Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes @ Holmfirth Picturedrome 28/04/16
So why would anyone in their right mind want to take a four hundred mile round trip in foul weather while jet-lagged to go to a gig? Well, if it was the only opportunity in two years to see Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes in the UK, then it’s a small price to pay. And, let’s be completely upfront about this, I’m a fan and I have been for, well, let’s say a long time. I’ll give you a clue how long, I bought their first album, “I Don’t Want to Go Home”, in 1976. As you might expect with an eight/nine/ten piece band that’s been around for forty years, they’ve been through a few line-up changes; well, ok, Southside Johnny is the only member left from the original line-up, but you can call that evolution if you like. Following the release of the latest Jukes album, the superb “Soultime!”, the band has been on the road in the US, the UK and Europe promoting the album.
And that’s why I was at Holmfirth Picturedrome staring at least four very watery seasons in the face in one day; I wouldn’t make this much of an effort for just any old band. Let me tell you what you won’t get at a Southside Johnny gig; you won’t get a performance that’s timed and sequenced to the millisecond to tie in lighting plots, dancers, additional backing tracks and live autotune. What you will get is eight stunningly good individual musicians pulling together to give a hugely devoted audience a great show. The tour is in support of “Soultime!”, so when the set opened with a storming version of “I’m Not That Lonely”, it was no surprise. “All I Can Do” and the lead track “Spinning” also appeared early in the set, while the ballad “Words Fail Me” featured in the encore.
With a fanatical audience, each demanding to hear their personal favourite Southside song, and with forty years’ worth of Jukes albums to choose from (not to mention the odd cover), it’s always a bit of a high-wire act; and that’s why people go to see this band again and again, because they know that every show’s unique. It may not always be perfect, but it’s always different. On this night it took a couple of attempts to nail the intro to “It Ain’t the Meat (It’s the Motion)”; you have to expect a few heart-stopping moments when the acrobats are freestyling.
While the band plays that familiar blend of rock and soul, the show has an unmistakable jazz feel. The horns (John Isley, Chris Anderson and Neal Pawley, playing saxes, trumpet and trombone respectively) have serious jazz credentials (as The New York Horns) as does guitarist Glenn Alexander. When the solos came along (and there were plenty of them), the audience applauded the soloists enthusiastically, in true jazz club style. The horn solos were astonishingly good (particularly John Isley’s solo in “Passion Street” which moved away from the smooth melodic feel of Joey Stann’s recorded version to an impassioned stuttering, staccato version) but occasionally the horns took stage centre, ramping up the excitement with New Orleans style counterpoint ensemble playing.
The rhythm section of Tom Seguso (drums) and John Conte (bass) rarely catches the spotlight, but the band only works if they’re on the money, and they always are. Jeff Kazee, now Johnny’s main songwriting partner is also the perfect onstage partner, his high, soulful tenor voice blending perfectly with Johnny’s rich baritone as a duettist and harmoniser. As for Southside, he still takes responsibility for pulling all the strings, but now he can rely on all of The Jukes to take the pressure off at any time.
The only way you can pull off a gig like this is to have great musicians working with you; the downside of having great musicians in the band is that they get bored really easily. The challenge for Southside Johnny, through every single gig, is to balance those priorities and get the best out of the entire band. At The Picturedrome, the audience had a great time and the band looked they were having a ball as well. Job done.
Now if only we could do something about that group we see at every gig, ‘the men who can’t clap on two and four’ (or any beat at all to be honest) and ‘the men who can’t carry a tune in a JCB scoop’, we’d all be much happier.
And just a quick word about Broken Witt Rebels from Birmingham whose muscular riffs, powerful vocals and stage presence warmed the audience up nicely for the headliners.