Every indication pointed to “Twist and Shout” ending the evening. It was nearly 1:30 AM – seven hours into the annual Light of Day benefit concert in Asbury Park – and Joe Grushecky and surprise guest Bruce Springsteen had just wrapped up a blistering ninety-minute set. Afterwards they called all of the evening’s performers back to the stage (including Willie Nile, Garland Jeffreys, Joe D’Urso, Jesse Malin, Alejandro Escovedo and the show’s host, Vincent “Big Pussy” Pastore) for an epic, ten minute “Twist and Shout” that incorporated bits of “La Bamba” and some incoherent ramblings that Big Pussy yelled into the mic. When it wrapped people began putting on their coats to leave, but Springsteen asked his guitar tech to bring him an acoustic guitar and harmonica. He then played a seemingly impromptu, super slowed-down “Thunder Road” that was the most beautiful rendition of the 1975 classic that I’ve ever heard. When it ended bleary-eyed Springsteen fanatics poured out onto the Asbury Park boardwalk, stunned into silence by the show they’d just witnessed.
The Light of Day shows were launched in 2000 by music industry vet Bob Benjamin to raise money to help battle Parkinson’s Disease. It was originally a one-night-a-year gig at a Jersey club, but it’s since expanded to an international tour that culminates in four days of shows in Asbury Park. Bruce Springsteen has been the “surprise” guest most every year, usually ending the show with longtime friend and collaborator Joe Grushecky. Since he’s been off the road for over a year now, Springsteen fanatics from all over the world travelled to the Paramount Theater in Asbury Park this year for the show, even though there was no guarantee he would play.
The concert began with solid sets by Rock and Roll Chorus, Quincy Mumford, Joe D’Urso and Garland Jeffreys. The first indication that there might be a special guest in the house came at the beginning of Jesse Malin’s set, when an extra microphone stand was set near the center of the stage. It stood there until the final song, when Malin announced that a “special friend” was going to sing with him. Springsteen walked out with an acoustic guitar, wearing a black and white plaid shirt. The audience erupted into a sea of “Bruuuuuuce’s”; every other person seemed to be filming the subsequent performance of 2007’s “Broken Radio” on their cellphones. From that moment on there was electricity in the air, because everybody knew for sure that Springsteen would eventually closet out the night with his own set.
New York singer-songwriter Willie Nile was up next. After playing a brief set that contained a smoking version of “Cell Phones Ringing (in the Pockets of The Dead)” he also invited out a “special friend.” Springsteen joined him on his 1991 track “Heaven Help the Lonely,” which he supplemented with some blistering guitar work. Alt-country great Alejandro Escovedo had the difficult task of performing in the slot directly before Springsteen. He made the questionable decision to not bring a full band, leaving him and another acoustic guitar player to perform for an increasingly impatient audience desperate for their Bruce fix. The biggest cheer he received was when he introduced the track “Rosalie,” because some in the audience briefly thought he was saying “Rosalita.” Springsteen did come out at the end to perform an acoustic rendition of “Always a Friend” with Escovedo, a track they performed together on the Magic tour in 2008 and more recently at the Stone Pony.
Grushecky was next on the bill, but Springsteen kicked off the set with a rare solo acoustic version of the Magic deep cut “Your Own Worst Enemy,” followed by the Born In The USA outtake “This Hard Land.” Both tracks are rather obscure, but the crowd sang along to every word. Grushecky and his band then came out while Springsteen strapped on an electric guitar. Springsteen has played with this band a lot over the years. They give his songs a more stripped down, garage-rock feel than the E Street Band – and it’s clear that Springsteen relishes the opportunity jam with them.
The set contained a handful of Grushecky’s own material (“Never Be Enough Time,” “Talking To The King,” “Another Thin Line”), but the bulk of it was Springsteen classics. The recent Darkness On The Edge of Town box set was definitely on his mind, because Springsteen broke out the title track, “The Promised Land,” “Save My Love,” and a positively smoking “Adam Raised a Cain” from the set. For “Pink Cadillac,” photographer Danny Clinch put down his camera and picked up a harmonica. In a funny role reversal, Springsteen grabbed a camera and took a photo of him during one of his solos.
They ended the main set with the inevitable “Light of Day,” which had more kick to it than any rendition I’ve heard since the E Street Band’s reunion tour in 1999. By this point even the die-hards were looking at their watches, but Springsteen was having way too much fun to stop – as the extra-long “Twist and Shout” and bonus “Thunder Road” proved. After the house lights turned on Springsteen remained onstage, greeting every performer and looking like he’d more than ready to keep the night going for a few more hours.