Springsteen’s Surprise Show in Asbury Park

by Steve Spohn
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Bruce and Joe at the Wonder Bar

I got the call early Saturday morning from a trusted, well-informed Bruce friend. He told me Bruce was likely to be playing that night with Pittsburgh’s Joe Grushecky & The Houserockers (with special guest Ed Minion on sax, recently of the E Street Band). They were to perform at Asbury Park’s Wonder Bar – a small venue with a capacity of only about 300.

I’d been down this road many times. Most of the time I don’t take the bait, and Bruce doesn’t show. Last November, I got wind that he might show up in Asbury with Joe Grushecky, a musician that Springsteen has collaborated with on many occasions (Bruce produced Joe’s 1995 album American Babylon). I ended up going to Asbury to hit the scheduled Joe Grushecky record-release party. Bruce was there, and he and Joe ate dinner together. Joe performed, but sadly Bruce never came out to play with him. I later found out that he was indeed going to take the stage, but he was feeling under the weather (or so the story goes).

WonderBarAsburyParkSpringsteen SongMango.comThis call on Saturday seemed very likely to be true, and then I heard the same “rumor” from a second source. At that point, I started believing it was true. Tickets were sold out, but an extremely kind Bruce fan – who I only know from a message board – hooked me up with a couple of tickets. The anticipation was building. I called my friend Bill, whom I’ve know since we were 5 and had seen many a Bruce show with. He said he was good to go.

As we made the 45-minute drive from Rocky Hill (NJ) to the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, we talked about The Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” shows in Chicago that we had attended over the July Fourth weekend, but that’s another story for another time.

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The boardwalk in Asbury Park

It’s was a balmy summer night – perfect for seeing Bruce in Asbury Park. After some pinball and pizza on the boardwalk, we walked into the Wonder Bar just as Joe was finishing up his first song. The place was packed.

We grabbed a couple beers and a spot next to the soundboard. Two songs later, there was Bruce onstage. Joe introduced him, but it was pretty low key. What followed was an incredible night of music in Bruce’s backyard. Here’s a blow-by-blow accounting of the two-hour show:

“Never Be Enough Time” – This is a solid track written by Joe, with Bruce adding strong backing vocals. The song comes from Grushecky’s 1995 album American Babylon, which (as mentioned above) Bruce produced. It’s a number that eased them into the show. Bruce was casually looking around – making a eye contact with people in the crowd. You could tell he was feeling very comfortable in this small intimate setting. Although I’ve seen Bruce perform hundreds of times, in a variety of formats, I’m always amazed at how his voice can elevate any song, pumping it up with a real sense of urgency and importance. This aspect of his artistry pops out every time he gets onstage with someone else.

“Adam Raised A Cain” – The guitars came out on this one. Everybody onstage was getting warmed up, and the crowd at the Wonder Bar was settling in for a wild night. Bruce’s voice was strong, and it was fantastic to see him onstage again. His solo starts at 1:40.

“Darkness On The Edge Of Town” – This is a powerful version of the classic song that had Ed Minion from the E Street Band playing his first solo of the night with Bruce. There comes a moment during these gigs with Bruce and Joe that it suddenly becomes a Springsteen show. On this night, that moment came during “Darkness On The Edge Of Town.”

Here’s another look at it:

“Racing In The Streets” (1978 version) – I love this version. It’s an outtake from Darkness On The Edge Of Town that Bruce released on The Promise box set. It’s got a faster tempo than usual and some different lyrics. The guitar work at the end is strong, and Bruce’s harmonica delivery is pure exhilaration.

“Chain Smoking” – This one is off Joe’s album, American Babylon – a song that Bruce hadn’t played with Grushecky since 1998. It was excellent, not at all rusty despite the long gap between performances. I think Bruce loves being “just” the guitar player at times (without the vocals); it takes the pressure off him, and he can kick back and rip on the guitar, which he definitely did.

“Talking To The King” – Here’s a staple from Joe’s live repertoire. This version was solid but nothing special.

“Save My Love” – A Bruce outtake from 1977 that was released on The Promise in 2011. Had it been released in 1978, it would have been a top-10 single. It’s a moving love song with a beautiful melody. Before playing it, Bruce told a story of the first time he heard himself on the radio. It was very special hearing these Bruce tales in such an intimate setting.

“Frankie Fell In Love” – Here’s another Darkness outtake released on The Promise. Bruce told a very funny story about living with Little (Miami) Steve in Asbury, and how Steve was a slob. This is a roaring, uptempo song with Bruce sharing the vocals with Joe. The Wonder Bar was hoppin’!

“Atlantic City” – Bruce announced to the crowd that this song was adapted from a true story, and being so close to Atlantic City made this version even more personal. There was a whole slew of people outside the Wonder Bar listening and watching what they could. I looked back, and they were all way into it. This footage includes the end of “AC” then “Pumping Iron.”

“Pumping Iron” – This may be Joe’s best song – a real rocker that Bruce loves. It’s off the 1980 album Have A Good Time But Get Out Alive! released by an early iteration of the band, The Iron City Houserockers. Joe and Bruce share the vocals, and the guitars shred.

“Code Of Silence” – This is a song Bruce and Joe wrote together – one that Bruce released. A live version of the track appears on the 2003 compilation album The Essential Bruce Springsteen. Although it’s not a widely recognized Bruce tune, the song won a Grammy in 2004. It’s never been one of my favorites, but I always end up liking it.

“Because The Night” – The guitar work rocked, as it always does on this one, and tonight was no exception.

“Promised Land” – This is when the house came down.

They didn’t leave the stage, but ended the set after this one.

“Pink Cadillac” – I believe this one was an audible called by Joe, and it was the best song of the night (in my opinion). This version rocks, and the crowd was completely into it. Bruce slowed it down at one point – and the audience sang a verse. It was a fantastic moment inside the Wonder Bar.

“Light Of Day” – Bruce dedicates the song to all the fans “out in the streets” listening and watching through the windows. Pure Rock-N-Roll – a powerful performance to close the show.

I’ve seen Bruce and Joe play more than a dozen times together. The setlists have been very similar over the past few years, but no big deal. It was an amazing night of music in Asbury Park with Bruce – everyone, including myself, felt very lucky to have been there.

The Wonder Bar was jammed, and fans piled up outside as word got out over social media that Bruce was in town. “The whole street got completely packed with people,” the bar’s owner, Debbie DeLisa, told CNN. “It was insane.”

Look for a new Bruce album next year. He seems to be in touring shape – and if all goes well, The River box set will be out for Christmas.

Bruce Springsteen and Joe Grushecky & The Houserockers
July 18, 2015 – Wonder Bar, Asbury Park, NJ

Never Be Enough Time
Adam Raised A Cain
Darkness On The Edge Of Town
Racing In The Street (’78)
Chain Smokin’
Talking To The King
Save My Love
Frankie Fell In Love
Atlantic City
Pumping Iron
Code Of Silence
Because The Night
The Promised Land
Pink Cadillac
Light Of Day

Steve Spohn is a former Saturday Night Live and Nickelodeon Television executive. Growing up near Princeton, NJ, led to a musical addiction, with WMMR in Philly and WNEW in NYC providing the daily dose. When not attending or planning to attend Bruce Springsteen concerts, he's plugging away as a screenwriter in Beverly Hills. Reach Steve at SSpohn@SongMango.com.