The premiere of Southside Johnny’s big band project with trombonist Richard “La Bamba” Rosenberg was executed impressively in moments of power or playfulness, although the two-hour show was a bit out of sync early on and slightly drowsy at the end. The program, like Southside’s new self-released album “Grapefruit Moon,” is all Tom Waits songs, and with Southside’s voice sounding like a warmer version of Waits’ earliest gravel tone, Friday night’s show reveled in the balance between familiarity and invention.
The songs of Waits provide Southside Johnny Lyon with an opportunity to add an element of cynicism and noirish qualities to his soulful music, which has long been based on gritty horn-based blues and R&B of the 1950s and ’60s. Many of the songs performed have long been abandoned by Waits, tunes from the 1970s that he penned when Jackson Browne, the Eagles and Warren Zevon were among his peers.
The album, released on Leroy Records, was assembled in four separate sessions using slightly different lineups; in concert, it’s clear that a bit more rehearsal has served the musicians well. It took two or three songs for the 18-piece band to gel, but once it did, the evening went into a Basie Plays Bond groove — speedy tempos, screaming solos and little room to breathe save for an intimate version of “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night.”
The evening took unexpected turns, just as Waits’ music does, into Latin rhythms such as tango, a New Orleans funeral march, a touch of Nelson Riddle and even some Duke Ellington. (The lone non-Waits tune in the show was Ellington’s “I Ain’t Got Nothing But the Blues.”)
Southside Johnny has built a 40-year career as the leader of a party band, the Jukes, which bar denizens often preferred over Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band when the two were Asbury Park regulars. As such, he appears to dread taking one of Waits’ ballads, such as “Grapefruit Moon” or “Please Call Me Baby,” at the composer’s lonesome-ballad pace, accelerating the meter on both. His sharp command of the straightforward midtempo turned “New Coat of Paint,” “All the Time in the World” and “Temptation” into his tours de force.
The brains and brawn behind the effort is Rosenberg, the trombonist in the Jukes for 30 years. His arrangements, classic in the way Basie’s Atomic Band defined big band power in the late 1930s, adhere to Waits’ originals and sprinkled with accents that would likely get a thumbs up from the composer. “All the Time in the World” is given an intense Bond theme setup; “Temptation” featured a high school chorus to enhance the angel or devil that lurks in so many of Waits’ songs of the last 20 years, not to mention the R&B Southside Johnny has dedicated his life to in performance.