"(Having all of) these musicians in a room like this is a wonderful thing," Springsteen told the sold-out crowd of 1,600 music fans as he stood alongside Benjamin. "Bobby, it's a gift you give us every year."
Saturday night's (Jan. 17) party was Springsteen's 11th appearance at the Light of Day show, a benefit supporting the artist manager and music veteran's Light of Day Foundation. Benjamin, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 1996, was honored with the Humanitarian Award at the 2014 Billboard Touring Conference and Awards in November.
Concert promoter and former Asbury Juke Tony Pallagrosi said the honor was a touching moment for Light of Day, and is still overwhelmed by the standing ovation Benjamin and LOD received at the event.
"I think that was the first standing ovation of the night, and that was really moving. I was brought to tears that night, and I know Bob was, and the other folks that were there in the organization realized just how far we've come in 15 years," Pallagrosi said. "To me, it was very important because that was where all the important people who have something to do with live music and touring were, and to be honored in front of those people, the people that we rely on to keep live music alive in general, to have them honor us was the most important honor we ever received -- to be honored by your peers."
Springsteen's appearance was an open secret, as the New Jersey rock star showed up for an early sound check with Pittsburgh rocker Joe Grushecky about two-and-a-half-hours before the show began at 7 p.m.
He took to the stage just around 10 p.m. to join Willie Nile (who worked the crowd into a frenzy with a cover of the Jim Carroll Band's "People Who Died") for a guest vocal on "One Guitar," and later reemerged later to join Richie "La Bamba" Rosenberg's Big Band, sharing a microphone with Asbury Jukes singer "Southside" Johnny Lyon and taking the lead vocal on a song he "wrote... but I don't think I remember," "This Little Girl."
It was a rare moment, as Springsteen rarely performs the song without Gary "U.S." Bonds, who recorded the song for his 1981 record, Dedication. Bonds was scheduled to perform the song -- and his 1960 hit "New Orleans" -- at the benefit but was sidelined due to an unspecified illness. At one point in the song, the group went off the rails. But ever the professional bandleader, Springsteen did a quick recount and finished the song, chuckling all the way.
Lyons took the vocals on "New Orleans" leading the crowd in chanting "hey, hey, hey, yeah," before Springsteen joined in the set.
"Gary's a little ill, so I'll do it for him," Lyons said.
The night was a dream come true for fans of Jersey Shore rock, as Springsteen and Lyons traded vocals and dance moves on Jackie Wilson's "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" (again, another flub, but the mood was so loose and jovial nobody cared) and a cover of The Box Tops' "The Letter," which paid tribute to the Joe Cocker version, which suited the 20-piece big band arrangement.
"It's always fun to look at and see that many musicians playing together in a very constructive way," Rosenberg told Billboard. "It's very arranged -- and it can be easily become very loose in a good way -- depending on who is fronting the big band. With Johnny, you never know what is going to happen. It's always an adventure."
Rosenberg's Big Band was a mix of the current lineup of the Conan O'Brien show's "Basic Cable Band" band and former Asbury Jukes. Rosenberg -- now in his 21st year with the late night talk show host -- told Billboard he finished taping the show in Los Angeles on Thursday and caught a quick flight back East to make the show.
Mark Pender (who continues to mystify with the world's longest trumpet note, demonstrated during the band's opener of Cliff Noble's "The Horse,") Jerry Vivino, Stan Harrison, Rick Gazda, Dan Levine, and Mike Spengler (and a cool appearance by guitarist and Bon Jovi sideman Bobby Bandiera) rounded out the band's full sound.
A rousing singalong of the Jukes classic, "I Don't Want to Go Home" closed the set, and Springsteen took a break before taking the stage solo for a moving acoustic version of "Janey, Don't You Lose Heart."
Springsteen, at heart, is still an urgent and forceful rocker, and it wasn't long before he and Grushecky's House Rockers fired up the Paramount with a fierce version of "Adam Raised A Cain," from Darkness on the Edge of Town. Springsteen was in a randy mood, requesting a shot of tequila onstage ("How much do you have in your love account?" he joked before handing his shot class to a fan in the front row) and inserting jokes into a Grushecky song, "Still Look Good For 60."
Other songs included "From Small Things (Big Things Come One Day," a potent "Darkness on the Edge of Town," "Frankie Fell in Love," a dramatic and gut wrenching "Because the Night" (with an intense Springsteen solo and guest vocals requested by the Boss himself -- who commanded Eddie, Nile, and James Maddock join him onstage) and "Hearts of Stone," written by Springsteen but recorded by The Asbury Jukes.
In what was Springsteen's most revealing personal moment on stage, the singer shared a story about playing a small college show in the beginning of his career, when a car passed by him on the street and he heard "Spirit in the Night" blaring from the car's open window.
"What a great feeling it was," he said before performing "Save Your Love." "It was a feeling I have never forgotten, hearing my song. It was the first time I had ever heard one of my songs being played on the radio. This is what this song is all about. Hearing your song, and seeing if it's (someone else's) song, too."
It was perhaps the best statement about connection on a night when music united a community in the fight against Parkinson's Disease. Springsteen closed the evening with an introspective version of "Thunder Road," but in what looked like an onstage audible, decided to go out on an energetic note, leading the ensemble with "The Promised Land."
The show featured many musical highlights, including a fun set by John Eddie, who entertained with "F---ing 40," the New York grit of Garland Jeffreys, who was fierce on the song "Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me," a sweet acoustic turn from LOD MVP and Dramarama vocalist John Easdale, who performed at four LOD events over the course of one week, and the new alternative duo, Williams Honor, a new country duo with roots in Asbury Park, featuring Reagan Richard and Gordon Brown. The duo's appearance coincided with the recent release of its new single, "Mama Please," on iTunes. A full album is expected in April.
Brown had ties to LOD going back to the very first show when it was still based in Red Bank, and invited his old band mates Peter Scherer and Rob Tanico from Mr. Reality and Highway 9 to the show for a mini-reunion.
For Brown, playing the show is personal.
"My Grandfather spent his last few years struggling through the disease, and I lost my Aunt a few years ago due to complications from Parkinson's. It has left an indelible mark on my family," he said.
The disease also hit home for Sopranos actor Vincent Pastore, who told the audience his mother also suffered from Parkinson's.
In a treat for alternative rock fans, Smithereens singer Pat Dinizio did a medley of the band's four biggest songs, including "Blood and Roses," "Only a Memory," "Behind the Wall of Sleep," and the anthem, "A Girl Like You." Dinizio -- who is playing a weekly residency at Asbury Park's Langosta Lounge -- tells Billboard last night was his first time at the event, but not sharing a stage with Springsteen.
However, Dinizio was still blown away by the backstage scene.
"I'm tremendously excited to be taking part in this event," said Dinizio, who previously performed with Springsteen, Bon Jovi and Joan Jett at the New Jersey Alliance of Neighbors concert in 2001. "I can hear Bruce Springsteen in the next dressing room going over songs."
Local musician Karen Mansfield, who played an event at Asbury Lanes on a bill with Nicole Atkins and Wesley Stace (formerly known as John Wesley Harding) promoting her self-titled release, said the mood the night before the show was electric.
"All the performances were amazing," said Mansfield, who recently lost her aunt to Parkinson's. "I believe in what Bob Benjamin, Tony Pallagrosi, and all the LOD board members are doing as well as what the artists and the folks who come to the shows are all doing about it. Every bit of effort will bring a positive result. I believe that."