Walking onstage at an Asbury Park, New Jersey, bowling alley and concert venue crammed with Bruce Springsteen fanatics desperately waiting for a glimpse of their hero when your name is anything other than Bruce Springsteen is an act of true bravery. But that’s the situation that Danny Clinch’s Tangiers Blues Band and Portugal. The Man faced at the reopening party for Asbury Lanes where Springsteen’s billing as a “special guest” led to an incredible demand for spots in the 700-person capacity venue even though it was never made clear when he’d take the stage or what he’d actually do when he got there.
The mere fact he was willing to show up at all was a bit of a surprise considering he’s in the middle of his Springsteen on Broadway run and hasn’t played much outside of the confines of the Walter Kerr Theater since the show began last October. But the reopening of the sleek Asbury Lanes is a big event in his adopted hometown of Asbury Park and the venue pledged $125,000 to the Boys and Girls Club on his behalf. He was also asked to merely sit in with the Tangiers Blues Band, which features famed rock photographer Clinch on harmonica and occasional lead vocals. In a rather surprising move, they took the stage prior to Portugal. The Man, meaning that Springsteen was put in the extraordinarily rare position of being an opening act.
The Tangiers Blues Band began their set without Springsteen, transforming Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” and the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)” into rollicking blues numbers. In a nod to the impatient Springsteen fans, they wrapped up with “Waiting For The Man” by the Velvet Underground (“you’re waiting for the man, too”) before bringing out Springsteen to rapturous applause and a sea of camera phones.
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They began with Huey “Piano” Smith’s “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu.” It was clear from the first notes that Springsteen was thrilled to be free from his tightly rehearsed Broadway show and in an environment where he could improvise, have fun and really let loose like his old days playing clubs along the Asbury Park boardwalk. They followed it up with a nearly 10-minute rendition of the Muddy Waters classic “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” with Clinch wailing on the harmonica as Springsteen fell into a tight groove with the rest of the band. That tune led right into Don Raye’s 1940 hit “Down the Road a Piece,” which has been in Springsteen’s repertoire stretching all the way back to Bruce Springsteen Band shows in 1971.
The group clearly rehearsed and a set list barely visible in the distance seemed to suggest they planned on cramming in a few more tunes, but Springsteen got so deep into the vibe of “Down the Road a Piece” that he didn’t want it to end, bringing it to two false stops and telling the band exactly how to keep it cooking. “Stay there,” he said as they approached the 10-minute mark. “Build it up. I’m going to count you in … back to the verse.” (The E Street Band can read his non-verbal cues by this point and achieve such things without formal orders.)
With the clock running out on their hour-long set time, Clinch, Springsteen & Co. wrapped it up with a quick-and-dirty “Twist and Shout” before taking bows and heading off. Would many in the crowd have liked to see Springsteen play for longer than 30 minutes? Sure. Would they have liked to see him play at least one original tune? There is no doubt. That said, nobody seemed the least bit unsatisfied with what they got. If anyone wants to hear “Born to Run” and “Dancing in the Dark,” the Walter Kerr Theater is just a 90-minute drive away and he’s there five nights a week.
Not only did Portugal. The Man have to follow that, but they had to contend with a smoke alarm going off three times early in their set, which automatically turned on the house lights. They somehow powered through all that and slowly won over the Springsteen loyalists with a set of psychedelic tunes from their recent albums that they sprinkled with snippets of classic-rock songs like “Gimme Shelter,” “Children of the Revolution” and “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2.” “Shit, that was crazy,” frontman John Gourley said after a few songs. “Did you see Bruce Springsteen was here? Anyway, we’re good too.”
Danny Clinch came onstage to join them on harmonica for 2013’s “Holy Roller,” though shortly before that he was snapping photos from the side of the stage and mingling with the crowd. Bruce Springsteen also walked into the audience and chatted up fans between acts, though he vanished before Portugal. The Man came on, probably anxious to get home and rest up before returning to Broadway the next day.
His plans when Springsteen on Broadway wraps up on December 15th are unclear. He might take it to theaters around the world. He might release a new album and support it with an E Street Band tour. He might take a well-deserved break. But if he’s down to jam with a photographer’s blues band at a snazzy bowling alley reopening party, trying to predict his next move is pretty much impossible.