Mike Greenblatt’s Rant ‘N Roll

Glenn Alexander is a renaissance man. He runs the jazz department at Sarah Lawrence College. He’s played guitar with the biggest and the best including Levon Helm, Elvis Costello, and Allen Toussaint. He has two terrific, self-produced, self-released albums out in a southern rock mode. He’s practically been on the road his whole life. For the past decade, he’s been the lead guitarist for Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes. Dude’s busy, but he found time for a quick phone call before he left for Boston on another Jukes binge.

Knockin’ On The Door, by Glenn Alexander & Shadowland, combines elements of the Allmans, Tedeschi-Trucks Band, and Delaney & Bonnie. Your daughter Oria Aspen sounds great singing lead on “I Had To Go Thru Hell To Get To Heaven.” And it’s mixed by country star Martina McBride’s husband, John McBride, at his Blackbird Studios in Nashville. LaRue/AleXander, your project with bassist Dave LaRue, even has Southside playing harp and, again, hits all the right notes. You write, play a blistering lead guitar, and sing like a honkytonk hero. Man, you got it goin’ on!

GA: Thank you. I finally made the records I’ve always wanted to make. It’s what I listened to growing up in Wichita, Kansas. Playing with Southside brought me back to that music and it feels right and so comfortable.

How do you and Southside get along?

Great. I do a big cancer benefit every year and he’s shown up for the last four. He sings. He buys tickets. He takes pictures of people. He’s really helped me a lot. He’s just a good dude and we always have a great time.

Dave LaRue really pops that bass.

He’s from New Brunswick so when I first moved to Jersey, we formed a band called Stretch with a Wednesday residency at a local place called The Court Tavern. Then he went and joined Dixie Dregs. He’s since moved to Florida, so I’m glad we got that album out.

How would you characterize the sessions?

People have said it feels like Stevie Ray Vaughan meets the Dregs. The Dregs were all-instrumental, of course, and we have vocals, and nowhere near as many notes.

Mike Finnegan is on both records. He’s rather legendary, having played with Joe Cocker, CSN, Etta James, Frampton, Ringo, Leonard Cohen, and dozens of others. How did you get him?

Knew him from Wichita. That’s his Hammond B3 all over Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland album, too. He was a teenager when he played with Jimi. He has some stories! And man, what a voice!

How do you reconcile your life as Juke and your role as a jazz professor at Sarah Lawrence?

I have two different lives. All of my early records are jazz. I had some big corporate suit one time years back trying to make me into a smooth jazz artist like Kenny G. I wouldn’t have it and lost a record deal over it. Unfortunately, I made the decision only after I signed the contract. Oops. They came after me with lawyers for three solid years basically ending my jazz career as they would’ve legally been able to garnish my wages. So I became depressed. It was my love of Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker, Allmans, and Charlie Daniels that got me writing in that vein. It might’ve been the best thing that ever happened to me.


So what do you teach at Sarah Lawrence?

I teach a jazz history course and an advanced jazz theory course, as well as running some ensembles; I have some jazz vocal, blues, and jazz instrumental groups. I also teach private guitar students here. In music, it’s hard, man. And now it’s harder than ever. I’m thankful to have this gig. I learn just as much from my students as they learn from me.

Besides being the lead guitarist of the Jukes, a position Billy Rush, Steve Van Zandt, Ricky Byrd, and Bobby Bandiera held before you, you also played on Southside’s great Tom Waits and Billie Holiday tribute albums.

Cat can sing.

So we called the cat in question….

What does Glenn Alexander bring to the table that sets him apart from some of your previous lead guitarists?

SJ: He’s much more jazz-oriented, but he’s a lover of blues and a great blues player, and a great performer. He’s also one of the most soulful people I’ve ever met. He means everything he says, sings, and plays. He’s never just going through the motions. Plus, he’s very educated. He’s a good ol’ boy from Kansas, and he’s the real thing. I mean, he plays all those tormented fifths and anguished sevenths.

New Year’s Eve! Red Bank, New Jersey. The Count Basie Theatre. Seeing the Asbury Jukes on this night at this venue is akin to seeing the Beatles in Liverpool at The Cavern Club in 1962. Throw us a bone, man, you got any surprises up your sleeve?

We’re gonna have fun. That’s all we ever aim to do, anyway. New Year’s Eve, though, has always been special for this band. Everybody comes cranked and ready. I have to be on my toes when midnight comes. I got it wrong one year and folks got angry! I was two seconds late. So I’ve got to really concentrate and get that right, or I’ll ruin the whole year for some people.

What if you’re in the middle of a song?

You stop it. Dead. Doesn’t matter. I’ve done it before. The countdown commences. Sometimes there’s video on the screen of Times Square. Everybody goes, ‘Yay!’ We slip into “Auld Lang Syne,” segue into “Having A Party” and play the rest of the night.

I’ll never forget New Year’s Eve 1978 at the Capitol Theater in Passaic with you guys. That was one of the greatest shows in my concert-going history.

Well, thank you for that. Is that the one where Bruce came out?

Yeah, I got in trouble for that. As the Editor of The Aquarian back then, I wanted to focus on you but the late owner of the paper Jim Rensenbrink—who I owe my career to—insisted we run a shot of Bruce on the cover standing on top of the piano.

[Laughing] That’s alright, young man. We live through stuff like that. I tend to think of all the things that have gone wrong in my career, both on and off the stage, things that cause me to endlessly fret…. I’ve learned it just doesn’t matter.

I recently saw Van Zandt in concert, and he mentioned you numerous times during the show, especially when his band played those great songs from your first two albums in the seventies. Man, those songs sounded so good coming alive right in front of me on that stage.

Yeah, we got away with murder back in the day. What a time that was! Nobody wanted to hear what we were doing so we forced it down their throats. Hey, as I say, we’re all still out there. We’re all still playing. We’re all still healthy. We’re all still having fun. My whole career has been a real blessing. As much as there’s been years that have drove us into the ground, at this point, I have to say, I’ve had a great life. And there’s more to come.

Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes will ring in 2020 at The Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey on December 31.