To round out their main set at The Birchmere recently, New Jersey rockers Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes returned to play “Having A Party.” It was the perfect note to end the show because the Jukes are always a party. With a style that encompasses rock, soul, and R&B, and a grooving horn section, they all always manage to get at least some of the crowd up and dancing; on Saturday night, it was a handful of women at the front of the room.
Johnny has a quirky sense of humor and leans into the onstage character he’s created for himself as a lovable curmudgeon. (Singer-songwriter Nicole Atkins, who was neighbors with Johnny, described him, when I saw her live last summer, as “a big old grump.”) At The Birchmere on June 3, Johnny taunted the crowd at one point, asking, “Did you all get some dinner here, or did you just come here to drink?” Someone shouted back, “I came here for you, Johnny!” For the handful of well-placed barbs Johnny managed to get in the crowd’s side, the crowd got him back, as someone shouted something about “geezer rock.” The Jukes have playing for nearly 50 years, so yes, they aren’t young: They’re experienced.
When I talked to Johnny last month, I learned he’s an intelligent, well-read guy. You could see that for a moment on Saturday night, when he talked about the obscene gesture that exists because of the way French archers drew their bows at the Battle of Agincourt in the fifteenth century. I’m not quite sure how we got there, but it somehow fit seamlessly into the night’s festivities.
A spoken-word section got inserted into “The Way Back Home.” “It was 90 degrees in New Jersey yesterday,” Johnny said. “It’s only the beginning of June.” (Ain’t climate change a you-know-what?) But things are good for him: “I’ve got tomatoes on my tomato plant…It’s a perfect night for walking and talking.” He couldn’t have been more right; a cool breeze met the audience as they left the venue later.
A Jukes set encompasses both originals and a lot of covers. On his early records, Johnny was an interpretive singer, performing other people’s compositions. He came into his own as a songwriter later on, with plenty of great tunes. A central figure of the New Jersey rock scene, Johnny has had long relationships with Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Van Zandt. People don’t realize what a great songwriter Van Zandt is, probably because he’s spent much of his career in proximity to Bruce. Johnny covered a tune solely written by Stevie, “Some Things Just Don’t Change,” as well as one he co-wrote with Bruce, “Love On The Wrong Side of Town.”
Stream “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” by Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes on YouTube:
Johnny’s covers also dig into the history of music, to figures like seminal New Orleans blues piano player Professor Longhair, a major influence on Dr. John. They also covered the great Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” with the organ/keys player joining on vocals, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “I Thank You,” “Another Saturday Night,” and the rock classic “Walk Away Renee.” Other songs included “Baby Don’t Lie,” “All Night Long,” “Better Days,” “Don’t Waste My Time,” “Sweeter Than Honey,” “Talk To Me,” “The Fever,” and “I Don’t Want To Go Home.” For their encore, the Jukes returned to the stage and played “Ready To Rock.”
One thing worth saying about these rockers from Jersey: These guys work for it. The Jukes played a solid two hours, which is a substantial set for that venue, and a substantial set for guys who aren’t young. But they’re still strong, they still love doing it, and they still sound great. For 50 years, they’ve been bringing the party everywhere they go, and they’ll keep bringing it for a while longer.
Here are some photos of Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes performing at The Birchmere on June 3, 2023. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Steve Satzerg.