Sunday, April 23, 2017

CD Review: Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes' The Fever The Remastered Epic Recordings (2017)

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes' The Fever The Remastered Epic Recordings
To be honest, I bought the debut album by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes purely on the basis of the singer’s association with Bruce Springsteen and “Miami” Steve Van Zandt. I had witnessed Springsteen perform live for the first time in early 1976 and was ready to put down serious coin for anything that had Bruce’s name on it. When Southside Johnny’s I Don’t Want To Go Home was released that summer, I quickly snatched up a copy – produced by Van Zandt and featuring a pair of songs written, but never recorded by Springsteen – the album promised more of what I loved about Born To Run.

Putting the needle to the vinyl, however, it was obvious that I Don’t Want To Go Home was something else entirely. Evincing a fierce R&B groove – something, as a Four Tops and Motown junkie, I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with – Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes captured lightning in a bottle with their debut album and won themselves a lifelong fan. The band would go on to record two more albums with Van Zandt on the board (and providing songs) – 1977’s This Time It’s For Real and 1978’s Hearts of Stone – all three released by Epic Records. When none of the three albums managed to achieve even a fraction of Springsteen’s enormous sales, the band was dropped by the label and subsequently signed by Mercury Records, for whom they would subsequently record a pair of studio albums and a much acclaimed live LP.

Southside Johnny’s The Fever: The Remastered Epic Recordings

Real Gone Music’s The Fever: The Remastered Epic Recordings is a two-disc set comprised of those first three classic albums by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, digitally remastered for the first time since their original release on CD back in the early 1990s. The 40 song set also includes the rare single version of the band’s “Havin’ A Party” and offers the first appearance on CD of the ten-track 1976 promotional LP Jukes Live at the Bottom Line, a premium-priced collectors’ item on vinyl. The title track of I Don’t Want To Go Home, written by Van Zandt, is the pure distillation of the 1950s and ‘60s-era influences shared by Miami Steve, Springsteen, and Southside Johnny Lyon. The frontman’s vocals soar above crescendos of sound, the song’s orchestration perfectly accompanying Lyon’s wistful, emotional heartbreak vocals. It’s one of the greatest romantic songs of the ‘70s and I’ll fight anybody who’d argue otherwise.

Much of the rest of I Don’t Want To Go Home follows a similar blueprint – an inspired mix of raw bar band rhythm and blues and soul-drenched rock ‘n’ roll, Lyon’s powerful vocals a perfect fit with Van Zandt’s expansive production and the Jukes’ immense musical chops. A cover of the great Solomon Burke’s “Got To Get You Off My Mind” is a brassy, old-school mid-tempo R&B barn-burner with big horns and bigger aspirations while the band’s take on Steve Cropper’s Memphis soul classic “Broke Down Piece of Man” rocks with reckless abandon, Lyon’s and Van Zandt’s intertwined vocals driven by the rich instrumentation.

Havin’ A Party with the Asbury Jukes

Southside Johnny's I Don't Want To Go Home
The original songs on I Don’t Want To Go Home are where Southside Johnny and gang really shine, though. Springsteen’s “The Fever” has since taken on a larger-than-life reputation, and while it’s a fine example of smoldering R&B roots with a fiery Southside Johnny vocal performance and lush instrumental backing, this humble scribe prefers “You Mean So Much To Me.” A duet with the ‘60s girl-group icon Ronnie Spector, their “sweet and sour” vocals work so damn well together as the Miami Horns deliver just the right amount of momentum behind the locomotive instrumentation and Billy Rush’s frenetic guitar solo. Van Zandt’s “Sweeter Than Honey” incorporates 1960s and ‘70s era soul influences in the creation of a joyful noise.
Although the Jukes’ live cover of Sam Cooke’s classic “Havin’ A Party” achieved little or no chart action when released as a single, it’s an infectious rave-up delivered with great heart and no little soul. Starting with a cappella vocals, the band kicks in and everybody adds their voices to a truly magnificent performance. This Time It’s For Real offered more of the same as the Jukes’ debut, but with a lesser reliance on cover tunes and more original songs from producer Van Zandt, who wrote five of the album’s ten songs, co-writing three others with Springsteen. The results were only slightly disappointing considering the high bar set by I Don’t Want To Go Home, but in hindsight are certainly no less entertaining.

This Time It’s For Real

Southside Johnny's This Time It's For Real
The Van Zandt-penned title track is a busy, full-bodied R&B rave-up with the horns sunk in the background of the mix and a greater emphasis placed on the vocals and rhythmic foundation. On the first of two cover songs on the album, Aretha Franklin’s “Without Love” (co-written by the great Ivory Joe Hunter), Lyon delivers a stunning, soulful performance full of nuance and emotion while the swells of backing orchestration provide a fitting canvas for his vocals. Keyboardist Kevin Kavanaugh was the Jukes’ secret weapon, and his understated piano here adds layers of sophistication alongside the cascading percussion.

This Time It’s For Real included more guest stars than the debut album, R&B greats like the Five Satins and the Coasters provided a studio payday by mega-fan Van Zandt. The Drifters’ contributions to “Little Girl So Fine” are pure magic, however, their backing harmonies reminiscent of the band’s 1950s-era hits like “Dance With Me” and “There Goes My Baby.” Lyon acquits himself nicely here as well, his lovely throwback vocals accompanied by swooning horns. Van Zandt’s “I Ain’t Got The Fever No More” is a sort of response to Springsteen’s “The Fever” from the debut, the defiant lyrics shrug off a love gone wrong. “Love On The Wrong Side of Town” is built on the blueprint of the debut LP, Van Zandt mimicking Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” production style with waves of smothering instrumentation. As the horns mournfully mark the end of love, Lyon’s pathos-drenched vocals provide a tsunami of emotion.

Jukes Live at the Bottom Line

Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes At The Bottom Line
To be honest, I’ve been slightly underwhelmed by this long-lost Jukes’ performance revealed for the first time on CD, Jukes Live at the Bottom Line not nearly as dynamic or electrifying as 1981’s Live: Reach Up and Touch the Sky. It seems more reserved, not as joyfully raucous as the live set that would come five years later, and the album’s lackluster, flat production obviously points to a dearth of any original interest by the label in releasing the set commercially. That’s not to say that it’s entirely a bust, though – Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes on a bad night are still better than nearly any other band at their best. Recorded in 1976 and released exclusively to radio to promote the band’s debut album, the Jukes didn’t have anywhere near the number of original songs that they would in 1981 (with five more LPs under their belts).

Still, the show’s inclusion here is fitting, and tracks like the soaring “Without Love,” which sports a snappy brass section, lovelorn vox by Southside Johnny, and a fine guitar solo by the underrated Billy Rush, or the non-album track “Snatchin’ It Back,” a cover of a Clarence Carter hit which evokes a rowdy Stax Records/Memphis soul sound, are provided inspired performances. A reading of British songwriter Mark London’s “Little by Little” transforms the song into a Chicago blues rave-up while Springsteen’s “The Fever” is similarly turned a dark hue of blue, introduced by Lyon’s warbling harp and jumping into a claustrophobic, lusty performance. The aforementioned duet with Ronnie Spector, “You Mean So Much To Me,” is ramped up and amped up with wailing horns and a frenetic delivery that bolsters the overall impact of the song.

Hearts of Stone

Southside Johnny's Hearts of Stone
Hearts of Stone, the last of the Van Zandt-produced Epic Records trilogy, is widely – and wisely – considered the gem of the Asbury Jukes’ catalog. Shooting for the proverbial brass ring, Lyon and his monster eleven-piece band tossed aside the obscure R&B cover tunes and further reduced the Springsteen-written content in order to establish an identity of their own aside from ‘The Boss.’ Van Zandt wrote the bulk of the songs on Hearts of Stone with an eye towards better utilizing the Jukes’ talents, including the incredibly flexible vocals of frontman SSJ. As such, there are only three Springsteen-penned tracks here – the classic title track, the strutting “Talk To Me,” and the emotionally-powerful “Trapped Again,” co-written with Van Zandt and Lyon. The results were nothing short of spectacular, a timeless amalgam of traditional R&B and streetwise rock ‘n’ roll that sounds as good today as it did nearly 40 years ago.

The breathless heartbreak of “This Time Baby’s Gone For Good” provides a lot of angst for Lyon to chew on, his mournful vocals firmly in a blues tradition but supported by an old-school rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack and a finely-crafted brass performance. The song’s complex instrumental arrangement serves to heighten the emotion of the lyrics, providing a concrete foundation for Lyon’s vocal gymnastics. The hauntingly beautiful title track is cut from similar cloth, with Van Zandt’s transcendent guitar licks offering a tearful counterpoint to what is, perhaps, Lyon’s best ever vocal performance. Springsteen’s tortured lyrics provide the fuel, but it’s Lyon’s weary, yearning voice that lifts the song to greatness. By contrast, “Trapped Again” is more instrumentally buoyant, but Lyon’s soaring vox capture the desperation and emotion of the lyrics. Van Zandt’s “Light Don’t Shine” closes Hearts of Stone, the song a departure from the album’s previous fare, with rich instrumentation and an almost ballad-styled vocal delivery, but with no little emotion to be found between the lines in what is essentially a dirge for a love lost.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes may never escape from the lengthy shadow cast over the band due to their early association with Bruce Springsteen, but Lyon and his long-enduring crew have persevered to the present day, touring constantly across the U.S. and Europe and releasing the occasional gem of a record like 2015’s Soultime! With these first three Epic Records albums, however, the band managed to introduce itself to Springsteen’s expanding audience and evolve a musical identity all its own within the space of, basically, two years and change.

By collecting these precious recordings in one place, The Fever: The Remastered Epic Recordings is both a fine introduction to the vastly underrated band’s early days as well as a welcome reminder of just how damn good Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes were at their peak: as tight as a fist, but as smooth as a velvet glove. Grade: A+ (Real Gone Music, released March 3, 2017)

Buy the CD from Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes' The Fever: The Remastered Epic Recordings

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