THE ALBUM -- Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, "Reach Up and Touch the Sky," Mercury (SRM-2-8602).; THE SHOW -- Friday at 7:30 at Merriweather Post.
"It's the work, you see," explains Southside Johnny Lyon on the back of "Reach Up and Touch the Sky." But as this two-record live set demonstrates, "the work" is sometimes synonymous with the pure enjoyment musicians give and get with their live performances.
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes have built a fine reputation from just such an attitude, one in which the pact with the audience emerges from a solid rock foundation. Although the band's name and association with Bruce Springsteen and Miami Steve Van Zandt tend to place them in the near-mythological category that is the Boss' demesne, it's clear from this representation that the Jukes are less interested in creating legends than in preserving traditions.
Rhythm and Blues, Stax-flavored soul and straightforward rock are the ingredients here, and the sentiments of the lyrics generally aspire to little that is more (or less) profound than your basic B-flat romance. In short, nothing here is either new or profound, but the very lack of profundity is refreshing in the hands of such loving professionals.
Take side four, for instance, which consists entirely of Sam Cooke oldies.If you ever thought Cooke did the definitve version of "You Send Me," and any cover attempt would be laughable, you're only partially right. Lyon's treatment of it as part of a broad Cooke medley is a gut-wrenched interpretation of the music, not some sly imitation meant to pass as "tribute" to the man.
Similarly, Springsteen's "Talk To Me" and "Hearts of Stone" are handled not as half-hearted genuflections to the Jersey giant, but as pieces of a heartland bar-band mosaic that the Jukes, along with Springsteen, Bob Seger and even lesser groups like the Iron City Houserockers have kept whole. I prefer "The Fever" taken at its slower, more fitful studio pace, but even the clipped rendition here is plenty hot in its own right.
As for Southside Johnny's own stand-bys, "I'm So Anxious," "Restless Heart" and "Why is Love Such a Sacrifice?" are the strongest. Any real ranking of the tunes would seem superfluous, however, since they're all treated with equal amounts of energy and professionalism.
Throughout the album (or the six concert performances, which is a better way of thinking about it), the horn section is taut and punchy, William Rush's lead guitar is agile yet devoid of noodly excess, and the rhythm section refuses to drag.
The snags are of the sort that can be found on almost any live recording. As Lyons himself has admitted, there's an abundance of applause, greetings and "good-nights," all of which are meant to convey the concert feel but most of which become tedious after a few tracks. Lyon's gravelly voice is just right for the material, but anybody's voice can grow monotonous halfway through the second disc. That most double-live albums should have been whittled down to one, no matter how great they sound, is a rock truism that Jackson Browne way savvy to when he made "Running On Empty."
And speaking of Browne, he is the unfortunate focus of "Reach Up and Touch the Sky's" nadir: Having made note that the latter had appeared at one arena the night before, Lyon goes into a deliberately bad imitation of L.A. mellowrock. The unenthusiastic applause and half-hearted laughter of the audience indicates that it was little more humorous live than it is on vinyl.
Bad moments notwithstanding, this is the kind of music, like Little Feat's "Waiting for Columbus," that makes concerts worth recording, not to mention attending. The work, as Lyon might say, is its own reward, as well as ours.