Rant ‘N’ Roll: Southside Johnny Can Still Rock It

37 years after their I Don’t Want To Go Home debut album, Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes are still the band to see when it comes to hard-drivin’ rhythm ‘n’ blues-based rockin’ and rollin’ juke joint shuffles and horned-up craziness that delivers a whomp straight to your head, heart and groin. And frontman Southside Johnny Lyon, 64, is still a ball of manic energy, directing the chaos, adding his personal élan, his world-weary yet energetic enthusiasm, made all the more poignant by his touch of cynicism. Plus, he’s hardly lost an inch of pipes.

This band might be one of the strongest he’s ever fronted. At the Musicfest Café, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a high-class joint where the drinks are strong, the sound is oh-so-perfect and there’s room to move, the Jukes poured their guts into a two-hour set filled and thrilled with surprises. With the backdrop of the old Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces behind the huge picture windows that grace the back of the stage, all lit up and colored like an art deco sculpture out of its former rotting remains, the band, towards the end of the set, played two songs that sent this reporter into a tizzy of awe.

We had already been dancing around by the soundman’s set-up, tweaking the front of the stage so emboldened yet dancing back to the rear wall when they landed a one-two gut-punch combination that stopped us in our tracks. Musical director/keyboardist Jeff Kazee was dubbed “the best piano player and Hammond B3 organ player I’ve ever played with” by Southside after the soundcheck, when he graciously invited me into his inner sanctum for our fellow Jerseyboy reunion.

The first punch was “Ophelia,” the song Robbie Robertson wrote when he was in The Band. We were almost getting ready to leave when Southside stepped back and Kazee rang out with those iconic lyrics, “Boards on the window, mail by the door, what would anybody leave so quickly for?” I stopped, rooted to the spot, transfixed, riveted, mesmerized by my favorite Band song and when those horns kicked in, it was like a jolt of adrenaline, a needle of pure joy injected directly into my bloodstream. I don’t think I even moved…as I stood stock-still receiving the musical wisdom, the rock ‘n’ roll benediction that I constantly live for.

I hadn’t yet recovered from that blow to the senses when Southside stormed back singing and the band revved up another notch into the hallowed “Happy,” the one Stones classic that Keith sings.

That’s the thing about the Jukes. The fans wanted to hear songs from their all-time great first three albums. This Time It’s For Real in ’77 and Hearts Of Stone in ’78 followed the debut and stand today as two of the best damn albums of the 1970s but maybe that’s the Jersey in me talkin’, who knows? I say it’s their covers that transcend each Juke night. Hell, even their renditions of a few tunes from the under-appreciated Men Without Women (1982) album by Little Steven And The Disciples Of Soul were better than the recorded versions. (Steven Van Zandt was a founding member of the Jukes and, at various times, their manager, main songwriter, lead guitarist and producer.)

The current album is a live one: Men Without Women Live 7-2-11 is the entire Disciples album of the same name. It rocks. So does the last Jukes studio album, Pills And Ammo (2010). The band is currently on the kind of tour that would break the back of lesser men. Expect a new studio album in 2013.