Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes broke out in the late 1970s, following the emergence of Bruce Springsteen. Northeast Ohio was one of the first markets to embrace their horn-infused sound, fueled by constant airplay on WMMS FM 100.7.
The Jukes are best known for Springsteen-penned hits such as The Fever, Hearts of Stone and Talk to Me. Their live shows are a raucous mixture of R&B and rock and roll and the band continues to play all over the world.
But lead singer Johnny Lyons has always wanted to explore different aspects of his musical loves, and he’s finally found the time to do it. Southside Johnny and the Poor Fools play the Kent Stage this Saturday.
“I really wanted to have a little side project, because I have a lot of material of my own and other people’s that I wanted to do, and I didn’t want to put it through the Jukes blender,” Lyons explained. “I wanted it to be more acoustic. It’s the kind of music I listen to a lot, and I’ve done that kind of thing before but not in so formal a way.”
Even longtime fans might be surprised at the sight of Lyons playing a guitar. “I’m not the best at it, but it’s fun for me and nobody gets hurt,” he explained.
Despite his limitations, Lyons doesn’t have to worry about the quality of musicianship of his new outfit. “The musicians I have around me are just great,” he said. “We’ve got Tommy Byrnes from Billy Joel’s band on guitar and he's just great,” Lyons said. “He sings and he plays and really enjoys it.”
The Poor Fools also include longtime collaborator Jeff Kazee and Jukes’ trombonist and multi-instrumentalist Neal Pawley, who is affectionately best known as "the Dude." Springsteen violinist Soozie Tyrell also joins the band when she's not out playing marathon stadium shows with “the Boss.”
Even the venues this time around are quite different than when he tours with his longtime band. “It’s just interesting to play in the smaller, more intimate places and just play acoustic guitar and have some friends around playing,” Lyons said. “We get to play a lot of places we wouldn’t normally play. It makes for a great atmosphere for people to enjoy themselves. It’s funny, we’ve played a lot of reconditioned churches that have been turned into performance spaces.”
Rock and rollers need not fret. The Poor Fools shows are not entirely acoustic. “We have some electric instruments too, I have to admit that,” Lyons said. “It’s acoustic-ish.”
Lyons admits to another reason for stretching out with his new pals. ”We do have a set of drums, and really the only reason we have the band is that every musician gets to play the drums,” he joked.
The whole idea of the Poor Fools is to showcase great music from lots of genres. Lyons clearly relishes the freedom of playing with the new group.
“We do everything from country and a little bluegrass to some jazzier things, a lot of R&B, a lot of blues and some original material, and of course we do a couple of Jukes’ songs to keep the masses from attacking us,” Lyons quipped. “We’re not trying to accomplish anything but just have fun playing music, and people seem to enjoy that, because they see that we’re not trying to sell anything. We’re just enjoying music.”
After more than 35 years in the business, Lyons is having one of his busiest years ever. He’s started doing some recording with the Poor Fools and he’s also i in the process of writing the next Jukes record. He hopes to get that group in the studio sometime this winter.
“It’s a lot of writing, a lot of studio work, a lot of touring and it really feels good,” Lyons said. “It makes me feel like I’m 18 again.”
Tickets for the 8 p.m. concert are $28.50 to $37.50. They are available on the Kent Stage website and at the venue before the show. Doors open at 7 p.m.