Up until late Saturday afternoon, the odds of Bruce Springsteen showing up at the annual Asbury Park charity concert Light of Day seemed pretty miniscule. He was a regular (unannounced) guest at the show – which raises money to fight Parkinson’s Disease – most every year from its inception in 2000 through 2015, but he missed the past four consecutive shows. This year, he was booked to host an equestrian event in Wellington, Florida 24 hours before the start of the Light of Day festivities. Making matters worse, a winter storm just happened to pound the Eastern seaboard throughout Saturday that made air travel a somewhat dicey proposition.
But reports that Springsteen somehow made his way to Asbury Park’s Paramount Theater to join a lineup that included Dramarama, Jesse Malin, the Weeklings, James Maddock, Joe D’Urso, Willie Nile and Joe Grushecky started circulating on Twitter and various fan forums a little before 5 p.m. Even fans inside the building that weren’t plugged into Springsteen Internet caught a glimpse of his longtime guitar tech, Kevin Buell, perched near the side of the stage during Jesse Malin’s 7:50 p.m. set. There was also a second mic stand set up next to Malin for reasons that were made clear when he announced that a special guest was coming out.
“We’re going to bring out a guy,” he said right after playing “She Don’t Love Me Now” from his 2015 LP New York Before the War. “I don’t know, some local guy…” He continued the speaking for the next few seconds, but his words were totally drowned out by thunderous screams of ecstasy. Can anything get a crowd going quite like Bruce Springsteen unannounced at a show in Asbury Park?
Wearing a hat pulled tightly over his eyes and a scarf wrapped around his neck, he duetted with Malin on his 2007 ballad “Broken Radio” (he also appears on the original recording) and joined in on guitar for his 2017 tune “Meet Me at the End of the World” before the curtain fell so the crew could prepare for the next act. Matt Jaffe, a 24-year-old singer-songwriter from San Francisco, had the unenviable task of playing a couple of acoustic songs during the changeover, but much of the crowd was frantically texting their friends “HE’S HERE!” and posting distant, blurry photos of Springsteen to their social media accounts.
And that may be one of the reasons that Springsteen has skipped out on the event these past few years, at least the ones where he didn’t have a show booked somewhere else that night. It’s very hard for a Jersey audience to focus on anything else when they know Springsteen is in the house. The other performers get somewhat overlooked in the mania that erupts.
That’s a shame because the non-Springsteen portions of the show were largely fantastic. Dramarama delivered a killer 20-minute set of New Wave classics that climaxed with their 1989 classic “Anything, Anything (I’ll Give You),” which is truly one of the great forgotten hits of the Eighties. The Weeklings, a Beatles-inspired power pop band jammed out on a psychedelic cover of “I Am The Walrus.” British singer-songwriter James Maddock played a tender set of original highlighted by 2011’s “Beautiful Now.” And Joe D’Urso, a man so devoted to the Light of Day cause that he’s played all 20 events and serves as the treasurer for the organization, had the entire crowd on their feet for his Springsteen-inspired anthem “Noisy Guitars.”
Springsteen’s guitar tech was milling about the stage as technicians set up for Willie Nile’s set, and the extra mic stand made it pretty clear what was going to happen. But even before the not-so-surprise guest joined him, Nile had everyone joyfully singing along to “House of a Thousand Guitars.” But then Springsteen came out for “One Guitar” and the place went ballistic.
Light of Day is good at throwing curve balls, so next up was Law & Order actress Jill Hennessy. She performed an acoustic rendition of “No Surrender” (who knew she was a singer?) as the crew set the stage for Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers. They’ve played with Springsteen countless times over the years, but the only time since 2015 was a quick, impromptu rendition of “Light of Day” at the Freehold, New Jersey launch of the Springsteen: His Home Town exhibit in September 2019.
As always, their set alternated between Grushecky tunes like “Talking to the King,” “Pumping Iron” and “Never Enough Time” and Springsteen classics like “The Promised Land,” “Atlantic City” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” It was outrageously fun and high-energy by the standards of most mortals, but not quite the frenetic blast of adrenaline from years past. Springsteen kept his hat pulled down so tight that his eyes were largely obscured and he was uncharacteristically restrained at times, though “Pink Cadillac” (with photographer Danny Clinch on harmonica) was red hot and “Savin’ Up” (a tune he wrote for Clarence Clemons and rarely does himself) was glorious.
Per tradition, it ended with everyone from the night back onstage for a sloppy and spirited “Light of Day.” Among them was Bob Benjamin, Grushecky’s former manager that was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1998 and the inspiration for the entire event. He now uses a wheelchair, but seemed to be in great spirits. “Bob started this 20 years ago,” Springsteen said. “Man, that’s hard to believe. It’s been an incredible experience… let’s do one more song.”
It could only be “Thunder Road.” It was a gentle version with Bruce on acoustic guitar joined only by Grushecky’s keyboardist. Everyone in the theater sang along, even the ushers. It was the perfect New Jersey moment.
The night pushed Light of Day to the $6 million mark, a truly incredible achievement for something that began as a little birthday party to lift Bob Benjamin’s spirits 20 year ago. And if Springsteen doesn’t show up next year, or never comes again for that matter, it’s going to continue long into the future.