As Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert both pointed out during Wednesday night’s powerful Jersey 4 Jersey benefit broadcast, the great, unfairly maligned state of New Jersey has taken repeated blows over the past couple of decades, including the death of more than 700 residents on 9/11, and $30 billion of damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Now, the Jersey death toll from COVID-19 has reached 5,000, making it the second-hardest-hit state in the union. “I’m never more proud of this state than when we have our backs up against the wall,” Stewart said, highlighting the Garden State’s resilience.
Executive-produced by Jon Landau, Joel Gallen, Joel Peresman, and Irving Azoff, the show benefited the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund. In all, it captured the global impact of COVID-19 as well as any media product has so far, evoking the universal via the highly specific. In clips between the performances, we saw Jersey pain and Jersey heroism: a restaurant owner tearing up as he described a 90 percent decline in business; shell-shocked doctors and nurses describing patients who didn’t make it; grim-faced school nurses bravely volunteering at a testing center; a cop confessing his fear of catching the virus; a beachfront sign that reads “Boardwalk closed until further notice.”
The performances, meanwhile, were uniformly excellent; they were also — often enough — very, very, Jersey. Here’s how they ranked on that scale, in descending order.
Sitting in your childhood bedroom at age 28, wearing a tank top and several gold necklaces while covering a track from Bruce Springsteen’s debut album on a MIDI keyboard? All of that is undeniably more Jersey than actually being Springsteen or Jon Bon Jovi. So Puth is the surprise winner. He sang the smoothest rendition of “Growin’ Up” imaginable, and gets extra points for nailing the piano solo. Plus, he made his bed, unlike his livestreamed appearance last weekend.
Jon Bon Jovi
Singing in front of a giant portrait of yourself, and an even bigger blown-up ticket from one of your concerts? Jersey, baby. Bon Jovi, who joins Mick Jagger in the club of frontmen who can handle themselves on guitar better than most people realize, performed “Do What You Can,” a new pandemic anthem with partially crowd-sourced lyrics. He closed the show with a dramatic “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa
It was great to see him, but it must be noted that Springsteen on prime-time TV, with an acoustic guitar and a grave expression, is all too often a really good indication that some horrible events are going down. Springsteen was smart enough to marry an E Street Band member, so he had help easily available: He and Scialfa delivered the most wistful version ever of “Land of Hope and Dreams,” and a wrenching take on Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl” — and it was almost frustrating to hear how tour-ready they sounded.
DeVito took us through a novelistic description of his typical summer’s day on the beach in Asbury Park as a kid, including the moment he’d leap over the boardwalk fence to avoid paying for beach admission. “When it’s done,” he said of the pandemic, “we’ll go to Asbury and have a big party.” Holding you to that, Danny.
Fountains of Wayne
Always a heart-tugging song, for all its humor, “Hackensack” was painfully poignant on Wednesday. FOW co-founder Adam Schlesinger died due to complications from COVID-19 on April 1st, and Sharon Van Etten filled in as the rest of the band reunited via video conference. “This is for Adam, his parents, his children, and New Jersey,” frontman Chris Collingwood said.
Introducing herself as “Solána from Maplewood” helped make SZA’s angelic version of “20 Something” super-Jersey, though she would’ve gotten extra points for naming her exit off of Interstate 78. She added a touching coda to the song, a benediction for “everybody safe at home/Everybody scared outside.”
Standing tall for your entire performance (of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”), at age 93, during a global pandemic, with your voice and breath control somehow fully intact? That’s some Jersey Strong stuff, even if Bennett was born in Astoria, Queens.
Fairly or not, the pandemic era favors performers who can perform solo acoustic, and Halsey easily proved herself to be among them with a pitch-perfect “Finally/ Beautiful Stranger” — and then brought in her remote band. As for Jersey-ness?: The off-the-shoulder thing to show off your tattoo qualifies.