In spite of the complexities that come with living in Europe, I believe I’ve had a fair share of magic moments over the years with regard to seeing live performances from Bruce Springsteen and related musicians.
I’ve seen Bruce play with the E Street Band; I’ve seen Bruce play without the E Street Band; I’ve also seen Bruce play with an interim band. I’ve seen Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul; I’ve seen Nils Lofgren; I’ve seen Southside Johnny perform with and without the Asbury Jukes; I’ve even seen Southside Johnny perform with LaBamba’s BIG Band that included Jimmy Vivino, Mark Pender, Ed Manion, Scott Healey, Mike Merritt and Jerry Vivino; I’ve seen Bobby Bandiera play solo as well as with his own band; and, I’ve heard Patti Scialfa singing some of her own songs. But never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine for one single second that I would see all of them performing together on the same stage in Asbury Park, N.J.
It’s hard to say if the pair of rainbows that arched across the clear blue, winter skies above the Convention Hall on December 17th, 2000 were prophecies of divine intervention, but with the benefit of hindsight, it really seems as if they left behind their mythical crocks of gold before they vanished back into the atmosphere. I have never professed to being any kind of set list analyst but I dunno… maybe there were subliminal messages behind some of the songs that were chosen for this particular audience.
The concert was undoubtedly historic and its surprise element went right off the top of the scale. Who amongst us could have predicted the show opening with Jingle Bells performed by a horn ensemble that was accompanied by Danny Federici on accordion and which featured Garry Tallent… on tuba? But that’s what happened and when the tune ended, Bruce made his entrance. He graciously acknowledged the applause but, instead of taking up the usual position behind his guitar, Bruce retreated in the direction of the grand piano, sat down and proceeded to play an unforgettable version of For You.
After that, every song was a highlight. And every quip accentuated the fact that we, the spectators, were undeniably the chosen few. Blue Christmas followed featuring Suzie Tyrell on violin and Garry Tallent, now on upright bass. As Bruce took charge of the vocals on this rock-a-billy arrangement, Bobby Bandiera, LaBamba, Mark Pender and Jerry Vivino did a barber shop quartet routine as back up which added a totally new dimension to this seasonal Elvis song. “Welcome to the Convention Hall for our holiday Christmas show” announced Bruce, as the Max Weinberg 7 tore through a big band sounding In The Mood type number. Jimmy Vivino, the MW 7’s guitar virtuoso, came forward and blasted his way through Run, Run Rudolph trading some dazzling guitar licks with Bruce as he went. Following a unique horn enhanced version of Lucky Town came a “Sssshh… we gotta tune up…” from Bruce, now in conductor mode, as the deliberate off-key din from the horn section led into… The E Street Shuffle – the resultant deafening roar of approval must have created enough energy to light up Asbury Park for a week! The band actually continued playing into Move On Up, which could possibly have been included to acknowledge the first anniversary of Curtis Mayfield’s passing on.
As it happens, the next song came top in the Backstreets Tour 1999-2000 readers’ Poll of songs that were not played during the last tour. Yes, the band DID kill Kitty’s Back and as the first few notes became audible, the stunned gasps of amazement turned to euphoric appreciation. “Wait a minute now…” sang Bruce, “… who’s that coming down the alley…” and as the anticipation grew… the Big Man joined the band adding his dynamic sounds to the crescendo that was already building up in this timeless classic.
By now, it was clear that in spite of our location, we were witnessing a performance that was so unconventional it defied belief. Bruce Springsteen was at his relaxed best doing something he so obviously loves in front of a home crowd that was enthralled by every musical bombshell moment that came their way.
After a quick adjustment to the center stage microphone Patti Scialfa who took over lead vocals and introduced a new song, called Rose, which she dedicated to a waitress she once knew. Suzie Tyrell and Lisa Lowell provided back-up vocals for Patti while Bobby Bandiera accompanied this trio of red headed women on acoustic guitar. Rose was followed by As Long As I Can (Be With You) from Rumble Doll which had an incredibly touching moment during the intro as Bruce visibly guided Patti into the first few bars of this really great track.
With every song, the line-up changed and totally in keeping with the precedent set this far, the MW7 increased in size once again as Southside Johnny AND Little Steven joined the band! Ably assisted by Bobby Bandiera and Garry Tallent, it was pure unadulterated magic witnessing the chemistry between the legendary Father, Son and Holy Ghost of Jersey Shore rock ‘n’ roll as they traded verses on This Time It’s For Real, Until The Good Is Gone and All I Needed Was You. Incredible stuff.
One by one the E Street Band had been slowly emerging from behind the scenes. Nils Lofgren arrived next and after he wished everyone a “Merry Christmas”, he took center stage and performed a stunning version of Shine Silently that garnered rapturous acclaim. “Is Professor Roy Bittan in the house?” asked Bruce as Roy’s appearance completed the scene. Clarence and Little Steven – “the living Spirit of Christmas”, were invited back to play Merry Christmas Baby. As each member of the band took their solos, it was like watching a re-enactment of the “Old King Cole” nursery rhyme as Bruce called for the piano, the horns and the guitar riffs. “It’s gonna get wild!” exclaimed Bruce as he counted the band into a raucous So Young And In Love and, it did. Bruce made a point of acknowledging Max Weinberg just before Roy played the intro to Roll Of The Dice and astonishingly, someone actually threw a pair of furry dice onto the stage! “I’ve gotta keep them on their toes…” joked Bruce as the band prepared to play Bobby Jean, another surprising inclusion.
The Max Weinberg 7 had expanded somewhat during the course of the evening and was now the Max Weinberg 19. While everyone took their places for the last song of the main set, there was yet another unexpected addition to the line-up. Jon Landau appeared on stage playing an acoustic guitar and it was utterly amazing to see him standing beside Clarence and groovin’ along like he did this sort of thing every night of the week! The band played a really great version of Phil Spector’s hit Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) and Patti, Suzie and Lisa all took turns at singing a verse.
The encores began with a speech from Bruce that acknowledged all of the musicians and the fact that they’d only had two days of rehearsals. He named them all individually jokingly referring to Southside Johnny as “The Grinch”! Bruce continued by explaining about the eight local charities that would be benefiting from the proceeds of the ticket sales. He also singled out Kate Mellina and her husband Dave Christopher for their work with the Asbury Park Chamber of Commerce as well as for their tireless promotion of the city. Bruce acknowledged their gallery, “Cleopatra Steps Out”, which is located at 721 Cookman Avenue, and continued to tell everyone how much they were doing for the city’s resurrection and welfare. Bob Crane and the campaign to “Save Tillie” were also accredited prompting Bruce to share some of his thoughts about Asbury Park and how it was always a very “singular place”. Bruce extended this by introducing a new song called My City Of Ruins which he dedicated to Kate Mellina in recognition of everything she has done for the good of Asbury Park.
Bruce sat at the piano for the second time that evening, and after a short horn intro, began to sing one of the most evocatively written pieces of music I have ever heard. Half way through, Bruce returned to centre stage and picked up his guitar to continue the song. The words moved me to tears. “C’mon rise up…” went the chorus lines, “My city’s in ruins…” continued the song… and I was there, in Asbury Park listening to Bruce Springsteen’s lyrical portrayal of the city that played such a crucial role in his musical beginnings.
“C’mon up South” beckoned Bruce to Johnny Lyon… “Grinch?” questioned Johnny as a lone voice from the crowd called out for I Don’t Want To Go Home. “We’re gettin’ to it!” replied Johnny as he waited for Steven to finish adjusting his guitar and to everyone’s delight, Johnny, Bruce and Steven were off again trading verses with each other and clearly having an absolute blast in the process. And while all this was going on, Bobby Bandiera took over lead guitar duties and kept hittin’ those fabulous high notes that I just love. Wonderful.
“Is everybody ready?” asked Bruce, “Are the horns ready? Are the singers ready? Alright, let’s do it…” and amidst further gasps of astonishment, Rosalita came out tonight generating and distributing yet another wave of incredulity throughout the Convention Hall audience.
As with all good things, this show had to end and it did so in style. The first few piano notes of Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town were obviously a cue because a multitude of children dressed as elves and Christmas presents appeared and joined the musicians on stage. Bob Crane and Debbie Robinson from “Save Tillie” were there adding their support as back-up singers, as were Kate Mellina and Dave Christopher who were mentioned earlier in the show. There were also a couple of goofy life-size Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer characters. Bruce’s cast of thousands did a really great job and half way through the song, Santa arrived to complete the picture accompanied by two female Santas that turned out to be Bruce’s mum and Aunt Edie. While Bruce delivered a humorous rap about appropriate Christmas presents for the various band members, packs of mini candy canes cascaded into the audience courtesy of Santa’s helpers which added a further festive touch to the occasion.
The evening finished the way it began as the familiar sounds of Jingle Bells signaled the end of something that had been truly extraordinary.
Refreshing does not do justice to the description of the wild chill factor that lay in wait outside the Convention Hall after the show and I know I drove back to my hotel in Tinton Falls on automatic pilot. As I walked into the foyer, the sound of Merry Christmas Baby welcomed me which, I thought was very apt considering where I had just come from. It also prompted me to smile and to say a silent prayer of thanks for the priceless musical phenomenon I’d just experienced.