IMHO – Bobby Bandiera

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Bobby Bandiera (Photo by Keith Golub)

Bobby Bandiera (Photo by Keith Golub)

I first saw Bobby Bandiera play in June 1995 at The Leadmill in Sheffield as part of an unplugged-style tour with Southside Johnny.  I know; it’s a huge surprise that I was at a Southside Johnny gig, but you have to take my word for it.  Looking back at it with the benefit of nearly twenty years of hindsight, the tour was probably an attempt to find out if Southside still had a following in the UK and whether a tour with a full band was a viable proposition.  On the night, Johnny and Bobby were outstanding; it’s surprising how much variety you can squeeze out of two voices, a guitar and a few harmonicas.  They played every request that came from the audience and proved that good songs are still good songs when all of the arrangements are stripped away.  Before the gig, I knew that Southside was a great singer and harmonica player; after the gig, I knew that Bobby Bandiera was a hugely talented guitar player and a very, very good singer.

Bobby played in various bands on the Jersey shore following his debut in 1968, building a reputation as a gifted player and was considered as a replacement for Steve Van Zandt in The E Street Band for Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” tour.  It didn’t happen, but in the following year he joined Southside Johnny and The  Jukes, following the departure of Billy Rush and kicked off a collaboration which has lasted for nearly thirty years.  I’m guessing that playing in The Jukes isn’t as lucrative as playing in the E Street Band, but it has other rewards.

I’ll come back to this later, but I truly respect any musician who naturally leads a band (whether it’s as a singer, guitarist or songwriter, and Bobby is all three) and can also take a back seat for a while and just be one of the players; Jimi Hendrix couldn’t do it, and he wasn’t the only one.  When Bobby joined The Jukes they were mainly functioning as a live act and releasing albums that only the dedicated fans were buying but, from the very start to the present day, they remain a live phenomenon and Bobby has always been a perfect fit for Southside’s live performances.  I’ve heard a story, from someone who knows, that Southside always likes to test any new Jukes (and there have been plenty of those) by suddenly, mid-gig, calling a tune that they haven’t rehearsed.  I’m willing to bet that he never caught Bobby out that way because according to Billy Walton, another hugely versatile frontman and supporting guitarist, Bobby’s memory for songs is legendary.

There must have been a settling-in period but I’m guessing that it didn’t take very long for Bobby to become a perfect foil for Southside and give the singer a chance to drop down a few gears during live sets by passing the baton to his guitarist for a few songs.  Leading any band isn’t easy, especially if you’re talking about nine or ten musicians and having Bobby Bandiera as a trusted lieutenant (in the same way that Springsteen has Steve Van Zandt in the E Street Band) helped keep the Jukes a tight live unit while adding another great voice to the mix.  Any musician who joins The Jukes has to be a gifted player; you don’t play the same set night after night and you never know which song (or version of a song) is coming next.  Apart from the challenge, the upside of this is that the musicians never get bored or complacent.

During twenty years with the Jukes, Bobby has also released three solo albums and continues to play live in New Jersey with the Bob Bandiera Band whenever he’s not touring in his current day job .  Did I forget to mention that Bobby has been touring as part of Bon Jovi’s live set-up since 2005 in a supporting role?  He’s usually described as rhythm guitarist, but I’m going to get all controversial on you here and say that there’s much more to it than that; the reason that Jon Bon Jovi wanted Bobby Bandiera in the touring band is that he needed a safe pair of hands.  If your lead guitarist has had well-documented substance and reliability problems, then you need a reliable backup plan and Bobby Bandiera is about as reliable as they come; a tremendous guitar player who also adds very strong vocals.  In April 2013, Richie Sambora left the tour at short notice and, in Canada, for one night only, Bobby Bandiera shook off the rhythm guitar tag and took on all the guitar duties, doing the job that he was brought in to do.  It didn’t last long, as another shredder, Phil X, was brought in the next day to replace Sambora.  And that incident kicked off all the predictable online spats between fans and friends on various sides of the debate (and not a serious word from any of the protagonists).

For what it’s worth, I’m not keen on bands bringing in extra players (for whatever reason)without giving them full bandmember status but, ultimately, it’s up to the players involved to do what they think is right.  I don’t think you can criticise a musician for taking a supporting role which (presumably) pays well without the dubious benefit of a spotlight and big-screen shot; it’s a hard world out there as a professional musician and it’s getting harder.

I know it’s difficult if you live in the UK, but the best way to appreciate the artistry of Bobby Bandiera is to see him live.  You can find YouTube clips of “C’mon Caroline” and covers of “Like a Hurricane” and “Baba O’Riley”, but the quality’s variable at best, and it’s almost impossible to find his albums online (at least at anything less than eye-watering prices). So, I guess the best I can hope for is that Jon Bon Jovi takes an extended break and Bobby comes back to the UK on the next Jukes tour; it’s unlikely but if it does happen, Music Riot will let you know about it then it’s up to you to go out and see him.

Some guitar players throw shapes and use smoke and mirrors (and the occasional wind machine) to grab your attention, but Bobby Bandiera doesn’t need any of that; he just has to play and sing.  He’s a very modest guy who seems to be happy just to be doing something that he’s very good at, and that always looks and sounds good on stage.  Whether he’s playing with his own band, The Jukes or a group of teenagers at a rock school, he’s always a great player to watch and he always looks like he’s having a great time.  What more could you ask for?