MANCHESTER, NH — It will be “Soultime!” at the Palace Theatre Nov. 21 when Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes land for a one-night musical stand, bringing with him a playlist that will include all his signature hits, as well as his newest R&B-inspired tunes.
“Sure, I’ll still do “I Don’t Want to go Home,” and “The Fever,” because I know it’s what audiences want to hear, but the focus of this show is going to be having fun and feeling good,” says John Lyon, aka Southside Johnny. ” I just want to play some good music and let the night expand and be whatever it wants to be.”
His newest album, “Soultime!,” is a collection of original songs completely inspired by the throw-back soulfulness of the 1970s — danceable, sing-along songs that go right back to his own R&B roots.
“When [Little] Steven [VanZandt] and I started the [Asbury Jukes] we wanted to do R&B and rock’n’roll,” says Lyon, who made a name for himself as part of the New Jersey Sound that also spawned Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi. Together they became a musical collective, originally meeting as a bunch of Jersey shore jukes at the Upstage Club, an all-ages venue where they stayed up all night jamming together, and defining their individual musical chops.
“That’s where I met Steve, Bruce, Jon, Vini Lopez — the Upstage was just this little non-alcohol club where if you had 120 people in the place, half of them were musicians with guitars and harmonicas,” says Lyon. “It was a great college for us, a great school of learning rock’n’ roll and how to play. It was a great education.”
From those proving grounds a lasting bond was created that remains to this day — 40 years later, a rotating cast of musicians still stay in touch and, when possible, support one another’s musical endeavors. Many of them shared the stage together as Ashbury Jukes or E Street bandmates.
“Once you know people as teenagers, and share the same hopes and dreams, it’s a lifelong relationship. Along the way, some break out and take people with them. It’s a tie forged when you’re young in a place where you learned to trust and understand one another, no matter how things were going to turn out,” says Lyon.
He never felt like he was singing in Springsteen’s shadow because, for Lyon, the limelight was never his comfort zone.
“There was no real competition there. I’m glad we all made it to be musicians. For me, I’m right where I want to be — playing the local clubs and recording my own music was always fine for me. I had no great ambition to tour. I never wanted to be as big as Bruce or Jon Bon Jovi,” Lyon says.
“There have been times in my life when the business of music itself was a drag. Honestly, I’m very happy where I am. I never wanted to lose myself for the sake of fame and fortune. I like being able to go shopping without being recognized — I mean, I do get recognized from time to time, but it’s not this worship or frenzy. It’s more like, ‘Hey, Southside, how’s it going?’ and for me, that’s enough.”
In fact, the concept for the new album came to him during one of those joyful, solitary shopping excursions.
“I’m pushing my cart and minding my own business when ‘Superfly’ by Curtis Mayfield came on, and I noticed people were bopping around, I mean, everybody in the place seems to be into the great bass groove and horn drive, and the sneaky, sexy rhythm of the music. Everyone’s mood picked up. It was palpable. I thought that’s what you can do, John, make some feel-good music,” Lyon says.
He floated the concept for the new album to his writing partner Jeff Kazee, who immediately “got it,” and from there, the new tunes with the retro feel flowed effortlessly.
“Oh yeah, it was ridiculously easy to put this new album together. Jeff Kazee and I were deeply established in that music — the Temptations, Soul Survivors, Wilson Pickett — growing up we were all enamored of those performers. This album came very naturally to us,” Lyons says.
“As people, we’ve come through some bad times — a recession, a war in Iraq — now we’re feeling a little bit better, so it’s time for people to forget their troubles and all that deep angst of life, and just let the music give them some relief,” he says.
When he’s not making music or performing, Lyon, 67, says he spends his time reading and traveling. He’s a student of life and the natural world through avid bird-watching in places as remote as the jungles of Costa Rica, or closer to his Jersey Shore home, during the annual Delaware bird migration “fly by.”
“It gets you out and into the woods, where you can forget everything that’s on your mind,” says Lyon. “Even now that I’m older, I still look at life as an adventure. I’m not a nostalgic person; I always look forward, as in there are gigs to go to and places to travel to, books to read, and new people to meet. I’m not interested in wallowing in the past. I want every next day to be special,” says Lyons. “I’m always ready to try new things and see them. I’m not a complacent person in that way. I feel as good when I hike and ride a bike as I do when I spend two hours on stage being punched by the music.”
Fifteen years ago Lyon founded his own record label, Leroy Records, a liberating experience that has defined his ability to take artistic control of his music.
“Being a musician these days is a lot easier than when I started out. With your own label you don’t get the big thrust like you used to get under a music company’s power, but you do have the ability to make your own record, and this great distribution network called the Internet,” says Lyon.
“It’s been a lifesaver for me. I still listen to a lot of people who are smarter than me about the business side of music, but in the end, I get to make decisions about my art, and I don’t have those pressures anymore that go with the music business,” says Lyon. “I also get paid for every record I sell.”
His adventurous spirit has taken him to some unexpected places, working on television and movie soundtracks over the years. His first three albums, “I Don’t Want To Go Home,” “This Time It’s for Real,” and “Hearts of Stone” (voted among Rolling Stone Magazine’s Top 100 albums of the 1970s and ’80s) were produced by Van Zandt and featured songs written by Van Zandt and Springsteen, with a string of hit songs that followed, including what became his signature song, “I Don’t Want to Go Home,” as well as “The Fever,” and “We’re Having a Party.”
He’s dabbled in jazz and big band music, but always with his feet firmly rooted in the soul music of his own youth, which brings him full circle to “Soultime!,” and what he will bring to the Palace stage, for old and new fans alike.
“Being in the music business is complicated enough. There are always hurdles to jump over and missiles to dodge, but I have good friends and a good life,” says Lyon. “I am happy making music that’s visceral. It’s not an intellectual exercise; for me, music is about creating something that people can immediately respond to, from the soul. In the end, it’s got to make you move, and help ease the strain of life, or what is it good for?”
After all these years in the musical trenches, Lyon says he never loses sight of, or appreciation for, his audience.
“My fans have been through a lot of different stuff from me, so I know they’ll like this new music. That, right there, fills you with a great feeling of accomplishment, knowing that you can make music people can universally enjoy,” he says. “That’s all I really want. I don’t want my face on a magazine cover. I don’t want fans coming to my house at 3 a.m. to stalk me. I just like to make good music, and when I’m not doing that, I am cool with still being somewhat anonymous.”
Check out Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes performing “Spinning” from the new album, “Soultime!”
Buy Tickets now for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Saturday November 21, 7:30 p.m. at the Palace Theatre
Tickets: $24.50, $39.50, $49.50, $64.50 (meet and greet before show at 6:45 p.m.)