IMHO – Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes

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You probably haven’t heard of Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes; don’t worry, most people in the UK haven’t. If you’re into timeless songs, great musicians and a powerful soul voice which sounds like it was marinated in Jack Daniel’s (and that’s before we even start on the live performances), then read on.

The original Asbury Jukes came together around 1974/1975 as part of the New Jersey shore scene centred around the Stone Pony in Asbury Park and have released, on average, an album every 18 months since then while the line-up has been continuously refreshed by over 80 musicians (including Steve Van Zandt and Jon Bon Jovi). The only constant over this 35 year period is John Lyon or Southside Johnny; singer, head honcho and harmonica player. So what’s so great about this band? A bit of biography first.

The first album ” I Don’t Want to Go Home” in 1976 set the Southside agenda for the next 3 years with a combination of soul/R’n’B covers and original material written by Bruce Springsteen and Jukes guitar player Steve Van Zandt. The band line-up, which defined the Jukes sound, was a standard rock band (plus keyboards) and a Memphis soul horn section (baritone sax, tenor sax, trombone and trumpet), with Southside Johnny fronting up. The third album, the critically-acclaimed “Hearts of Stone”, released in 1978, was written entirely by Springsteen, Van Zandt and Southside Johnny and featured in a Rolling Stone poll as one of the top 100 albums of the 70s and 80s. And that was the commercial high point.

Picture of - Southside Johnny & Asbury Jukes Hearts Of Stone: Remastered: SlipcaseAround the time of the sessions for Springsteen’s “Born To Run”, Steve Van Zandt received an offer he couldn’t refuse and became the Boss’s right-hand man. Both continued to contribute to Southside Johnny albums up to “Hearts of Stone” before the Boss Machine went into hyperdrive, and everything changed. CBS dropped the Jukes and Southside’s already fractious relationship with the music business got steadily worse. The band suffered badly in the 80s as tastes changed and their sound was seen as outdated, which would have been the end of the road for any normal band.

The reputation of the band, however, was built on exciting live performances featuring a great soul voice surrounded by very talented musicians intent on giving every audience a night to remember. Taking this show around America and Northern Europe created a fanbase that would prove very, very difficult to shake off. In 1985, Bobby Bandiera joined the band as guitarist and songwriting collaborator, kick-starting the first instalment of the Jukes revival. After 6 years of gigging and low profile album releases, 1991 saw the release of the highest-charting Southside album “Better Days” featuring contributions from Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi and Steve Van Zandt. With a well-received album and a very talented collaborator in Bobby Bandiera, things looked good for the Jukes until the new record company folded and once again they were on the outside.

The mid-90s saw Southside Johnny take an extended break from live performance and the music business generally before the band attracted 2 recruits in 1998 to complete the line-up which (with a few changes and substitutions for outside commitments) survives to the present day. The addition of Jeff Kazee, the new keyboard player, added another songwriting collaborator and singer to the mix while easing the burden of live musical direction for Bobby Bandiera and Southside. The new trumpet player, Chris Anderson joined the established sax pairing of Joey Stann and Ed Manion and the Jukes were reborn. For British fans, the addition in the mid-noughties of Sheffield-born trombone player Neal Pawley added an element which had been missed since the return of the Jukes to the UK touring circuit.

Messin With The Blues CDThe first decade of the 21st century saw Southside Johnny establish a method of working which keeps his vociferous fans happy and stays outside the music industry machine. The Jukes now have a regular annual touring circuit in the USA and northern Europe while Southside writes and records at his own pace and releases albums on his own Leroy label. The first Leroy release was “Messin’ with the Blues” in 2001 (initially vinyl-only) followed by “Going to Jukesville”, “Into the Harbour”, “Grapefruit Moon” (an album of big-band Tom Waits covers) and the 2010 “Pills and Ammo”. The albums feature new material which often makes its way into the live set alongside the old favourites and crowd pleasers. Which brings us back to the live performances.

A Southside Johnny gig is almost completely unpredictable; the band have a huge collection of original material and covers to call on at a moment’s notice and Southside Johnny uses this to take the gig in whichever direction he thinks is right on any given night. No 2 shows are the same, which is great for the audience and ensures that the musicians (a very talented bunch) never get complacent because they have to play the same material every night.

The quality of the musicianship means that members of the Jukes are not always available for live work (Bobby Bandiera takes second guitar duties on tour with Bon Jovi), but willing replacements are always available. The rite of passage for new band members is that on any given night there’s always a chance that Southside will lead the band into a song which they haven’t rehearsed; it’s not easy, but it keeps everything fresh.

If you want a night of great songs, great vocal and instrumental performances and a few surprises, you really should catch the Jukes live. Gigs are constantly updated at http://www.southsidejohnny.com which is also worth checking out for new releases. If you want to hear the band on record, listen to the albums “Hearts of Stone”, “Better Days” and “Going to Jukesville” as a starting point, or one of the greatest hits packages such as “Havin’ a Party with Southside Johnny”. Beyond that, you can go online and find all sorts of weird and wonderful covers and one-offs (“Please Come Home for Christmas” from the “Home Alone” soundtrack, for example).

If you like your gigs spontaneous and very high quality, check out the Jukes live in the UK this month and hear one of the truly great soul voices.

Songs you have to hear:

“The Fever”

“Hearts of Stone”

“I Don’t Want to go Home”

“It’s Been a Long Time”

“Passion Street”