Springsteen put his blessing on Asbury Park rock festival


I was having a beer in The Stone Pony on Sunday afternoon.

The legendary rock ’n’ roll bar in Asbury Park, N.J., sits just a couple of blocks away from the entrance to the Sea.Hear.Now music festival – which is why I was in town last weekend.

But it’s basically dead at 2 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon. There might have been a dozen people there.

Asbury Park, of course, is where Bruce Springsteen played before he hit it big, and the Boss’ aura still hangs over the venue and the whole town. His early-career songs are littered with Asbury Park references.

A lot of us fans at Sea.Hear.Now were thinking that Springsteen might just make an appearance at the festival that night.

I wasn’t holding my breath. But Springsteen has hopped on stage with bands many times in his career, to the surprise of the audience. So a new rock festival on the beach in Asbury would definitely have a shot.

Back to the Pony.

There is an odd stillness to a rock venue in the light of day when the place is quiet.

But if you were going to start a rumor about a Springsteen appearance, The Stone Pony would be the place to do it.

Still, I didn’t take much notice when a flashy-dressed man sauntered in and loudly told the bartender that he just got in from California because he heard Springsteen is in town.

I might have even rolled my eyes, then quickly forgot about it.

Until later that night.

If Springsteen was going to appear, it would have to be Sunday (that’s one of his off days from his Broadway show), and it would certainly be with Social Distortion. He’s played with the California buzzsaw-punk band before, and there is some fanbase crossover.

Plus, he certainly wouldn’t fit in with that night’s headliner, Jack Johnson.

At about 35 minutes into Social D’s one-hour set, frontman Mike Ness told the crowd “You’ve been great,” and then he and his band left the stage.

The lights stayed down. Roadies came on stage to adjust the equipment.

Bands don’t do encores at festivals, I thought. What is going on?

Then it dawned on me.

And sure enough, Ness returned and introduced his friend – Bruce Springsteen.

The Boss jammed with Social D for about 20 minutes, trading guitar solos and lead vocals with Ness. They finished the show with an extended version of “Ring of Fire,” the Johnny Cash tune that is Social D’s signature song.

Then I remembered that brief moment at The Stone Pony. The prophet with the SoCal attire was an industry insider.

Springsteen didn’t say too much on stage. He deferred to Ness and expressed his appreciation for Social D. But his appearance added a spark to the cool ocean breeze, and was the crowning moment of a great festival.

After a few minutes, Jack Johnson started on the stage at the other end of the beach.

The chill guitarist delivered the denouement to Sea.Hear.Now, and was a perfect choice to close a sweet night.

I have been to a lot of rock festivals – five this year alone – but Sea.Hear.Now stands out.

It was the first time I had been in Asbury Park in decades, and I recalled the city as a decaying urban blight spot on the otherwise beautiful Jersey shore. But the city is well into a renaissance, and it’s largely based on rock ’n’ roll.

There is a lot of live music in the city’s clubs, and brewpubs, restaurants and other hangouts have sprung up to cater to the hipster populace that has taken over the beach half of the city.

Massive cranes dot the skyline, as luxury hotels are going up.

Late September, with its sunny skies and low humidity, is the perfect time for a rock festival. Putting one in a resurgent rock ’n’ roll beach town with a boardwalk is the best of both worlds.

Can’t wait for next year.

Guy D’Astolfo covers entertainment for The Vindicator. Follow him on Twitter at @VindyVibe.