Thursday, May 30, 2024

Bruce Springsteen is Playing Asbury Park. Here’s How It Happened

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A headlining set from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on the beach in their spiritual home of Asbury Park, N.J., sounds more like a fannish fever dream than an actual festival booking. But that performance is actually happening Sept. 15, on the second night of the sixth annual Sea.Hear.Now festival. The festival, which has already had names as big as Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters headline (and which will welcome Noah Kahan to headline the night before Springsteen), was founded in 2018 by famed photographer and Jersey native Danny Clinch with his longtime friend Tim Donnelly and HM Wollman, in a partnership with promoter C3 Presents. It also features a surfing competition and pop-up performances at Clinch’s Transparent Clinch Gallery near the beach.  Clinch, who moonlights as the harmonica player in the Tangiers Blues Band, got on the phone with Rolling Stone to explain how Springsteen and the E Street Band jumped on board for the already sold-out festival, share some predictions, and more.  

Given the location, this is the biggest possible thing you could do. Was it even a glimmer of possibility in your mind at the very beginning?
No, definitely not. But what we hoped would happen, and it actually did, was we knew we would have bands that Bruce loves, like Social Distortion, because we love those bands. Our hope was always that he would come and sit in.

I work with Bruce a lot, so we see each other fairly often. We text occasionally and stuff. And so I told him, we have this festival with Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, Social Distortion, and it’s gonna be great. This was our first year, 2018. I said, “You should come through,” and he was like, “Yeah, that sounds cool.” And I waited a couple months and reminded him again. Then day one, Ben Harper comes on the stage, and it’s absolutely beautiful. The sun is setting, the moon is rising on the other side, it’s just packed with people. And he plays “Atlantic City.” I’m like, “Oh my god.”

So I get out my phone, I film it, and I texted it to Bruce. He says, “What’s going on? And I was like, “This is Sea.Hear.Now, this is happening on the beach right now.” And he was like, “Oh man, amazing.” Of course I said, “Tomorrow, Social Distortion is playing on the beach in Asbury.” About an hour goes by, and he texts me and says, “Can I get the tour manager’s info for Mike Ness?” The next day, he shows up and sits in with Social Distortion. And it really was a kind gesture, because once he sets foot on that stage, it became an international story for Sea.Hear.Now, and he had such a great time.

How did he end up on this year’s line-up?
So this time around, we were looking for our headliners, and he was going to be on the East Coast, and his tour was going to end on the 13th of September. So we’re like, “Oh man, this looks like a good opportunity to hit him up.” And I happen to be over his place. And I said, “Man, I was looking at your schedule, and we would love to have you at our Sea.Hear.Now show,” and he’s like, “Yeah, that’d be cool.” And I said, “Can I have my guy reach out to your guy?” He just was laughing, and he said yeah.  Then later I was back in the studio, and he just turned to me at one point and he was like, “I’m gonna do the thing on the beach. I’m going to Sea.Hear.Now. I want to bring the band on the beach. This could be incredible.”

I guess there were some complaints about overcrowding last year.
I think when you have a band like the Foo Fighters, more people are gonna stay the day. We didn’t sell any more tickets than we did for any other year. Everybody wants to be up front, but in the last quarter of the beach, people were spreading out blankets. 

Covid was very difficult for everyone in the live-music business, obviously, but for a festival that was just getting started, that must have been pretty extra frustrating.
Yeah, it was. We were lucky we only lost one year, right? Because we were in September, we were able to do Pearl Jam on the beach [in 2021]. They hadn’t played in three years, and they were stoked to play and to be in Asbury Park. 

Right before Bruce on Sunday night, you’ve got Trey Anastasio and the Gaslight Anthem. Bruce is close with Brian Fallon from Gaslight, and has played with Phish before. I assume you’re hoping some kind of collaboration might take place.
Yeah, I mean, it’s happened before. It is kind of a family block party in a sense right now, because Trey is from Princeton. Trey texted me and was so overjoyed, and he told me his first concert ever was [Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band] in 1978 at the Jadwin Gymnasium in Princeton. He was 14 years old, and I think his sister brought them to the show. He’s just like, “You gotta be kidding me. This is amazing.” And you know, Gaslight into Bruce — it’s insane. It’s a New Jersey dream right there.

Danny Clinch at the first Sea.Hear.Now Festival in 2018.

Griffin Lotz

What was your greatest Bruce in Asbury moment up until now?
I would have to say my favorite moment for myself was the [annual benefit concert] Light of Day [in January 2020]. Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers were headlining, and Joe and I have become really good friends. He says to me, “You coming through tonight?” I was like, “Yeah,” and he was like, “you should bring your harp.” So I show up and I go backstage and he’s got his whole setlist there, and he had four Houserockers songs, and then it was Bruce [songs] for the rest of the show. And he’s finding a song for me to play on, and he points to the Bruce section. I was like, “Oh, God, all right.” So he says, “Let’s do ‘Murder Inc.,’ and we’re gonna do it in E,” or whatever it was. I’m like, “Oh, geez.”

I go out in the back, listening to a live version of “Murder Inc.” and trying to find out where I’m gonna fit in with it. Then during the show, they waved me over. And they go, “We’re doing ‘Pink Cadillac’ in G.” I was like, “OK!” I had the right harmonica, thank God. And as I’m walking out, I hear Bruce addressing the crowd, and I didn’t really catch what he was saying until I listened to the bootleg later: “I’ll bring out our friend Danny Clinch. He’s a fantastic photographer, but I can’t vouch for his harmonica playing.” [Laughs.] Thank God, I didn’t hear that.


So anyway, they start the band, and Bruce gives me the nod. I basically say to myself, well, I’m either going to pee my pants or I’m gonna just lean into this thing and play my ass off. So I just leaned into it. And we did a nine-minute version of “Pink Cadillac,” and he threw me a bunch of solos and he was just having the time of his life. It was just way too funny.

If you had a dream song for Trey to come on with Bruce, what would it be?

Trey wants to bring his big band to Asbury Park, with a whole horn section and a percussionist. And I know that Trey loves “Kitty’s Back.”

As it happens, that’s my pick as well.
So let’s put that out in the universe. 

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