“Welcome Back, Welcome Back, Welcome Back!” John Sebastian at The Paramount
If you happened to be strolling on the Asbury Park boardwalk on Aug. 20, 2016, you just may have found yourself wondering why there was a crowd of baby boomers milling about near the stage door of the Paramount Theater.
It’s 7:30 pm — a little early for groupies to be hanging out waiting for a favorite star to emerge so they can catch a glimpse of him or her or perhaps shake a hand.
No, these lucky fans are actually at the back door of the famous boardwalk venue waiting to enter the theater so they can experience an intimate summer concert featuring John Sebastian, founding member of one of the 1960s’ most popular musical groups, The Lovin’ Spoonful.
Approaching the security table set up in the alley behind the Paramount, each patron is given a Backstage Pass lanyard to wear as a ticket. Although the photo on the badge shows Sebastian looking somewhat older than he does on some of the classic 1960s’ record album covers that several fans have brought with them to the show, it nonetheless captures the wisdom and essence of a legendary musician and artist.
Entering the backstage area, audience members are able to get an up-close-and-personal chance to experience where performers “live” when they entertain their fans.
For this evening’s very special performance, everyone will be seated on the stage along with Mr. Sebastian.
Traveling through the dimly lit hallway, one can feel the creative energy of this historic venue and imagine the stars who have walked this very path.
Passing by the pulleys and ropes usually used to bring the curtain up and down, instead, when we look out from the stage, we see an open curtain framing an empty theater. Upon closer inspection, however, we can see the beautiful Art Deco vaulted ceiling, stucco walls, and green velvet draperies falling like a pleated canopy within the theater proper.
Surrounding us are electrical cables and the riggings of the stage lights which illuminate exposed brick walls. There are rows of white padded folding chairs set up in a “U”-shape where people have taken their seats and are now talking softly and enjoying refreshments from the bar.
Glancing forward, we take note of the empty seat and microphone where John Sebastian will soon perform when the musician and audience come together to share this very same space.
And then it happens.
John Sebastian enters with his guitar in hand and is welcomed to the sounds of warm applause coming from this small but devoted crowd assembled right here on the stage.
Sebastian opens with “I’m Satisfied” — a blues-influenced piece from his recent recording, Satisfied, with former Grateful Dead mandolinist David Grisman— and completely enchants the crowd.
As the show unfolds, it feels more like a conversation with an old friend in one’s living room than a typical concert experience. Sebastian tells stories about his life as a musician and sings songs he’s written over the course of his 50+ year career and, in doing so, proves why he is one of the most beloved American songwriters of the 60s and beyond.
Starting with his adventures as a 16-year-old fan carrying historic bluesman Lightnin’ Sam Hopkins’ guitar, he goes on to talk about his decision to leave New York University to pursue his own musical calling. Then he fervently performs “Just Don’t Stop ’Til You’re All Worn Out” — a finger-snappin’ rockabilly number he originally recorded in 1996 with his group, John Sebastian and the J-Band.
Able to finesse the audience with his guitar riffs and his enticing voice, Sebastian gets the crowd clapping, snapping, tapping, and singing along, encouraging them not to “stop ‘til you’re all worn out!”
And throughout the course of the evening, Sebastian shows no signs of stopping. He continues to weave stories around his masterful renditions of classic American tunes — songs that have gone on to become the soundtrack of the lives of the ardent fans who’ve come to celebrate Sebastian’s half-century career here on The Paramount stage.
Lovingly spoon-feeding the audience personal stories and interpretations of his original compositions from the 60s, 70s, and beyond, women literally dance in the aisles as he sings the Lovin’ Spoonful’s 1965 Top Ten smash, “Do You Believe in Magic?” The audience can’t help joining in to the irresistible melody and groove — proving they still believe as they always have.
Next, Sebastian goes on to demonstrate how he was influenced by American jugband and other types of music, explaining how sometimes a song could bring out the “kleptomaniac” in him, enticing him to “take a riff or a groove” and morph it into a hit.
By way of example, he plays his 1965 Spoonful number, “Younger Girl,” demonstrating how it was influenced by Gus Cannon’s “Prison Wall Blues,” a jug band piece originally recorded by Cannon’s group, The Jug Stompers, in the early 1930s.
Next, he shows how the 1963 Holland-Dozier-Holland hit for Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, “Heat Wave,” inspired him to write “Do You Believe in Magic?” In doing so, Sebastian plays the same chord progression for both songs while wryly murmuring, “Hmm… maybe I can climb like that… but change it so they don’t think I’m stealing — play it double time so people think it’s twice as good?”
As the evening continues to unfold, it becomes clear that the intimate backstage setting at the Paramount is especially conducive for allowing audiences to connect with artists they love in an up close and personal way, without the need for current technology — something the vast majority of Sebastian’s fans in the house tonight seem to appreciate.
In fact, when a younger fan begins to record a segment of Sebastian’s performance on her mobile device, John jokingly says, “Put away that iPhone — you’re never gonna look at it anyway. You paid a lot of money to get a personal experience,” looking up at the rest of his faithful admirers and revealing, “As performers, we value the attention of our audience.”
And Sebastian is right on, for this evening truly is a personal encounter with (as the wording on our backstage pass suggests) “one of the best ambassadors American music has ever had.” And to prove it, when Sebastian sings another Satisfied composition, “Strings of Your Heart,” the audience is so moved by the sentiment in the song, they even applaud in the middle when Sebastian poignantly sings, “There ain’t nothing like music… when you play it on the strings of your heart.”
Other high points of the show include 1965’s “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” a tune Sebastian explains he was prodded to write when Spoonful co-founder and guitarist, Zal Yanovsky, once pleaded, “We need another single!” While performing it, John not only compliments the audience on their top-notch background singing, but adds his own percussion part by drumming on his guitar… and then on his mike… and then silently in the air.
Another highlight is Sebastian’s take on his ‘65 Spoonful composition, “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?,” a song John says he wrote the lyrics to in a taxi on the way to the group’s recording session of the tune.
And yet another high point is when Sebastian performs his 1966 hit, “Nashville Cats,” a song he notes he was inspired to write by an unknown guitarist playing in the basement lounge of a Nashville, TN, Holiday Inn where he and the rest of the Lovin’ Spoonful once stayed.
For the vast majority in the audience, however, it is Sebastian’s performance of “Welcome Back” — the 1976 theme song from TV’s Welcome Back, Kotter — that is the supreme moment of the evening. After informing the crowd that the song was so simple for him to write because, as he confesses, “I was a sweathog!,” the audience joins in with Sebastian, some singing the melody, while others joyfully croon the “Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back” countermelody.
Concluding the evening with two delightful stories about his famous composition, “Daydream,” Sebastian performs that song too, as the audience — their faces illuminated with smiles — hum and tap along to the perenially catchy tune.
Following a well-deserved standing ovation, Sebastian takes time to chat with folks after the show and even sign some autographs. And in so doing, he proves that, for all of his friends here at The Paramount, he’s surely one artist whom they will always be willing to “Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back!”
For more on John Sebastian and his music — including information about his latest recording, Satisfied, with David Grisman — please go to johnbsebastian.com. For more on future performances at The Paramount Theater in Asbury Park, please go to apboardwalk.com.