If you’re looking for something that’s easy on the ear to use as aural wallpaper for your commute or as background music for a dinner party, then stop right here; this is proper music. Southside Johnny has been making music with various Asbury Jukes for over forty years and compromise isn’t something that he’s about to start now. The quality of the songs, the playing and the arrangements is what it’s all about; always has been, always will be. Southside had fraught relationships with his various labels in the days when bands signed to a label and hoped that the label would make them successful but it hasn’t worked that way for a while now so Southside has moved on to a completely different way of working; he has control over the creative and business processes. ‘When’s the album being released? When it’s ready’. And “Soultime!” is well and truly ready. It’s taken a while (the last album “Pills and Ammo” was released in 2010), but Southside’s a very busy man these days; not only is he trying to keep an eight-piece rock and soul band in line, but he’s also working with his Americana project The Poor Fools, comprising various Jukes and some of the extended Jersey shore family.
Through the various incarnations of The Jukes, Southside has always had a collaborator helping with songwriting and musical director duties; Steve van Zandt moved on to the E Street Band as Springsteen went up through the gears and Bobby Bandiera took on the ‘safe pair of hands’ role with Bon Jovi on his seemingly endless world tour. Which, after an overlap with Bobby, left Jeff Kazee, keyboard virtuoso with a great high tenor soul voice, as the partner in crime. And, as much as I love the work of Little Steven and Bobby Bandiera, the Jeff and Johnny combination is producing some stunning results as Southside takes more credit for his songwriting contributions and Jeff Kazee adds his voice to the mix as well; it’s a potent combination.
In 2001, Southside released “Messin’ with the Blues”, an album of songs illustrating his love of blues, but also demonstrating the variety of styles within blues music; fourteen years later, “Soultime!” applies the same template to a cross-section of soul styles. It’s not too difficult to identify the influences, but the quality of the writing and the performances ensure that this is an album to be judged on its own merits.
The opening track “Spinning” throws all the ingredients into the blender to create a manic Stax feel. Everything’s there, from the horn fills to the breakdown, building back up with John Conte’s bass, Jeff Kazee’s Hammond and Glenn Alexander’s guitar, to the call and response vocal and the big horn finish. There’s barely time to get your breath back before “All I Can Do” the mid-tempo Johnny/Jeff duet. The two voices combine perfectly and a sweet tenor sax solo from John Isley is the icing on the cake. “Don’t Waste my Time” could be early Jukes, musically and lyrically as Southside tells the ‘my girl done me wrong’ story supported by backing vocalists Elaine Caswell, Layonne Holmes and Catherine Russell before Neal Pawley steps up for a trombone solo.
“Looking for a Good Time” is the album’s defining song. The inspiration for the album came from hearing “Superfly” in the booze aisle at the supermarket and watching how the shoppers reacted. “Looking…” captures the upful mood of Curtis Mayfield in 1970 perfectly; if anything ever made me wish I could dance, this is it. The namechecks in the lyrics say it all, really: ‘Isley Brothers and Curtis and Sly and Bobby Womack too’; it’s perfect. “Words Fail Me” is a mature love ballad with very tasteful backing (even drummer Tom Seguso is reined in), muted horns and a lovely flugelhorn solo from Chris Anderson; Johnny’s voice is sublime and it would melt a heart of stone. “Walking on a Thin Line” has a faintly menacing Latin feel evoking Isaac Hayes, The Temptations and The O’Jays but still totally Jukes.
What comes next is a very rare thing indeed; an instrumental on a Jukes album. “Klank” is the love child of “Soul Finger” and “Third Stone from the Sun” with harmonica and tenor sax solos; they’re allowed to have fun as well, you know. Carrying on with the levity, “Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness” is a bit of light-hearted fun with a cast of Damon Runyon characters and a nod to “Check Mr Popeye” from way back when, which takes the intensity down a little bit before the final three songs.
“I’m Not That Lonely” totally nails the Motown sound (Four Tops, anyone?) while “The Heart Always Knows” harks back to a much earlier time (Sam Cooke, or maybe The Cascades). It’s a slow, gentle ballad with some nice pizzicato strings courtesy of Jeff Kazee and acoustic guitar from Glenn Alexander and it takes off the heat for a few minutes before the final offering. “Reality” takes its influence from the psychedelic soul of the late sixties/early seventies with some interesting synth sounds and John Isley’s flute (and is that bass sax on there as well?), strings and muted horns; it gets kinda busy in there at times.
Southside Johnny set out to evoke a certain era of soul with this album; he wanted to make us feel good, the way we did when we first heard all of the great artists who influenced this album, and it’s an unqualified success. The arrangements perfectly capture the feel without sounding like The Faux Tops; he and The Jukes have created a perfect homage to music that was the soundtrack to the sixties and seventies. Over forty years down the line, he still has that raw, emotive voice that cuts through Hammond and horns and straight to the heart. Working with Jeff Kazee and the latest incarnation of The Jukes, he’s turned out a modern soul classic.
“Soultime!” is released on September 1 on Leroy Records.
Last Friday I had the opportunity to spend some time with the legendary Southside Johnny before the final show of his UK tour, featuring Gary “US” Bonds, at Shepherds Bush Empire. He was entertaining and engaging (as always):
AM – We did an interview here three and a half years ago and at that time you spoke to me about this acoustic thing that you might or might not be doing, which was really big news at the time and that’s happened now, so how’s that going?
SJ – It’s really good, it’s a fun thing. It’s really stripped down; we travel in a van together, we have breakfast in the morning as a band (there’s only six of us, with the road manager) and we set up our own equipment and tear it down and it really feels like the old days when you used to have to do that. It was a complete commitment to the whole day of travel, set up, play, tear down and travel again and even though I’m kinda long in the tooth I really enjoy it because it seems so organic and basic; there’s no star turns at all. I love playing acoustic music and it gives us a chance to play George Jones and Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan and Tom Waits and some Bruce in a different format.
AM – You mentioned a few country artists there; you’ve always been a country fan haven’t you?
SJ – Yes I liked country when I was very young. What I didn’t know is that my mother, way back in the thirties when the ukulele was the big thing, she bought a ukulele from Sears Roebuck and she would sit on the porch with her father (her mother had died young) and some neighbours, and they would sing country songs, so I guess it’s in my blood, it’s the Irish part of me.
AM – I’ve heard you play “He’ll Have to Go” (country classic made popular by Jim Reeves) at The Astoria, I think.
SJ – Well, Soozie Tyrell, who plays violin with Bruce, she has a country band in New York City, and I would go up and do lots of songs with her because they’re real singer’s songs, they’re story songs with great melodies so it’s fun to make that kind of music.
AM – The old Jukes revolving door seems to have slowed down a little…
SJ – Not too much. We’ve got a new saxophone player, John Isley; I think (drummer)Tom Seguso’s been over here.
AM – At the time of the last interview, Joey (Stann, tenor sax) and Ed (Manion, baritone sax) were still with you but they’re obviously off doing other things now. There seems to be lots of side projects going on as well now that the New York Horns have made a record.
SJ – These days it’s a lot easier to make a record for a little money and it’s also easier to manufacture; for a buck apiece you can make as many CDs as you want and there’s a profit margin once you’ve paid for the studio time and the musicians and all the rest of it. I’m lucky that Jon Bon Jovi lets me use his studio but, even if he didn’t, studio time’s not as expensive as it used to be, home recording’s easier and the internet makes it easy to get distribution to all your fans round the world. It’s a good time to be a musician because you can do all the little things you want to do without incurring great expense.
AM – Did the side projects always happen to a certain extent; do we just hear about them more because of social media?
SJ – We’ve always done those things; Bobby (Bandiera, guitar, now playing with Bon Jovi) and I went out for months, here and there, doing a lot of charity gigs and they put us on a plane, in business class, just him and me and a guitar and harmonicas. We went all over and played charity things and it was just a chance to play in hotels and every little place you could find and it was a lot of fun because it was no stress.
AM – I saw you at Sheffield City Hall in 1995, I think, just the two of you doing the stripped back thing and it was a great night.
SJ – Well, if you have confidence in what you’re doing and you have material you think you can accomplish with just a guitar and a harmonica it’s a chance to explore all that too. Years ago Bobby, Rusty Cloud, David Hayes and I played in Paris at the Chesterfield Club. We did a two-week stint there with very little publicity and we rode the Métro and that was a lot of fun too. We all stayed in the same hotel, this funky little place and it was two weeks in Paris. I’m lucky I’ve had the chance to do those things and just explore what making music means other than pedal-to-the-metal trying to earn a living. I can do just about anything I want now. I’m never going to be rich, I’ve known that from the very beginning so there’s not a great stress to be a big star and make a lot of money; I make a living and that’s all I want. I just want to be allowed to do whatever kind of music I want to make.
AM – I was going through some of my very old Jukes records today and it struck me that after Billy Rush left, you got much more involved in the songwriting process; there’s not a lot of your songs on the early albums.
SJ – I was a writer back then but I would write certain things with certain people but the bulk of the song would be theirs and I’d say “forget it, I don’t want to have anything to do with it”. I wrote with Billy but I don’t have the kind of ego that I need to see my name on the album, but now with Jeff and Bobby the songwriting is really a collaboration so I get to write a lot of lyrics that I find interesting like “Into the Harbour” and “Winter in Yellowknife” and stuff like that which is not the norm for romantic love songs.
AM – On “Pills and Ammo”, it struck me that your name’s on every track as a writer. Do you have a certain way of working; do you do the lyrics and Jeff does the music?
SJ – It’s pretty much that way except that if I come up with a musical idea we’ll explore it and he helps me with lyrics; it’s a real collaboration in other words. I’ll come with an idea, a whole lyric and I’ll say “I think it sounds like this” and he’ll find a way to make it sound like what I want, but then he’ll say “what about this…” and we really try to bounce ideas off each other.
AM – I know Jeff’s a big fan of Squeeze and Difford and Tilbrook wrote in that way as well.
SJ – I’m a big Squeeze fan too.
AM – About your audiences; you’ve retained a very loyal audience in the UK. In the US, are the audiences different?
SJ – Well, they speak English. There’s people who come and see us a million times and there’s people who come and see us for the first time and usually we can win people over. It’s the energy and a lot of the music is made to lift you up so it’s not some shoegazer and it’s not some egomaniac, it’s really just music. I think one of the things that keeps people coming back is that it’s never the same night after night and I don’t know where it’s going to go and tonight’s going to be like that too because we’ve got Gary Bonds and we know what we’re going to do but when we get on stage, that may change.
AM – I’ve been watching Billy Walton live for a while and I’ve noticed that his crowd seems to be getting younger. I’ve seen teenagers at his shows but I’ve also seen people in their twenties who know all of the songs. I just wondered if that was happening with The Jukes.
SJ – We do get a lot of younger people; we had a bunch last night in Holmfirth, but we have our loyal fans and they’re the ones that usually get the first tickets and they’re older, but they bring their kids and some of them bring their grand-kids but anybody who’s willing to give us a shot we’re willing to play for as long as they come and have a good time and just enjoy themselves.
AM – November used to be the traditional time for a Jukes tour but the last couple of years you’ve been over during the summer. I’m guessing that’s because of festivals.
SJ – Yes. This year especially, because we had the Cornbury Festival to start it and we’re ending with Bospop in Holland so we had two festivals and we put a bunch of gigs in between and those get to be the anchor gigs. Unfortunately there’s new taxes in England, Foreigner Entertainer Tax (FET) and Hood, who settles everything got hit with it the other night and they wanted £1,400 for FET. Nobody knew exactly what it was but it’s legitimate and all that does is it makes it harder for bands like me to come over here; you can only lose so much money. On the one hand I guess they need the tax money but if they really need that, they should get all those people who hide their money offshore and let us poor bands try to play a little music.
AM – And a lot of musicians are hiding money offshore.
SJ – Well I’m not hiding any money; my money comes and goes and I get to see it as it goes past and that’s about it.
AM – Going back to the festivals, what’s the biggest gig you’ve ever played?
SJ – Probably Knebworth with Led Zeppelin. We did two shows; we did the first one, flew home and did a show in Washington DC, flew back and did the second show at Knebworth and flew home again, if I remember rightly, so it was a lot of flights. And we played about forty minutes but it was fun, it was a unique experience and we met some good people over here.
AM – As far as I can remember, and I was a long way away from the stage, it seemed like you got a pretty good response that day.
SJ – It seemed like that; of course we didn’t the full power that the headline act got (we don’t do that, if somebody opens up for us they get full power, but I’m not ever worried about a band opening up for us, I hope they do well). But I thought Led Zeppelin was terrible; there was no bass in the mix in the audience.
AM – That’s all the serious stuff but I’ve got couple of other questions for you. You’ve now got a huge body of work to choose from when you play; is there anything you feel can’t be left out?
SJ – Well, there’s nothing that can’t be left out, but I’m not there to just indulge myself, I’m there to give people what they want too and you split the difference. I know they want to hear “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and “The Fever” and “Trapped Again” or “Talk to Me” or “This Time It’s for Real” or “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” or whatever and you try to include those but when you twenty-two, twenty-three songs, there’s plenty of room for you to do what you want too. There are times when I say “I’m sick of this song, I’m not doing it” and it lasts for few months then it’s back in.
AM – Here’s one from my sister, who’s a big fan. Is there a song that makes you cry?
SJ – There’s a lot I guess. I’ve got some that I’ve written but Alison Krauss does a song called “I Can Let Go Now” which I think was written by Michael McDonald and it just kills me because I relate it to my mother. I don’t think that’s what it’s really about but for me it is and I just can’t listen to that song. There’s a lot; there are things that really touch me. I wouldn’t be doing if I didn’t get emotionally involved. When I was young and heard certain songs, I either got happy or excited or even felt sexy or touched, and to be part of that tradition is an amazing thing, but I’ve never really lost the idea that if someone sings a great song and really means it then I can get lost in the emotion.
AM – I find it really difficult to listen to “Many Rivers to Cross” after the version Jeff did here in 2010.
SJ – He really puts his heart and soul into it.
AM – Finally, hoping for another scoop, have you get anything in the pipeline?
SJ – Well, Jeff and I have written most of the songs for the next Jukes album; when we get it finished, I don’t know. We’re hoping to get in the studio, perhaps this winter and get it out some time next year. I’d love to get it out by Christmas but that’s just not gonna happen, and I’ve written some songs for a new Poor Fools acoustic thing and I’ve got a couple of other projects in mind too. I could retire if I wanted to, but then what would I do? I’d sit around the house, get fat and drink myself to death, and I can do that on the road.
AM – Johnny, many thanks for making the time for the interview.
SJ – My pleasure, any time.
It’s a couple of years since we last spoke to one of our favourite guitar players, Billy Walton, so I arranged an interview before his show at “Tropic at Ruislip”. As an added bonus, the legendary Roger Mayer (search him online, but as a bit of a clue, he designed effects pedals for Jimi Hendrix) turned up as well because he’s been working with Billy for a few years now. Here’s what happened.
Allan -- It’s been two years since we last did this, at Totteridge, and you were just about to release “Crank it Up”. What have you been up to since then?
Billy -A lot of stuff, we’ve been playing the Jersey shore, tons of gigs; we’ve been writing, writing with friends. There’s a lot of projects in the works right now. We did a whole live thing over the summertime; we had a mobile unit follow us around and we did a lot of recording with that and we caught the fun vibes on the Jersey shore. Right now I’ve been writing and I’ve got about eighteen or nineteen new tunes; maybe do another Billy Walton Band album we’re trying to work on then try and write with other people and have fun and put out some cool stuff. That’s our plans.
Allan -- Before “Crank it Up” was released you were telling me that you thought the songs were stronger on that album.
Billy -- Well, songwriting always evolves and it depends on what you’re feeling. With that one we were going for a Jersey shore laid-back, more soulful type of thing instead of just guitar pyrotechnics like the albums before that.
Allan -- There were a few elements of early Bruce in there as well, the New Jersey feel.
Billy -- Being from New Jersey that kinda comes out it’s always gonna come out.
Roger -- It’s part of the DNA, isn’t it?
Billy -- It’s where you’re from; it’s always going to come out. To dissect the Jersey shore music it’s kind of ahead of the beat, it’s driving all night, in a pumping club on the Boardwalk , and that’s what it’s about.
Allan -- And how are the songs for the new album coming along?
Billy -- There’s a good mix; I want to reintroduce more of the guitar pyrotechnics on the new album, we haven’t picked the songs yet so we just keep writing and we’ll figure out which ones are the best.
Roger -- You haven’t actually decided on whether the line-up for the record is gonna remain constant. There would be no reason for every track to have the same personnel on it; is it fair to say that would be a step different from a production standpoint?
Billy -- Yes, absolutely. On this tour we’re bringing two horns; Richie(Taz) is still playing with us back home but I brought these two horns with us just to switch it up a bit. It’s all about the vibe of the night and it’s the same thing with trying to create an album it’s about getting that vibe and whoever it takes to make that vibe happen.
Roger -- If I can say one thing here: I don’t think your records have ever tried to
capture you playing live. You’ve done the live record, but a studio record is completely different from a live record because it gives you much more scope with what’s possible.
Billy -- And I think that’s what we haven’t captured on our last albums; that live vibe. If you come out to a show, you know it’s controlled chaos.
Roger -- And I think that’s true of Bruce (Springsteen)’s albums too. Live he’s fantastic but I don’t think his albums live up to the live performance.
Allan -- And it’s a great experience, a Billy Walton Band live show because like Bruce and Southside Johnny, you never know what you’re going to get on the night, do you?
Roger -- That’s true, when I was with Hendrix, we deliberately never played the same thing twice any night so you never knew what to expect and that’s a jazz thing as well, which makes it exciting. It means you can see the band three nights in a row and get three and get three different and I think that’s cool, rather than some note-for-note rendition which gets stale very quickly.
Allan -- The last time I saw the band, which was at Barnet on the last tour, you played a solo where you threw the riff from “Kashmir” and the intro from the Chicago song “25 or 6 to 4” and that’s great because nobody’s expecting it.
Billy -- There’s no rules and that’s what I was feeling at that time so I thought let’s get into it.
Roger -- Well there are no rules, are there? That is the rule; there are no rules.
Billy -- That’s right, the band’s having fun and if you saw us last night, tonight’s gonna be totally different and it’s got to be that way because sometimes even the band doesn’t know what’s coming next and that’s great.
Roger -- Should they know?
Billy -- They shouldn’t (laughs).
Allan -- I saw Bruce at the Olympic Park and, you know this is coming, but he walked to the front of the audience, pulled out a request placard, turned towards the band, lifted it in the air and the band launched straight into the song; that’s the mark of a really great band.
Billy -- Like us, the E Street Band are all music lovers. Everybody you see playing that way, you know they have a load of Motown records, they have all the Stax records and they still put them on and that takes them back. One night I went to hang out with the E Street guys in Philly and they played “Higher and Higher” and the place just erupted (Billy sings and finger-pops the chorus for emphasis) and afterwards everyone was just so excited that they did that song.
Roger -- Because a great song played by great musicians gets a great reaction. It’s exciting and memorable.
Allan -- So you’re in the process of raising funds to make the album now; how’s that going?
Billy -- Well, there are many different things we’re trying to do and one is that we’re talking to this guy, Tony Braunagel who’s just produced Curtis Salgado, he’s done Taj Mahal albums and he’s interested in doing an album with us, but that’s not definite; it’s not in stone, we’re just raising funds for the next project. There’s always gonna be a project, because we’re always writing and we’re always playing, but right now that’s the one.
Allan -- And that funding’s happening through indiegogo , isn’t it?
Billy -- That’s right, indiegogo. The way the music industry has gone it’s a great way (to fund an album). It used to be that the label that gave you the money, the producer pays everything, you pay him back, but now fan funding allows the artists to do it themselves and own it.
Allan -- And it allows you give something back to the fans that have funded it as well.
Billy -- Absolutely, they feel a part of it; they get packages where they get so many CDs and other deals.
Roger -- And that’s still only the beginning because it only takes you so far, you still have to try to get airplay. It’s still only the opening pawn move in a chess game.
Billy -- You need a fish to catch the bigger fish.
Allan -- Are there any guitar players that you listen to or you’ve worked with over the last few years that you would recommend to a UK audience?
Billy -- That’s a good question; there’s a lot of great players out there but to name one; Freddie King! There’s a lot of evolutions of Albert King and Freddie King out there.
Roger -- But the thing is can they write good songs? Not that they’ve got some licks that they’ve served up in a generic way. Can they write good songs? That’s what makes them stand out.
Allan -- When I saw you play with the Henrik Freischlader Band in January, it struck me that he can write a good song and he has a very soulful voice as well.
Billy -- The thing is, with players that I like, they have something that you can say “I can tell where they’re from”, they’re unique. They’re not just generic Clapton copies; that’s what I don’t like. What I do like is, there’s a couple of bands in New Jersey that came up after Katrina from New Orleans and these cats can play and you could tell they were from New Orleans; you could hear it, you could feel it and that’s what I like. And it doesn’t have to be a guitar player, it can be any musician.
Allan -- I was surprised a few years ago when I read a Bobby Bandiera interview and he was asked about new music he listened to and he said he didn’t listen to a lot but he did say that he liked Radiohead, which was a bit of a shock.
Billy -- Well, Bobby might have been messing with the interviewer there (laughs).
Allan -- We first met when you were playing with The Jukes; are you focussing on the Billy Walton Band now, or is there a chance that we might see you back with Southside in the future?
Billy -- Absolutely. I’m friends with those guys, Southside is great; I enjoy the whole Jersey heritage and I still do gigs with them once in a while but I’m really trying to focus on my stuff. When you think about it there has to be more generations of music from Jersey. Everybody speaks about Bruce and Bon Jovi but what about Frank Sinatra, the Rat Pack in Atlantic City; there’s evolution there.
Allan -- We spoke briefly during the first interview we did about some of the Jersey Shore bands and musicians; what is it that makes that scene so special?
Billy -- There’s a lot to it. In summertime the Jersey shore is a vacation spot; everybody from Philadelphia, Washington and New York City hits the shore and along the shore there’s a party every night in the summertime and there’s clubs all along the Boardwalk and everybody meets their girlfriends and they dance, it’s that whole scene.
Roger -- It would be like thirty miles of Blackpool but slightly classier. And it’s better than New York because the clubs are bigger.
Billy -- What’s great about New Jersey too is the brotherhood of the bands. There are clubs next door to each other and when you go on break, you walk out and go and jam with your friend’s band next door and they come and jam with you.
Roger -- A bit like New Orleans in a way.
Billy -- With those guys we all know what each other’s doing and the players are interchangeable. We all get together and have fun and listen to music and talk music and that’s what’s different about it.
Allan – It’s great that Bobby (Bandiera)’s been on tour with Bon Jovi for what seems like forever now, but as soon as there’s a break in the tour he goes back to the Jersey shore and he’s playing McLoone’s Boathouse and places like that.
Roger -- Because it’s fun. If you’re a musician why wouldn’t you want to do something different if you’ve been on a tour round the world and it’s boring as hell.
Billy -- You’re right. You’re away from it all and you’re in a bubble. We played Churchill Downs in Kentucky in front of thousands of people with Bon Jovi and that night I got on a plane and flew home to New Jersey and played in front 150 people at a club, a jukejoint and I loved them both because I had fun.
Roger -- We used to do that with Jimi (Hendrix, of course); straight off the stage and straight down the pub and jam, every night.
Billy -- You wanna play, and you wanna have fun, youknow?
Allan -- Have you noticed any changes in the UK audiences over the last 2 years?
Billy -- Yes, there’s a mix; it’s not just the older demographic. We get the traditional blues fans coming out to hear a guitar player. Then you have the Jersey people who buy into that thing of having a good time and having a party and you get the younger crowd so it’s a great mix.
Allan -- I noticed particularly at the gig in Barnet, on the last tour, there were teenagers wearing Billy Walton Band T-shirts and I thought that was great because I’ve seen a lot of blues players recently at shows where I’m the youngest person in the room, and that really worries me.
Roger -- That’s really sad, man. You should look out for a band called the 45s; they sound like the Rolling Stones did in 1965 and Jimmy Page and the guy from Dr Feelgood gave them a bit of a leg-up, but this is guys that are seventeen and nineteen who wanna portray that energy. So the energy is there with younger people; I’ve been working with some younger people who still like the kind of music we’re talking about so it’s obvious that the music goes right across the borders.
Allan -- And do you think we’re starting to see a move back towards guitar-based blues/rock again?
Roger -- In a way yes, but I think people just generally want to see someone perform. You might not like “Strictly Come Dancing”, but at least it’s a live performance; whatever you say, the band’s playing live. So that from that standpoint, nine million people every Saturday are watching celebrities dancing to a live band. It can’t be all bad.
Allan -- I’ve noticed that over the last year I’ve seen some great young and enthusiastic British blues/rock bands and I wonder how much of that is down to what guys like you are doing?
Billy -- Well, you can find inspiration in many different ways. It could be guy playing saxophone that makes you want to pick up an instrument and try that but just getting out there and playing, that’s the main thing. I was fortunate to grow up in a scene in Jersey where I’d go out to a blues club and there’d be older guys and I’d sit in and I’d get my ass kicked every night and the there was a point when I’d go back down there and I’d kick their asses. They introduced me all these songs that I didn’t know and it was ‘“Born Under a Bad Sign”, what is that, what the hell, I’ll play it’. And it just opens you up and I was fortunate to have that, to be able to play with these people and let loose and go with it.
Allan -- And I hear you had a good time playing with Walter Trout this week.
Billy -- Yeah, Walter Trout, he’s a Jersey boy; he’s originally from Ocean City. We had fun; I tried to take my amp off the stage after we opened up and that wasn’t allowed so it was great, we jammed an Elmore James tune and had some fun with it.
Allan -- And that’s what the Jersey scene’s all about I guess, isn’t it?
Billy -- Absolutely; one hundred per cent. On tour, we have bands open up for us and most times we end the night with the band up on stage playing with us. It’s the party, that’s what it’s about to me; what’s gonna happen that night and what picture’s gonna be painted that night. And then tomorrow’s another one.
Allan -- Well, great to meet up again, it’s always good to hear what you have to say and I’m looking forward to the show tonight now.
Billy -- Thank you.
The Billy Walton Band are currently on the second leg of the UK tour, which finishes on November 26th at the 100 Club and you really should get out to see them. Failing that, help
the guys to fund the new album and grab yourself some nice goodies as well.
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?
You have to wonder what was in Jon Landau’s mind when he made this statement in a 1974 article in The Real Paper: “I saw rock and roll’s future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.” At that time Bruce had released two critically-acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful albums (“Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” and “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle”) and “Born to Run” was just a twinkle in his eye; either Jon Landau was incredibly prescient or he made a very lucky guess. Whichever way you look at it, surely even Landau wouldn’t have predicted that The Boss would still be playing stadia and arenas forty years later. The band on Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball” tour, now in its second year, includes five musicians (Max Weinberg, Gary Tallent, Roy Bittan, Steve van Zandt and The Boss himself) from the “Born to Run” album which was released in August 1975. However unlikely it is, that’s why I’m in the Olympic Park in Stratford to watch the E Street Band for the first time as part of the Hard Rock Calling festival on a rare sunny summer day in London.
The Boss is one of those artists I’ve loved since the very early days but always avoided seeing live. I know this sounds weird but there are artists whose work I love so much I didn’t want to see them live and possibly be disappointed. You have to admit there’s a kind of twisted logic to it. Anyway, call it the bucket list if you like but I finally saw sense this year and decided to go to the Hard Rock Calling gig.
The support line-up of the Zac Brown Band (great country music throwing in “Kashmir” and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” towards the end of the set), Alabama Shakes and Black Crowes who dropped a Georgia medley of “Hard to Handle” and the wonderful Joe South song “Hush”. And then it was time for the The Boss.
The E Street Band hit the stage slightly early with a high-powered version of the “Wrecking Ball” song “Shackled and Drawn” which slid straight in to “Badlands” and the audience were hooked from the start. As usual, Bruce picked request placards from the audience, walked back up to the stage, showed the band the card and immediately launched into the song. The first song to get this treatment was “Johnny 99”, transformed from the stripped-back album original to a full-on band arrangement with horns and fiddle from Soozie Tyrell which was followed by a rock version of “Reason to Believe” driven by Steve van Zandt’s guitar riff. The two audience requests obviously had The Boss in a “Nebraska” mood because “Atlantic City” completed a run of three songs from the album before rousing versions of “Wrecking Ball” and “Death to my Hometown” brought the first part of the show to a close.
The band has been playing entire albums throughout this tour and tonight it was “Born in the USA”. If “Born to Run” was the album which made Springsteen famous, “Born in the USA” was the one which made him a global phenomenon with its crowd-pleasing anthems. It’s easy to forget how many classic songs come from the album until you hear it all live. With such a huge amount of great songs to choose from, it’s obvious (even with a three hour set) that some fans won’t get to hear their favourite song. I would have loved to hear “Highway Patrolman” or “Factory”, but I did get to hear “Bobby Jean”, so I’m pretty happy with that.
As if we hadn’t heard enough anthems, after a relatively low-key close to the set, the encores kicked off with “Jungleland”, “Born to Run” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “American Land” before closing with the downbeat but very moving acoustic rendition of “My Lucky Day”.
As a bit of break from forcing my opinions on you, I decided to get some feedback from Faye and Alice who came from Birmingham for the gig. Alice (who’s been going to Springsteen gigs since before she was born) loved the gig (not surprisingly) bouncing about and singing along to all the songs while Faye (who was seeing The Boss for the first time) was amazed at how good the show was and loved the idea of the band playing songs chosen by the audience. So, a big thumbs up from Faye and Alice. I hope you both had a safe journey home.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are a live phenomenon; they can play for three hours without even scratching the surface of their repertoire and drop immediately into any song called by The Boss without missing a beat, but it’s not just the musicianship I admire. The E Street Band (and Southside Johnny, Gary Bonds, Bon Jovi and Billy Walton) are all part of a Jersey shore tradition of bands that give a hundred per cent and want to play all night because they love playing and they understand that a mainly blue-collar audience wants their favourite bands to give them everything they have; you work hard to earn your dollar and you expect bands to work just as hard to earn it from you.
But there’s more to it than that. The Jersey shore bands are part of a family, literally and metaphorically. The Boss demonstrated that at Stratford by bringing his mother on for “Dancing in the Dark” and his sister Pam to accompany him at the close of the set. And don’t forget Clarence Clemons’ nephew Jake playing tenor sax. I’m convinced that “We Take Care of Our Own” from “Wrecking Ball” isn’t flag-waving patriotism, it’s about all the players, singers and songwriters whose spiritual home is The Stone Pony. It doesn’t matter how successful you become, you’re still just one of the Jersey crew; for every Bruce, Steve van Zandt and Jon Bon Jovi, there’s a Soozie Tyrell, Ed Manion and Bobby Bandiera and they all have a huge amount of mutual respect.
If you can still get tickets for Springsteen gigs in the UK or Europe, then you should really give it a try; you won’t be disappointed.
I don’t want to alarm you but, this summer, our gig venues (large and small) are about to be invaded by bands from New Jersey. There are 4 bands from the area touring our sceptred isle over the next few months, so here’s a quick rundown on who’s touring when.
Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, veterans of the 70s Stone Pony scene, and an incredible live experience, will be making a very brief visit at the beginning of May:
Thursday 02/05/13 City Hall, Salisbury
Friday 03/05/13 The Apex Arts Centre, Bury St Edmunds
Saturday 04/05/13 Burnley International Rock & Blues Festival
The Billy Walton Band (whose frontman Billy Walton has toured the UK a couple of times as guitar player with Southside Johnny) form the second wave of the onslaught when they arrive in mid-May. A night with BWB is guaranteed to be a great night of rock, blues and soul as Billy and sax player Richie Taz front up while William Paris and John D’Angelo keep the show rock solid. The dates are:
Thursday 16/05/13 Beaverwood Music Club, Chiselhurst, Kent
Friday 17/05/13 The Cluny, Ouseburn, Newcastle upon Tyne
Saturday 18/05/13 Calva Bar, University of Cumbria, Carlisle
Sunday 19/05/13 Kings Arms, St Mary Street, Bedford
Monday 20/05/13 Yardbirds, Church Street, Grimsby
Tuesday 21/05/13 The Fishpond, Matlock Bath
Wednesday 22/05/13 The Greyhound, Beeston, Nottingham
Thursday 23/05/13 The Cellars, Cromwell Road, Eastney
Friday 24/05/13 Blakeney Harbour Room, Blakeney, Norfolk
Saturday 25/05/13 Saint Bonaventure’s Club, Barkeley Road, Bristol
Sunday 26/05/13 Barnet FC (Underhill Stadium), Barnet
Monday 27/05/13 The Pavilion, Broadstairs, Kent
Thursday 30/05/13 The Flower Pot, Derby
Friday 31/05/13 Travellers Rest Club, Barrow-in-Furness
Saturday 01/06/13 Boom Boom Club/Sutton Utd. Football Club, Sutton, Surrey
In early June, the venue sizes move a few notches as the Bon Jovi “Because We Can” tour comes to the UK. Despite the controversy surrounding Richie Sambora’s sudden departure from the tour a couple of weeks ago, the show goes on. The additional musicians on the live shows include guitar player Bobby Bandiera, who spent a few years as Southside Johnny’s head honcho with the Jukes. The dates are:
Saturday 08/06/13 Etihad Stadium, Manchester
Sunday 09/06/13 Villa Park, Birmingham
Wednesday 12/06/13 City Stadium, Cardiff
Thursday 13/06/13 Stadium of Light, Sunderland
Sunday 16/06/13 Isle of Wight Festival
The final wave of the invasion overlaps slightly with the Bon Jovi tour when Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball tour rolls back into the UK in mid-June. It probably won’t come as a surprise to you now to hear that there’s an ex-member of the Asbury Jukes in the E Street Band. Ed “Kingfish” Manion (baritone sax) joined the horn section for the “Wrecking Ball” tour after many years of touring and recording with Southside Johnny. You can see The Boss here:
Saturday 15/06/13 Wembley Stadium, London
Tuesday 18/06/13 Hampden Park, Glasgow
Thursday 20/06/13 Ricoh Stadium, Coventry
Sunday 30/06/13 Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London
Just in case I need a sledgehammer to get this message home, some great music has come out of New Jersey (and I haven’t even got on to Patti Smith, Gary Bonds and The Four Seasons). Some bands have been incredibly successful over a long period of time and some haven’t; what the bands touring the UK this summer have in common is mutual respect and shared personnel. You can probably still get tickets for The Boss and Bon Jovi but, if they’re playing anywhere near you, try to get out and see Southside Johnny and Billy Walton; you won’t regret it.