By Michelle Trauring
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes stepped foot on stage, looking out to a throng of devoted fans right there on their home turf, the Jersey Shore.
The sticky July evening had the makings of any number of concerts the big-horned bar band had played in their 45-year career, but with one notable difference.
Instead of the raucous applause, hoots and hollers after every song, the band was met with a cacophony of blaring horns. And while it took them by surprise at first, it felt appropriate — considering they were playing to a parking lot of 1,000 cars.
“It was a lot of fun — a lot more fun that I’d thought,” frontman Johnny Lyon said from his home in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, three days after his return to the stage on July 11. “We looked out at the sea of automobiles and we kind of laughed, and we started playing and then they honked their horns. It wasn’t the same as having an audience right in front of you that you can banter with and kid around with, so it was so odd, but it felt so good to play. After four months of not playing, it just felt like, ‘Thank you, I can breathe again.’”
Complying with COVID-19 social distancing mandates, the innovative benefit concert for the New Jersey-based Count Basie Center for the Arts has paved the way for the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center’s very own iteration, to be held on Saturday, July 25, at 7 and 9:30 p.m. on the village’s Great Lawn — marking the first-ever live drive-in concert experience on Long Island, according to Julienne Penza-Boone, executive director of the PAC.
“I just can wait to get back to putting on a live show and I think people are just so hungry for it,” she said. “Technology is wonderful, but nothing, nothing is a replacement for live performance. I don’t think anybody will take that experience for granted ever again. If it means you’re going to sit in your car and see it, I think this will do a lot to lift people’s spirits. From what I read about the New Jersey drive-in, it was just a completely joyous experience, and that’s what we’re aiming for.”
With the help of a valet company, 160 cars per concert will be divided into two pricing tiers and arranged in rows on the Great Lawn, with each numbered spot at least six feet apart. All will have a clear view of the raised, covered stage and access to the FM radio station broadcasting the concert, eliminating any reason to leave the car, except to use the restroom — where masks will be required.
“As a condition of us using the space, the village — understandably so — wanted us to practice an abundance of caution, so we are going to ask that everybody remain in their vehicles,” Penza-Boone said. “If anything changes last minute, of course we’ll let everybody know. But the way it stands now and, quite frankly, the way we’re seeing what’s going on in Suffolk County right now, I think it’s safe to say everyone will stay in their cars.”
While the drive-in is a bright light for the dark Westhampton Beach theater, Penza-Boone said she couldn’t help but consider what musicians and fellow performing artists must be feeling during these strange times. “Can you imagine all of these acts who had all these tours planned and to not be able to do what you are put on this earth to do, play music live?” she said. “It has to be excruciating.”
As for Lyon, he considers himself lucky. His hobbies help pass the time, including his obsession with reading, rediscovering bad science-fiction movies, connecting with his neighbors in Ocean Grove, and getting in touch with his green thumb.
“My tomatoes are ripening!” he said, genuinely enthused.
But even he has his limits, he said.
“Oh, believe me. I enjoy time off because I work so much, but this is way too much time off for me — way, way too much time off,” he said. “You just can’t lose your mind about it. I mean, you’ve gotta have a reason for living and sometimes that communal entertainment energy is one of the things that keeps you going. Music is how I define my life, otherwise I have nothing to contribute.”
While Bruce Springsteen introduced the world to the Jersey Shore sound, it was Lyon who was an early focal point of the entire mid-1970s scene, marrying hard rock with soul and horn-fueled blues as Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. Their early hits, such as “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and “The Fever,” are sure to make the Westhampton Beach set list, but the rest is traditionally a toss-up — often including tunes made up on the spot, built off a simple riff.
“The set list depends on how I feel, and how the band feels, and how the audience feels — which makes it a little difficult when they’re in automobiles, because you’re asking a Buick, ‘How do you feel?’” Lyon deadpanned. “And the trouble is, when they answer, they say, ‘I’m okay.’ It really does depend on the mood of the night, but there’s so much exuberance about getting to play and people want to get out of the house and go see live music. So there’s a real energy there.”
The frontman has come to terms with playing to car grills and windshields for the foreseeable future, he said, though some New Jersey fans got creative and brought along blown-up faces that the band could see from the stage.
“There are all these inventive ways that an audience can interact with the band, and I’m lucky that my audience knows that I appreciate that kind of stuff and I don’t take it so seriously,” Lyon said. “I would rather see them having fun than anything, personally.”
And he’s determined to do the same, too. With the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic murky, at best, he’ll take what he can get — with verve.
“I’m gonna know every car brand there is, and I’ll be able to tell what car it is by the front bumper. You’ve gotta keep learning, or you start to stultify,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that bother me about the coronavirus, but I know people that are really suffering financially and also lack a sense of purpose now, and I’m hoping this infusion of live music gives them something to feed on for awhile so they don’t get too down.”
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes will play two drive-in concerts, to benefit the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, on Saturday, July 25, at 7 and 9:30 p.m. on the Great Lawn in Westhampton Beach.
The lawn will open 45 minutes prior to each start time, and closes 15 minutes past. No late entry will be allowed. Food service will be available from Aji Authentic Mexican Food, The Catered Fork by Steve Ammirati, and The Inn Spot, which will park their food trucks on the lawn and offer car-side delivery.
Tickets permit one vehicle each, and are available for $225 or $275. For tickets and more information, call 631-288-1500 or visit whbpac.org.