Ok, a couple of little stories for ya from Shepherd’s Bush Empire. First one’s from 2010.

Backstage at a Jukes soundcheck, I was loitering waiting for Southside Johnny to arrive for an interview and trying pretty unsuccessfully to pretend I wasn’t nervous. I mean why would I be, this guy had only been a hero of mine for over thirty years and this was my first interview with him. Think about something else, listen to what’s happening down on the stage at the end of the soundcheck. So I did and it was unusual; it was Jeff Kazee singing something I had never heard at a Jukes show. Jeff had missed the European mainland leg of the tour because of a family bereavement and was doing his first gig in London. Fast forward about four hours and that little bit of distraction comes back to hit me like a sledgehammer as Jeff lets out his feelings in the most public way with a heart-rending, tear-jerking version of “Many Rivers to Cross”. If you wanted a definition of catharsis, this was it; it would have melted a heart of stone. Did I cry? And then some, and I wasn’t on my own. It was the most moving thing I’ve ever experienced at a gig, and that’s a lot of gigs.

Skip forward just a year to October 21 2011. The Reverend Harold Camping had predicted (for the second time) that the world would end on that day. On stage at the Empire, it was beginning to look like he might be right. From the start of the set, there were complaints from the band about the monitor mix and just as the crew got that sorted out, another gremlin raised its head in the shape of Glenn Alexander’s guitar amp; it wasn’t amplifying. You’re on stage, the set’s just catching fire and suddenly your equipment blindsides you. Take losing your wi-fi for an hour and multiply it by a hundred; you’re getting close to the level of frustration on stage left that night. Long story short, it took three amps before the glitch was solved; the only problem now was to get the gig back on track, so what would the mainman do. The mainman called a Sonny Boy Williamson tune, “Help Me”, throwing the spotlight back at Glenn to harness his frustration and kickstart the show; which it did, with a vengeance. That’s a great band and bandleader in action right there.

And, honestly, it’s not for everyone. If your thing is a setlist that’s been rehearsed to within an inch of its life, absolutely note-perfect and with a synched lighting plot (and I’m honestly not knocking that) this isn’t the gig for you. However, if you want a set that’s unpredictable, packed with powerful vocal and instrumental performances and great tunes, this definitely is for you. And I haven’t even mentioned my favourite combination yet. Cheese and onion, sweet and sour, trouble and strife don’t even come close – it’s horns and Hammond, Hammond and horns (see, it’s even alliterative). The recipe’s pretty simple; get seven of the best live musicians you can find, make sure they know all of (ok, most of) the songs and give them plenty of opportunities to express themselves. When those guys are Jeff Kazee (keys), Glenn Alexander (guitar), John Conte (bass), Tom Seguso (drums), John Isley (sax), Chris Anderson (trumpet) and Neal Pawley (trombone) each performance will be special and different. Now, that I will go see and hear any time.

So why am I telling you all of this now? Easy, there’s a couple of those increasingly rare opportunities to see Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes in the UK on a mini tour in March 2019. The band’s playing Glasgow (St Luke’s) on March 19th, London (Shepherd’s Bush Empire) on March 22nd and Holmfirth (Picturedrome) on March 23rd and 24th. Why two gigs at The Picturedrome? Because the first one sold out – obviously the North of England knows about good music. These UK gigs are precious because it ain’t cheap to bring an eight-piece across the Atlantic and you never know how long it is until the next tour.

So get yourself some tickets for one of the remaining shows and treat yourself to one of the best live bands in the business. What will they play? I don’t know and, most likely they don’t know, but it will be special and it won’t be anything like the set they played the previous night. See you at The Bush.

 

Johnny Review ScrollerSo 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.

You can find the setlist for the gig, courtesy of Miss October, here and photos from the gig here, courtesy of, well, me actually.

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.