By this point, it's a little absurd to label Bruce Springsteen's set at the annual Light of Day concert a "surprise." He's played the New Jersey charity event, which raises money to fight Parkinson's disease, 10 out of the past 14 years, and the only time he missed one since it moved from clubs to the 1,600-seat Paramount Theater in Asbury Park, he actually warned his fans a day in advance via Facebook.
With all due respect to stellar artists like Garland Jeffreys, John Eddie, Willie Nile and Joe Grushecky, the extreme likelihood of a Springsteen appearance is the main reason why people travel from overseas to see the show, and why tickets priced as high as $237 sell out within seconds and go for crazily inflated amounts on the secondary market.
The real surprise every year is seeing exactly how Springsteen will first introduce himself to the crowd, and what he'll do to make it a special evening for everybody. We've seen every Light of Day over the past five years, but without any doubt last night's was the best. Here are the 10 best moments.
1. Springsteen Makes His Entrance.
Light of Day veteran Willie Nile took the stage at 9:45 pm, nearly four hours into the show. The New York singer-songwriter had the crowd on their feet from the second the curtain went up, focusing his hyper energetic set on newer tracks like "Life on Bleecker Street" and "People Who Died," which he dedicated to Ian McLagan, Bobby Keys and other musicians we lost last year. But it was hard to ignore the extra microphone stand set up near the front of the stage, and when he told everyone to welcome a "special guest" and Springsteen walked out, the audience reaction was deafening, even to those of us wearing earplugs. Per tradition, they played Nile's anthemic "One Guitar," with Bruce largely holding back and letting his buddy take the spotlight.
2. John Eddie Repeatedly Makes Fun of Himself
New Jersey songwriter John Eddie hasn't exactly had a bad career. Kid Rock has covered two of his songs and he’s maintained a cult following ever since his self-titled 1986 LP earned rave reviews and generated the hit "Jungle Boy." But the man who titled his 2003 album Who The Hell is John Eddie? showed he's got a profoundly self-deprecating sense of humor. "This is a song about where my career is now," he said before playing the wickedly funny "Real Big Deck." "I usually play in people’s backyards." Just in case anyone didn't get the double entendre in the lyrics, he paused the song midway through to explain. "You see," he said. "It sounds like dick."
3. Springsteen Walks Among The People.
Original E Street drummer Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez played a three-song set with his blues rock duo Dog Whistle ("only the cool people can hear us") directly after Willie Nile wrapped up, though the people on the right side of the venue were a little distracted by the fact that Springsteen emerged from the backstage area and walked the entire length of the theater. This happened at least four times during the night. Keep in mind, it's hard to imagine anywhere on Earth with a higher density of Springsteen fanatics. Here's a sampling of text messages we couldn't help but see the woman next to to me furiously writing: "ACK!" "OMG OMG!" "A guy in my row actually shook his hand!" "There's still time! Come on down! I think he's still there!"
4. The Upstage Club Lives.
Very few Springsteen fans ever got the chance to see a show at the legendary Asbury Park club The Upstage, a late 1960s/early 1970s after hours spot where Springsteen, "Southside" Johnny Lyon and future members of the E Street Band first came together and jammed, back when they were barely out of high school. The place was shuttered in 1971, but the spirit returned during LaBamba's Big Band penultimate set of the evening.
Trombonist Richie "LaBamba" Rosenberg is best known these days as the goofy, mustachioed member of Conan O'Brien's house group Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band. But he has a long history on the Asbury Park music scene, playing countless gigs as part of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. He put together an amazing grouping of musicians for this year's Light of Day, including Southside Johnny, Asbury Park Juke/Bon Jovi guitarist Bobby Bandiera and at least 12 others. Gary U.S. Bonds was supposed to join them, but he got sick at the last minute and had to pull out.
It wasn't clear if they were underrehearsed or if Bonds' absence messed up their plans, but their 40-minute set was chaotic in the best possible way. Despite LaBamba and Southside's heroic efforts, people often seemed unsure when it was their turn to solo and songs stretched on and on. Springsteen came out in place of Bonds and sang his 1981 comeback hit "This Little Girl." "I wrote this song," he said. "Let's see if I remember it." He did the best he could, laughing at the end and confessing, "Well, that’s most of it."
Southside led the enormous band through Joe Cocker's version arrangement of "The Letter," and later put his arm around Springsteen as they traded lines back and forth on Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher" and Southside's own "I Don't Wanna Go Home." The two have been buddies for 45 years, but they've rarely collaborated onstage like this in recent years and it was great fun to witness. At times it truly felt like a time warp back to the Upstage, albeit with an enormous horn section and Vincent "Big Pussy" Pastore standing on the side of the stage.
5. Garland Jeffreys Honors Lou Reed.
The Brooklyn songwriter, best known for writing the Circle Jerks classic "Wild In The Streets," was one of Lou Reed's oldest friends. The two met at Syracuse University in 1962 and stayed close for decades. Towards the end of Jeffreys' Light of Day set, which featured his 1950's rock salute "'Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me" and "Wild In The Streets," he dedicated a song to a "friend of 50 years." What followed was an awesomely funkified rendition of "I'm Waiting For The Man" that would surely have made Lou proud.
6. Springsteen Breaks Out The Deep Cuts.
The final act on the bill was Joe Grushecky and the House Rockers, but when the curtain rose it was Bruce Springsteen standing alone and holding an acoustic guitar. He opened up with a tender rendition of “Janey Don’t You Lose Heart.” Once joined by Grushecky and the House Rockers, he dug out other rarely played tunes like “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)," "Hearts of Stone," "Save My Love," "Savin' Up" and even "Racing In The Street ('78)," a sped-up, early version of "Racing In The Street" with slightly different lyrics that he released on The Promise box set. These songs are far from famous, but this crowd knew every word to all of them.
7. Local Talent Gets a Spotlight.
Light of Day has grown from a single club show a year to a worldwide tour that culminates in a weeks worth of shows around New Jersey and New York. The Paramount Theater event gets the majority of the attention for obvious reasons, but acts like Joe D'Urso and Stone Caravan are what keep it going. D'Urso gives a ton of time and energy to the Light of Day tour, and his early set at the Paramount always manages to get the crowd stirred up when he closes with his Springsteen-inspired song "Noisy Guitars." It's not a hit, but every year it seems like one.
Also on the bill was Smithereens frontman Pat DiNizio, former BoDeans guitarist Sam Llanas and Dramarama's John Easdale and Pete Wood. They all had the difficult task of playing short acoustic sets in front of a closed curtain while the stage was prepped for the next act, and they all rose to the occasion.
8. Springsteen Jams with Joe Grushecky.
Bruce Springsteen writes most of his songs completely by himself, but he often makes exceptions for former Iron City Houserockers frontman Joe Grushecky. They collaborated on Grushecky's 1995 LP American Babylon and later shared credit on "Code of Silence" and "Another Thin Line." Grushecky devotes most of his time to his day job as a special education teacher in Pittsburgh, though he moonlights as a musician and counts Bruce Springsteen as one of his best friends.
Grushecky and the current lineup of the Houserockers, who were joined at Light of Day by E Street Horns sax player Ed Manion, are extremely familiar with Springsteen's catalog by this point. He led them through fiery renditions of "Darkness on the Edge of Town," "Adam Raised A Cain," "Because The Night" and "Light of Day." It's a nice change of pace to hear these songs performed by a small, tight band, and Springsteen was clearly having a blast as he delivered one blistering guitar solo after another.
Every few songs, Grushecky stepped up and shared vocals on songs like "Never Been Enough Time," "Talking To The King" and "I Still Look Good (For Sixty)" from his own catalog, but mostly he stayed back and let Springsteen do his thing.
9. Everyone Comes Out For The Grand Finale.
Just like many Light of Day's of the past, it was well past 1 a.m. when everyone from the night, including Light of Day founder Bob Benjamin, came onstage for a sing-along rendition of "Thunder Road." Benjamin, who has been battling Parkinson's for nearly twenty years, thanked everyone involved with the show and accepted a cake for his birthday. It seemed like a wrap, but Springsteen asked for a new guitar and ended the night with a joyous rendition of "The Promised Land." (It was the seventh song from the evening recorded during the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions.)
10. Springsteen Promises To Do It Again Next Year.
Shortly before "Thunder Road," Springsteen addressed the crowd and seemed genuinely choked up. "When you get a bunch of musicians in a room like this, it's a wonderful thing," he said. "There's a tremendous brotherhood and sisterhood in that. It's a great cause, but I also come out to feel this thing. There's a feeling in this room tonight. It's inspiring, and with Southside and LaBamba, it's often hilarious. Bobby, it's a gift you give us every year by inviting us to Light of Day." His final words of the night were what everyone wanted to hear: "See you next year."