No one is boss when Springsteen, Grushecky jam onstage
It started with Bruce Springsteen shuffling onstage, saying, "I'm going to open for Joe (Grushecky) tonight."
It ended with a glorious acoustic version of "Thunder Road."
In between were two nights of music last November that left an indelible impression on all who were lucky to be present at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.
"I've seen Bruce a lot," says Bill Guerin, the former Pittsburgh Penguin who now is the player-development coach for the organization. "I've seen Joe a few times. That night, it was just them cutting loose, having a blast. The setting was great. It was like all the people in the audience were being let in on these two guys having a great time, having fun."
The concerts had the feel of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. But "lightning strikes again," Grushecky says, as the longtime friends and collaborators will perform Thursday and Friday at the same venue.
The energy that surged through Soldiers & Sailors last year was palpable for the 2,359 fans in attendance. Onstage, Grushecky says he and the Houserockers were concentrating on getting everything right. Only in retrospect did they become aware of the audience's engagement.
"I was told afterward by literally scores of people it was either the best show they'd ever seen in their life or one of the best shows they'd ever seen," Grushecky says. "People thanked us profusely for bringing it to Pittsburgh. You could just tell there was something happening. There was just magic in the air."
A lot of the incandescent energy stems from the easy relationship between Grushecky and Springsteen. They met in the early 1970s, when both of their careers were at crossroads, then took divergent paths.
Springsteen became a star of global proportions, the rare performer able to be identified by first name alone.
Grushecky became the underdog warrior, forever tilting at the forces of rock 'n' roll, unwilling to lay down his guitar even when it seemed no one was listening.
Rich Engler, who promoted concerts in Pittsburgh for more than 30 years and knows both performers, thinks their relationship is extraordinary. Pointing out their collaborations on songs such as "Code of Silence," Engler says "It's just fantastic that Bruce does not forget. He and Joe are buddies, and they have fun together. You can always see that when they're onstage together. The last time they were here was magical."
Even if, by Grushecky's estimation, they were "winging it" onstage last year. There was time only for a brief rehearsal during sound check before the Houserockers joined Springsteen onstage the first night. But no one in the audience seemed to notice.
When asked about the highlights from those shows, Grushecky doesn't immediately talk about the music, although he later mentions "The Promised Land" and "Darkness on the Edge of Town." His most cherished memories aren't of the music itself, but being able to share those evenings with his hometown, his friends and, most especially, his family: his wife, Lee Ann, his daughter, Desiree, and son, Johnny, now a member of the Houserockers.
Guerin first met Grushecky in Pittsburgh during Springsteen's "Magic Tour" in 2007, when Guerin was playing for the New York Islanders. When Guerin was traded to the Penguins in 2009 and got to know Grushecky better, he came away impressed by the music, but even more by the man.
"They're just great people and such a part of what he does," Guerin says of Grushecky's family. "He wants it that way, which is one of the best things about him. Family matters, and he thinks of those guys in the band as family, too. That became pretty obvious after I got to know him a bit better. Lee Ann is Joe's biggest support system, and the kids are right there, too."
Grushecky will be releasing his new live album, "We're Not Dead Yet," (Schoolhouse Records), at the concerts.
Bruce Springsteen joins Joe Grushecky for a Nov. 4 show at Soldiers and Sailors.
Joe Grushecky & The Houserockers and Bruce Springsteen
With: The Composure
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday
Admission: Sold out
Where: Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, Oakland
Details: 800-745-3000 or website