Joe Grushecky’s Springsteen-assisted live masterpiece finds new life as an expanded anniversary edition
Joe Grushecky has always been one of those Everyman rockers whose authenticity derives not only from his blue-collar roots but his willingness to get down in the trenches as a populist pundit.
A Pittsburgh resident and favorite son of that city, his first outfit was a popular bar band dubbed the Brick Alley Band, but once signed to Cleveland International Records in 1977, they were renamed the Iron City Houserockers. A series of albums under that moniker followed until their break-up in the early ‘80s, at which point Grushecky returned home to Pittsburgh, took a day job as a teacher and eventually reemerged later in the decade under the aegis of Joe Grushecky and The Houserockers.
Several albums followed, including American Babylon which had the special distinction of being produced by his pal Bruce Springsteen. Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the album’s original release, but due to the complications caused by the pandemic, the planned expanded rerelease — which featured the original album three revealing unreleased demos spawned from the original sessions and an additional live disc consisting of 13 tracks recorded live with Springsteen and the Houserockers on stage at Nick’s Fat City in Pittsburgh — was delayed until last month.
“Steve van Zandt helped produce the second Iron City Houserockers album Have a Good Time But Get Out Alive in 1980,” Grushecky recalls when asked how he and Springsteen first became acquainted. “I went to the Power Station one night to hook up with Mick Ronson, who was also involved in producing that record, and ran into Steve and Bruce. They were there working on The River. Steve introduced us. Bruce and I hung out one night after we played Clarence’s club in New Jersey. That cemented our friendship.”
It was hardly surprising that the two would bond, especially considering the fact that the pair shared so much in common. “We have similar working class upbringings and generally the same social concerns,” he notes. “It’s probably the struggles that we saw our families having as kids. We listened to all the same music. He and I were both playing the same songs in our bands growing up. We both played clubs where people wanted to dance so you had to learn how to lay down a groove. Of course, Bob Dylan really showed all of us what could be done lyrically. It evolved into shake-your-ass and thinking at the same time.”
Consequently, it seemed somewhat natural that Grushecky would eventually reach out to Springsteen and inquire as to whether he’d consider producing American Babylon. “I initially asked him to help on a song or two, Grushecky recalls. “My career was DOA at that point and I really needed a helping hand, which he was glad to lend.”
AUDIO: Joe Grushecky and The Houserockers with Bruce Springsteen performing “Light of Day” at Nick’s Fat City in Pittsburgh, PA October 21-22, 1995
As the reissue illustrates, American Babylon revealed the fact that indeed, the two shared a similar sensibility when it came to gritty, working man rock and roll that could easily be shared in the form of anthemic arena rockers boasting a distinct populist appeal. Songs such as “Homestead,” “Dark and Bloody Ground,” “No Strings Attached,” and the title track convey an drive and deliberation that could easily inspire a stadium-sized crowd to illuminate their cellphones, pump their fists and strum their air guitars in unison. So too, “Comin’ Down Maria,” “Billy’s Waltz” and “Only Lovers Left Alive” share Springsteen’s penchant for telling tales of small town America and those forced to find promise even in dire circumstance.
“As I have been looking back at it, I’ve realized that it could have been written yesterday,” Grushecky muses. “It holds up. The songs are very powerful, and of course, Bruce is playing and singing on almost every track, which elevates any project to a different level.”
So, too, the addition of the live material that finds Springsteen sharing the stage on eight of the songs, taking the lead on his own “Light of Day,” and sharing singing duties on the closing track “Down The Road Apiece,” naturally adds to the overall appeal. It also begs the question of whether it was difficult to bottle the band’s natural energy and exuberance when it came time to translate that effusive exhilaration to the studio.
“Playing in the studio is a whole different animal than playing live,” Grushecky explains. “It is a pretty sterile atmosphere. In the days before digital, there were elite studio bands (Motown’s, Stax’s, the Wrecking Crew, the Muscle Shoals Swampers) and we learned that early on. That being said, I think our sound has been fairly consistent, but there is nothing like playing in front of a live audience to take it to another level.”
With the release of the reissue finally accomplished, Grushecky mentions that he and the Houserockers have nearly completed a new album which, he says, will appear next year.
As far as his pal Springsteen is concerned, that bond remains intact as well.
“Music really connected us,” he insists. “It’s easy-going and not hard to re-connect, even if we don’t see each other often.”
AUDIO: Joe Grushecky and The Houserockers with Bruce Springsteen performing “Down the Road Apiece” at Nick’s Fat City in Pittsburgh, PA October 21-22, 1995