It was “Sweet Sixteen” all the way for New Jersey’s annual series of benefit concerts to raise funds for the fight against Parkinson’s disease. The 16th annual event also happened to be held on the 16th day of the 16th year of the current century. In addition to a number of smaller shows happening around the revitalizing Asbury Park, the Main Event as always was “Bob’s Birthday Bash”: a night in honor of the Light of Day Foundation’s Treasurer and event founder, Bob Benjamin, also a victim of the disease. As it has in the past, the Main Event was at the 1,600 seat Paramount Theatre on the Boardwalk.
Knowing that I would be in the Garden State that weekend, I took my chances and managed to be one of the lucky few to score a ticket for what has become one of the most anticipated annual musical events in the Northeast. Talented roster of acts aside, the event’s appeal has a lot to do with the fact that Asbury’s favorite son, Bruce Springsteen, has performed at 11 of the past 15 Main Events including last year’s. However, hopes of Bruce appearing this year were shattered when he later announced that his “River Revisited” tour would commence in Pittsburgh this same night. Short of the unlikely combination of a late set in NJ, an early one in PA, and a fast private jet home, this year’s Light of Day would be Bruce-less.
But there was never any doubt that the night would prove to be a high energy one with some of New York and New Jersey’s best musical acts performing until the wee hours of Sunday morning. Starting at 6:30 pm, the stage went back and forth between acoustic acts performing short sets in front of the curtain while the stage behind was being readied for 30 minute sets by full band acts. Most of the acoustic acts were lesser-known locals except for Steve Forbert and James Maddock who performed in this manner.
The night was not without a few nods to Springsteen. We heard acoustic covers by young local acts of “Held up without a Gun” and “No Surrender.” Former E-Street Band drummer and Rock Hall of Famer Vinnie “Mad Dog” Lopez also made a quick guest appearance during the Joe D’Urzo and Stone Caravan set to sing a few notes. The final Bruce connection would be from the man who normally would be joining Bruce on stage in his home town of Pittsburgh tonight: Joe Gruschecky who gave us a version of a song he co-wrote with Bruce: “Code of Silence.”
Three artists who comprise 3/4 of what I like to call the “New York Musical Mafia,” Garland Jeffreys, Jessie Malin and Willie Nile (Maddock is the fourth), each gave stunning full-band performances. While all are accomplished songwriters, they honored some recent lost friends with covers. Jeffreys played Lou Reed’s “Waiting for the Man.” Malin opened his set with a blistering “Time” from Bowie’s Aladdin Sane record, while Nile included both artists with a medley of Lou’s “Sweet Jane” and David’s “Heroes.” (Later, hot new local duo Williams Honor would open their acoustic set with a collection of snippets from Bowie’s biggest hits.)
Things managed to run pretty close to schedule until the very end when time managed to slip away from a few acts. Show closers, The Smithereens, came on almost an hour late which meant that the traditional ensemble ending of Springsteen’s “Light of Day” did not come until almost 2 am. A segue into “Twist and Shout” finally sent us all home out into the cold and dark streets along the ocean.
But without a doubt, the night’s intended headliners truly proved to be the stars of the show. New Jersey’s own Smithereens reminded us how they were truly one of the best rock bands to come out of the 90’s. Playing a 60-minute set that included all the great songs of theirs that you wanted to hear, these guys showed that they have not lost a lick. And that’s despite the obvious heath issues facing lead singer Pat DiNizio and those being faced by guitarist Jim Babjak’s wife. (Check the links here to see how you can help both.)
DiNizio was unable to play guitar, but sang as good as he ever has. He also served as an entertaining host for the band adding interesting color before each song they played. The band was nicely augmented by a horn section on a few numbers, and in tribute offered a rough but tender cover of The Carpenter’s “We’ve Only Just Begun” to the birthday boy.
Spending almost a full work day in my theater seat made for a long evening. However, even without seeing Springsteen, I was sure glad that I made the journey. My faith being restored in the greatness of The Smithereens made it all worthwhile as was supporting this much-deserved cause. I’ll see if I can get lucky again next year!
Finally, I would like to add what a lovely old historic theatre the Paramount is. It also has one of the most spectacular sound systems I have ever heard. With a little bit of a facelift this landmark place could be restored to be one remarkable music venue. Let’s hope that finds its way into the overall restoration of my favorite city on the Jersey Shore.