October 27, 2020

Southside Johnny Brings Live Music Back to the Jersey Shore

OCEANPORT, N.J. — On a hot, humid summer Saturday night down the Jersey Shore, about 1,000 cars parked in a vast lot, seeking some semblance of normalcy.

Normal, on past Jersey Shore summer nights, is to be washed over with live music, to sweat off the salty, sticky ocean mist while a bar band blasts through a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands.” It is a D.J. bumping enough bass to blow the sand off your feet, or ballads from the summer stage behind the legendary Stone Pony rock club in Asbury Park echoing all the way down Cookman Avenue.

Yet this year the Stone Pony can’t be packed shoulder to sweaty shoulder. Live music, especially played indoors, is one life’s many affirmations put on pause by the coronavirus pandemic.

But music is as core to life at the Jersey Shore as a melting soft-serve cone on the boardwalk. So Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, who got their start as the house band at the Stone Pony, took over an expanse of asphalt at Monmouth Racetrack in Oceanport for a drive-in concert. Thousands of fans filled a parking lot — socially distanced of course — taillight to glowing taillight.

ImageDrive-in concerts have become one way for live music to resume around the country as the pandemic keeps many indoor venues shuttered. 
Credit…Mark Makela for The New York Times

Across the country, live music is slowly returning, enjoyed safely from the confines of a car for a drive-in concert even as the outbreak still surges in many states.

As Southside Johnny and the Jukes kicked off their show with the hopeful song “Better Days,” Brad Paisley, a country music star, was taking the stage in Nashville, set up in the parking lot of Nissan Stadium for a similar drive-in show. In Indiana, Jon Pardi, another country music singer, was playing a drive-in show just outside Indianapolis.

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Updated 2020-07-12T19:15:54.703Z

Linda Thebold, 55, said she had been to countless Southside Johnny concerts — “I stopped counting in 1992 when I hit 100 shows” — but she said the thought of taking in a concert from a car initially felt odd.

“I have to admit when the tickets were on sale, I was a little apprehensive about what this was like because I love to be in the front,’’ Ms. Thebold said. “I rush the stage, and all my friends, we’re all together.”

“But now that were here, right here, and I’m actually front row center,’’ Ms. Thebold added, “I literally started crying because I could see my friends from their cars and we could all wave to each other.”

The show was organized by another famous New Jersey venue, the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, and part of the proceeds went to help keep the Basie doors open in the future. New Jersey is slowly easing its lockdown, allowing restaurants to serve outdoors and stores to open at limited capacity. But indoor music venues are last on the list of places that can reopen under the state’s phased plan.

Credit…Mark Makela for The New York Times

So on Saturday night, Southside Johnny turned a space that is normally reserved for overflow horse bettors from the nearby track into a rock ‘n’ roll arena.

Though the rush of sound that typically rolls through a cramped crowd now washed over windshields, the music was still loud and live. For those parked in the back, the show was streamed on a low frequency FM station and could be played through car stereos.

People perched on top of S.U.V.s, swaying with the music, while others danced in the flatbeds of their pickup trucks. Craig Peters and Lisa Kessler squeezed through the sunroof of their cherry red Lexus sedan to watch the show.

“We have concert tickets for the summer, at least 12 shows, and everything is postponed until 2021,” she said. “So to have live music again is amazing. It’s like getting your life back.”

As in any summer concert in New Jersey, particularly one by Southside Johnny, there was a buzz in the air that Mr. Springsteen — the state’s most famous rocker — might make an appearance. “Our fingers are crossed,” Ms. Kessler said. Mr. Springsteen has a history of showing up at local Jersey concerts, including by Southside Johnny, and playing a couple of songs.

Though the Boss didn’t hop onstage, most in the crowd seemed happy just to be out for a night on the Shore.

“It’s at least a parking lot at Monmouth Park,” said Becky Erdelyi, 27. “I’ve seen shows here. You’re still in a place.’’

Concerts down the Shore have been familiar to me for more than 20 years; my first dose of the live alchemy produced by guitar, bass and drums came in the parking lot of the Stone Pony in 1999, when I reveled in the deafening anthems from Blink 182 and Bad Religion.

Now, rather than tap my thighs or hug the cold front rail of a rock club, I was pounding away on the faux wood grain of my steering wheel, keeping the beat to “I Don’t Want to Go Home,” a Southside Johnny standard — often one of the last songs in a set and a communal chorus for all who set food on the sandy beaches near Asbury Park.

“This is exciting, like we’re all guinea pigs in the wheel,” Mr. Lyon said toward the end of the show. It was the first of a live performance experiment being run by the Count Basie Theater. Comedians and a Queen cover band are on the schedule this month. Nothing has been officially scheduled for August.

The normal roar of a crowd following each song was replaced with the cacophonous chorus of approving car horns, which occasionally honked along to the beat of songs. Southside Johnny, whose real name is Johnny Lyon, even orchestrated a rhythmic honking to the syncopated opening chords of “Talk to Me.”

Credit…Mark Makela for The New York Times

“There’s no one to react to, it’s all cars,” Mr. Lyon told the audience early on in the show. But he still held the microphone out, as a more dispersed but no less energized crowd sang along to the lyrics of “Love on the Wrong Side of Town.”

“I wouldn’t miss this for anything,” said Susan Doerger, who drove to New Jersey from just outside Cleveland for the concert, her 88th Southside Johnny concert. “I don’t miss a show, if I can get there, I’m there. I pretty much work for it. Music is the best thing for you. Music is so good for the soul. Without that, what do we have?”

So for those who came to get a dose of rock ‘n’ roll and the communion of a live concert, the live sounds reverberating through the parking lot on would have to suffice.

“People don’t come to rock shows to learn something,” Mr. Springsteen wrote in his autobiography. “They come to be reminded of something they already know and feel deep down in their gut.”

And as that first searing guitar note from Southside Johnny pierced the night sky, I felt that familiar pang in my gut.

I don’t want to go home.