Over a 35-year-long career, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes have released over 30 albums of soulful, raucous blues and R&B. Now, the affable New Jersey icon is working on a project with a slightly different musical direction, exploring more rootsy, acoustic songs that don't fit the big, horn-driven Jukes style.
Under the title Southside Johnny and the Poor Fools, the band has just released an album, "Songs From the Barn," referring to the NJ horse-barn-turned-studio (owned by Jon Bon Jovi) where it was recorded. The 12-track album splits equally between original tracks written by Southside (real name Johnny Lyon) and longtime Jukes collaborator Jeff Kazee, and covers of songs by great American songwriters like Bob Dylan and Lucinda Williams.
Appropriately enough, Lyon and the Pool Fools brought their "Songs From the Barn" to the Wolf Trap Barns, a fitting listening room for a show dedicated to well-crafted tunes played by a pack of pros.
The Fools consists of the aforementioned Kazee on Hammond B3 organ, accordion and piano, along with Jukes bassist John Conte, guitarist Tommy Byrnes (from Billy Joel's band), Jukes multi-instrumentalist Neal "The Dude" Pawley, with occasional guest appearances. On this Virginia night, G.E. Smith (from "Saturday Night Live" early seasons and, later, Bob Dylan's band), was on guitar. Since the Fools are multi-instrumentalists and vocalists, part of the fun of the night was watching them swap places and trade instruments, of which there were at least 15 on hand.
The tour even sees Lyon playing guitar onstage for the first time in years, along with his trademark harmonica, and occasionally sharing frontman duties to fine effect. Each of the band members got a turn in the spotlight, like Kaee's playful take on The Band's "Ophelia," and Smith's haunting cover of Richard Shindell's "Arrowhead," a child soldier's tale made even more haunting with the addition of a new final verse and a searing guitar coda. Smith and Lyon also did a duet version of "Cocaine" which skillfully captured the black humor of the tune.
Of the dozen songs on the album, the group performed nine, the best being a bittersweet ballad, "Winter in Yellowknife" and a blow-out hootenanny-style version of Stephen Foster's "Old Kentucky Home." Other, non-album covers included George Jones' "Bartender Blues" (though most of the crowd clapped more when James Taylor's name was mentioned) and a rollicking take on Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight." ("Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" is on album). With veteran players clearly enjoying themselves and a set list carefully chosen from their encyclopedic knowledge of classic rock, the evening never flagged.
Of course, it was the classic Asbury Jukes hits, like "Love on the Wrong Side of Town" and "I Don't Want to Go Home" (an encore, naturally) that earned most of the night's biggest responses. And while "Trapped Again" just doesn't work when recast to a banjo rhythm, "The Fever" sounded as good as it ever did. In fact, as the audience recognized its slow-burn opening lines and whooped in joyful recognition, the song took on new strength.
Southside Johnny and his fans have been together many years; times, taste and the music industry have changed. But the power of a terrific song like "The Fever" (an early Bruce Springsteen gift to his pal's debut album), performed by an emotive singer who's matured into a veteran blues/rock vocalist, is always going to be the real deal.
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