E Streeters have been for so long. So fascinating to see that when the drummer missed a called-for  rimshot during “Pink Cadillac,”  Bruce simply turned the blown cue into a whole setpiece of its own. “That’s okay…if you miss it the first time, the second one is even better.” So he calls and BAM! Then again. And again. And again. And again. Counting it out aloud each time (three, four – BAM!) (I think this is during ‘pink cadillac.’) He’s not shaming the drummer…he’s just working with it, turning a mistake into another way to build the tension higher, and higher, until cracking it wide open when they all pivot into the next verse.

Joe and Bruce are great friends. but at times I wondered if it might frost Joe a bit to find himself subsumed by his New Jersey pal. Who, make no mistake, was completely in control of the band – calling the tunes, counting them down (even Grushecky’s!) and playing to the crowd with obvious delight. Bruce has this nickname some people use to assert his authority over rock ‘n’ roll. I can’t remember what it is, off-hand (sub-commandante? chief administrator? something like that), but then, Joe doesn’t seem like a beta-guy either. He’s tall and commanding — earlier swept through the lobby with a kind of kingly presence, though that may have been his coat talking — and is nothing to sneeze at in the songwriting and guitar-playing departments. A guy like him could maybe feel ticklish about surrendering his band, and himself, to another guy’s ministrations.

Or maybe not. Because it certainly didn’t feel that way. Because the generosity the Asbury All-Stars had for one another — a snapshot of the generosity all these volunteer musicians were displaying at the charity festival — was just as evident during the Bruce/Joe show, too. Particularly when it came to the young guy (Joe’s son, possibly? I don’t know) playing acoustic guitar near the rear of the stage. It was clear that he was serving some kind of support role back there, not a front-line member of Joe’s band. But when the guitar players upfront stepped up in unison to play to the crowd Bruce purposfully looked back and gestured the guy forward. The kid did what he was told, stopping about five feet short of the lip of the stage…until Bruce reached back, grabbed a handful of shirt, and yanked the guy up next to him. Stopped playing, too. Put his arm around the kid’s shoulder, paused for a moment then ripped away at his own strings.

This isn’t a music review. What it all sounded like kind of doesn’t matter. What stuck with me was how happy everyone was to be there in that moment. To be playing music, for one thing. To be playing it together, for another. And it’s not just a Bruce thing, either. It’s a Ricky DeSarno thing. It’s a Joe Pettilo thing. It’s a Sonny Kenn thing. It’s been the terms of engagement here throghout the rock era.

What it isn’t, though, is a Sonny Kenn’s hair thing. Because Sonny’s hair is really the boss.


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