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.
So what’s been happening to the Billy Walton Band since the release of “Crank it Up” in 2012? Well, apart from the non-stop touring in the USA, Europe and the UK, the band has had a few line-up changes. Tenor sax player Rich Taskowitz has moved on and Billy has brought in Ian Gray (trombone) and Sean Marks (tenor and baritone sax) to fill out the band’s sound, moving away from a jazz set-up with two soloists to more conventional rock and soul lineup with frontman and backing horn section. It’s a slight change of emphasis, but it creates a more cohesive full-band sound underpinned by the rock-solid rhythm section of John D’Angelo (drums) and William Paris (bass).
For their fourth studio album, “Wish for What You Want” (released in the USA on Vizztone on January 27), the band has enlisted the services of respected producer Tony Braunagel and keyboard player Mike Finnigan, plus a few special guests from New Jersey and the tweaks seem to have paid off. As you might expect from the Billy Walton Band, the album works across many styles and genres, featuring strong songs and the usual high quality arrangements and playing; oh, and a bit of fun as well.
The album opens in a blast of horns and guitar with the uplifting rock and soul of “Wish for What You Want” and the first of many proper endings – none of your lazy fade-outs here and a standout track. “True Lovin’ Man” has a mid-tempo 70s feel, particularly in the horn arrangements before the blues stomper “Mountain” bursts in with a huge guitar riff. “Come on Up” is an organ-driven straight-ahead rocker, building up a head of steam before changing down a few gears for the country blues of “Blues Comes A Knockin’” featuring Southside Johnny on harmonica. “Forgive and Forget” takes the tempo straight back up again with the full band with organ and horns laying the foundation for Billy’s wah-wah guitar fills and solo. If the album gets a vinyl release, this is the perfect way to end Side One.
“Change” is exactly that, a brooding, atmospheric piece which channels Sergio Leone through Ray Manzarek before breaking into the straightforward blues chugger, “Worried Blues”. The next three tracks are probably the most commercial songs on the album; “Till Tomorrow” is a reworking of a “Crank It Up” song which adds a piano intro and plays down the horn fills. It’s a great song with a perfect guitar hook and in earlier times it would have been a perfect choice for a single. “Walk that Little Girl Home” is a Willy de Ville cover which mixes early Springsteen with The Drifters to evoke the Jersey shore perfectly and create another of the album’s highlights. “It Don’t Matter” has an E Street Band–inspired intro leading in to a “Take Your Job and Shove It” lyric which might or might not be autobiographical; it also features a great sax solo from Joey Stann; another former Asbury Juke. The album’s final track, “Hudson County Star” is loose blues/rock workout poking fun at corruption in the New Jersey political scene (a wide target, to be fair) which gives William Paris his customary shot at a lead vocal.
“Wish for What You Want” is another step forward for the Billy Walton Band. The band has evolved from the original power trio line-up focussing mainly on Billy’s guitar work to a rock and soul five-piece capable of covering a wide variety of styles. If you like your songs served up with big guitars and horns, then this one’s for you. If you decide that you like the album, then I’ve got a piece of advice for you; go out and watch the band live. You won’t regret it.
Released January 27 2015 on Vizztone.
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.