Asbury Allstars play Jersey rock for the ages

by Karla Tipton

For a group that officially broke up 32 years ago, the Easy Street Band has never really been away. 

This indefatigable rock band with a die-hard fanbase from Barberton and Norton has rocked three-hour-plus shows at its annual two-night reunion stand at Akron’s Tangier Entertainment Center every November for decades. Most of the band’s members are 60 and older.

The band grew its faithful audience beginning in the 1970s, playing high school gyms and local nightclubs, like the Flying Machine, a popular watering hole on Turkeyfoot Road.

Now, the band has transcended its origins, leveraging its own history by narrowing its focus to become the Asbury Allstars, a band tributing Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. 

On April 3 at the Akron Civic Theatre, in a gestalt of New Jersey rock, the Asbury Allstars will open for Bruce in the USA, a tribute to Bruce Springsteen, another venerable Garden State alumnus.

The Asbury Allstars originated with an idea by the band’s bass player, Bob Martin, because of the ability of Easy Street’s lead vocalist Steve Simmons to project the persona of Southside Johnny Lyon. “My intro line is that we’re 40 years in the making,” says Bob.

Steve agrees: “It turned out that I could mimic Johnny’s voice and inflections so well that it was a successful part of our show.” Since the ’70s, he has been known as “Westside Steve,” a moniker he adopted as a tip of the hat to the Jersey vocalist. “That, along with the fact that the Jukes are still a big draw in Northeast Ohio, inspired Bob Martin to suggest we do a tribute,” he says.

The northeastern Ohio fanbase for the Asbury Jukes began more than 40 years ago, when Cleveland radio station WMMS-FM in partnership with the Agora nightclub became a powerful spinmaster for launching new bands to national heights. Southside Johnny’s songs, like “I Don’t Want to Go Home,” “Having a Party,” “Hearts of Stone,” “Talk to Me” and “Trapped Again,” filled the airwaves from Cleveland to Columbus and still get airplay today on local and satellite radio. 

Around the same time, Easy Street’s popularity expanded beyond the local fanbase into the Cleveland area as they began writing their own songs. 

“One of the bands that broke big in Cleveland was Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes,” says Steve. “So when they came to Ohio for one of their tours, we were the logical openers and did a few shows with them.”

Bob Martin’s idea for the Asbury Allstars became reality when this new version of his old band sold out a night at Tangier in April 2019. It was followed by the resounding success of a free concert on Barberton’s Tuscarawas Avenue on the night before the Fourth of July to raise cancer awareness and money for related charities. The show filled the street with a crowd extending back an entire city block from the stage. A similar concert is in the works for this summer.

Besides the show at the Civic Theatre in April, the Asbury Allstars will also be opening for Bruce in the USA at Lorain’s Rockin’ on the River concert series on Aug. 7.

It’s a pairing the band’s business manager, Bob Martin, sought from the beginning. He successfully made contact with the management of both the Lorain event and the Civic Theatre, and the match made in Jersey heaven came to be. 

“Everyone is very excited to play the Civic just because of how historical it is,” says Bob. 

Not bad for a band who some critics might say has carried on the classic rock trope a little too long.

While others in their age cohort might be retiring, the band’s members don’t show any signs of slowing down.

Besides Bob and Steve, there are eight others in the band. All but keyboardist Terry Fairfax played in at least one of the several incarnations of Easy Street, which started out as Rats in 1971. The remaining members are drummer Ronnie Gillard, keyboardist Eddie Anthony, guitarist Rick Usko, saxophonist Mark Rasnick (filling for Andy Henkel, recovering from surgery), trombonist David “Doc” Bowe, trumpet player Jim Pica, and vocalist Kearsten Kopf.

For these musicians — some who play music full time, others who work or have retired from their day jobs, and still others who own businesses — their musical careers with the band formerly known as Easy Street have entered a new phase. 

“As you get older, you do look at things differently,” says drummer Ronnie Gillard. “It’s not like in the old days when you were a teenager. In this band, there’s a lot of perfectionists. These guys are professionals, and they know their parts; they’re ready to go. For me, I’ll make time for it if it’s the right people. This was the right people.”

In some ways, age is an advantage. “I play better now than I ever have,” he adds. “I’ve been able to develop a better feel as a drummer over the years. It’s not about how many notes you play. It’s about the groove.”

Southside Johnny’s music is more complex than one might think for a band which plays such feel-good music. 

“I try to imagine myself in the audience, and what I want to hear is just a band having a party, and that’s pretty much what it feels like,” says keyboardist Terry Fairfax. “That’s the way the music is, and that’s the way we end up presenting it. It’s a challenge to get to that point where it’s a party.”

This new venture stretches the members’ talents.

Terry, who has also played in tribute bands to the Beatles, The Who and Tom Petty, says, “This one’s really interesting because I’m playing mostly the orchestration, or string parts. It’s fascinating what these guys did with the string arrangements.”

Trombonist Doc Bowe has taken on the task of scoring the horn section. “I write all the music for the horns,” he says. “Before we start learning the song, I have to propose which note each person’s going to play, and then we do it to see how it sounds and make adjustments and fix it until it sounds right and rewrite it. It’s an interesting part of the process.”

Up until the inception of the Asbury Allstars, opportunities to play had been few, and preparing for the the once-a-year Easy Street reunion was a challenge, Doc says. “For brass players, that’s a pretty important factor. For me to get my lip in shape for a once-a-year concert isn’t as easy as for someone who plays something all year long.”

Despite the increased workload of scoring, arranging and learning new songs, “No one’s bitching, everyone’s enjoying this,” Bob says. The first couple of practices, we went through some songs and just started laughing because they sounded so good.” 

“Most of the musicians in the band are so good that it just seems easy,” Doc says. “But the amount of hours that goes into it, the drumming, the guitar solos, the bass. It takes a lot of practice to get it down before we come together for rehearsal.”

Playing the music they grew up with also strikes a poignant chord of past good times and camaraderie.

“The music of your youth always seems to bring back the feelings,” Doc says. “Our favorite music is usually something we first heard in high school, so the crowd that it attracts is typically people of our same age. And it’s fun when the younger ones discover something anew.”

“I wish they would have thought of this idea years ago,” he adds.

Photo: Tim Brown