FOR THE LAST eight years and nine albums, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes have been looking for a record to lift them above their status as a great, live party band. Lacking the slick polish of Boz Scaggs or the creative power of his friend Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Lyon's soulful rock'n'roll is anchored by his fierce integrity and his band's knack for the goodtime groove.
The Jukes' latest album, "In the Heat," reveals the group trying to update its horn- punchy R&B by extending it toward a more contemporary, urban band sound. The chiming synthesizers and sweet backup vocals of "New Romeo" and "Love Is the Drug" do give the Jukes a smoother veneer. Unfortunately, guitarist Bobby Rush's songs aren't that memorable and Lyon's rough, growling vocals seem out of place in these more urbane settings.
Lyon is at his best on two covers where the openly emotional character of the songs and his singing mingle passionately. He fills Smokey Robinson's "Don't Look Back" with gritty soul while his horn section duels with the rhythm section. Better still is a Tom Waits' blues, "New Coat of Paint," where Lyon's parched vocals and sensual harp work capture the boozy ambiance of the song with sleazy perfection.
Charlottesville's Skip Castro Band has carved out a strong regional reputation as a first-class purveyor of driving R&B, boogie- woogie and rockabilly. Surprisingly, its new album, "Fast Break," proves the band least effective and most derivative when it is simply trying to tear up some rock'n'roll classic. Both a plodding version of John Fogerty's "Rockin' All Over the World" and a feverish but undistinguished rendition of "Red Hot" leave the group sounding like just another bar band.
The five original songs here present a much more promising and engaging side. The cheery keyboards, bouncy rhythms and easy-going harmonies of "Work Hard on Love" and "Christine" are reminiscent of the charming and soulful rock of NRBQ. "Little Lucille," with its Latin sway, perky melody and sharp handclaps, is absolutely contagious.
SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY & THE ASBURY JUKES -- "In the Heat" (Mirage 90186-1)
SKIP CASTRO BAND -- "Fast Break" (Midnight SCB 2033); both appearing at the Warner Theater at 7:30 and 11 p.m. New Year's Eve.