Bruce Springsteen is the Santa Claus of the Jersey Shore, the mythical being whose rare appearance brings unbridled joy and wide-eyed smiles to the hometown locals, young and old. Some may question his existence and whether he lives among them and not some far away magical land. But when Santa Springsteen does appear, as he did this past Saturday at the 15th annual Light of Day Winterfest, what he leaves behind is a musical gift and message for all the true believers. For his 11th surprise appearance at the main event, he delivered two hours of presents filled with rarities (“Hearts of Stone,” “Janey Don’t You Lose Heart”), fun-filled covers (“(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher,” “The Letter”) and crowd-pleasing anthems (“Thunder Road,” “Because The Night” and “Promised Land”).
Springsteen’s dedication to showing up for the event has its roots in his friendship with Bob Benjamin, a New Jersey resident who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 38. A music industry veteran and band manager, Benjamin kicked off the organization’s mission with a fundraiser concert on his birthday in 2000 featuring his artist Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers and other local talent. Springsteen lent his support and performed with the band that year. The under the radar event has since grown to a 10-day festival in the NY/NJ area, as well as a full-blown European tour and multiple events in Canada and Australia. All the musicians (over 150 of them) donate their time to raise money for research and awareness for those afflicted with Parkinson’s, ALS and PSP disease.
“You get a bunch of musicians in a room like this and it’s a wonderful thing,” Springsteen said at the end of his set. “Maybe it’s because people come to play together. The nature of musicians is cooperation. It’s a tremendous brotherhood and sisterhood. I come out because obviously it’s a great cause but also to feel that ‘thing.’ And there’s a feeling inside this room. It’s inspiring. And that’s a gift that you give us every year Bob.”
Other established artists who lent their support throughout the festivities were Suzanne Vega, John Eddie, James Maddock, La Bamba and the Hubcaps, bluesman Guy Davis, Pat DiNizio, roots rocker Joe D’Urso, Southside Johnny, Wesley Stace (formerly John Wesley Harding), Ween’s Aaron Freeman and Dramarama’s John Easdale. Springsteen noted the spirit and dedication of the musical community. “I always thought it would be a nice thing to have all the local Jersey Shore musicians get together every once in a while. I never thought you could do with it what you’ve done with it. You’ve brought it around the world.” So, in the spirit of those words from New Jersey’s own Santa Claus, we throw the spotlight on several of the artists who rallied behind the cause and delivered their own musical gifts.
– Steve Conte: a NYC veteran who has played with the New York Dolls and whose song “OK DJ” was voted 2014’s second “Coolest Song in the World” by Little Steven’s Underground Garage (edged out only by Springsteen’s “This Is Your Sword”). The versatile musician played a set of ragged ‘70s-inspired rock filled with shimmering guitar riffs and catchy vocal melodies.
– Anthony D’Amato: The Princeton-educated, Brooklyn-seasoned folk singer performed an intimate acoustic set, featuring songs from his critically acclaimed New West Records release The Shipwreck From The Shore.
– Arlan Feiles: A passionate singer/songwriter who proudly wears the musical activist badge. “Viola” champions the crusade of Viola Liuzzo, a mother of five who was killed in 1965 after marching for civil rights in the Selma to Montgomery, Alabama walk.
– The Weeklings: A new group of veteran Jersey musicians led by Glen Burtnik (“Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough”) and Bob Burger who played a fun set of obscure Beatles songs written but never recorded by the Fab Four. Burtnik got his first musical break playing Paul McCartney in Beatlemania, while Burger had the rare distinction of leading the house band at a star-studded party hosted by Jon Bon Jovi in 2007, which culminated in a jam session with McCartney, Billy Joel, Jimmy Buffett and Roger Waters.
– Stolen Rhodes: this Southern Jersey band has toured with Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blackberry Smoke and other jam bands. Each song is a smorgasbord of crunchy riffs, powerful, soaring vocals and tight harmonies. Bandleader Matt Pillion moves effortlessly from guitar to saxophone for solos.
– Taylor Tote: an unsigned 19-year old with a wide, emotional vocal range and pop sensibilities. “Superman” is a plea from a scorned lover in need of someone to take her away from the pain of lost love.
– Jake Tavill: a young bushy-haired singer with a sweet soulful voice that lies somewhere between the legendary Bill Withers and British singer/songwriter Passenger. The songs from his debut release Indigo Child meld introspective lyrics with slick old-school R&B riffs and driving piano rhythms.
– Rockit Music: the teenage group performed a mesmerizing recreation of Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run album, highlighted by thirteen-year old Emily Ainbinder’s beautiful rendition of the acoustic “Bluebird.”
– Remember Jones: a 16-piece band led by Anthony D’Amato (unrelated to the folk singer above). This D’Amato is a powerhouse soul singer who performed a big-band swing arrangement of Smashing Pumpkins “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”.
– Blue Hawk Records: a collective of Monmouth University college students who formed their own record label, with artists ranging from singer/songwriters to rap.
– Jim Gaffigan, Rick Shapiro and Artie Lange: You read it correctly. The three comedians banded with other comics for a comedy crawl at several legendary NYC hotspots. Shapiro suffers from Parkinson’s and his biting riffs on how the disease affects him had the audience crying happy tears.