Pop Break Live: Shadow of the City 2021 featuring Bleachers, Japanese Breakfast, Beach Bunny, Claud, Long Beard, Blu DeTiger at The Stone Pony Summer Stage in Asbury Park, New Jersey
Photos: Al Mannarino | Words: Christian Bischoff
Whenever there’s a show at the Stone Pony, there’s an old familiar whisper that’s passed between members of the crowd. “He’s made unannounced appearances before,” goes the continual pleading refrain. He’s off tour; he’s off Broadway; he’s only forty-five minutes away; he’s friends with the band. The lights go up – the headliner takes the stage, powers through the first few songs, the crowd shaking, sweating. Maybe there’s banter, some gentle Asbury Park pandering, talk of pork roll or the beach. Local landmarks are named to demonstrate familiarity. And then the lull comes. The low ebb of anticipation builds; the first few notes of a chord are strummed, the last bits of sunlight sputter out. The eternal regional question is at last sounded, separately, in unison, the crowd transfigured into the physical force of an idea – is Bruce going to play tonight?
Of course, he didn’t.
Jack Antonoff launched through the first few songs of the Bleachers set, the band as tight and exuberant as if they’d come off a string of stadium dates rather than long hours of live streams and video calls. Antonoff, a Bergen County local, was choked up between songs, a local boy returned home at the height of his success – five Grammys, a producing spot on almost every major pop album of the last five years, and a new album out (Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night) with features from Lana Del Rey and collaborations with Zadie Smith and St. Vincent. He played “Jersey Girl” (covered by Springsteen, but originally by Tom Waits), and the crowd lost their minds. There was a lull – “I’ve dreamed of playing this song in front of you here tonight,” Antonoff confessed, teary-eyed. The opening chords of “Chinatown” rang out – his Bruce collaboration off his latest album. No Bruce materialized.
There’s something singularly moving about coming home and hearing a hometown band. And then you watch that band make it, and the local boy becomes an international phenomenon. Jersey’s produced its fair share, and Antonoff is the latest and perhaps most successful since the Boss cut his teeth at the Pony. Shadow of the City 2021 was hotly anticipated – the show was pushed off by COVID and had been sold out for almost two years. For so many of us in the crowd, last Saturday night was the first live show we’d attended since the pandemic began.
The festival, whose proceeds benefit local homeless and at risk LGBT youth, was kicked off by Long Beard and New York tik-tok phenom Blu DeTiger, who played some recently Netflix-commissioned tunes. Claud, the first act to be signed to Phoebe Bridgers’ Saddest Factory record label, followed with melancholic bedroom pop, and Beach Bunny worked through a surf rock set as the sun sank behind the stage. Japanese Breakfast, whose lead singer Michelle Zauner has recently cemented herself as a successful memoirist with her 2021 NYT Bestseller Crying in H Mart, electrified the crowd and jumped and bounced through a string of their hits and new singles off their 2021 release Jubilee.
Outside the venue, a scale replica of Antonoff’s childhood room was on display. Watching Bleachers that night I couldn’t help but feel vulnerable in my New Jersey-ness, or at least, made to feel vulnerable. The childhood bedroom coupled with Antonoff’s on stage anecdotes of growing up in the literal shadow of the city and feeling the indescribable yearning that can only come from being so proximate to opportunity, to beauty and music, but separate from it, felt very consciously nostalgic. I was moved, but at what point does sincerity go too far and become saccharine, trite?
I hadn’t listened to Bleachers very much before the festival, but for the night, I was hooked. But did I like the band onstage because I’m part of their very niche regional demographic? Did I like the show because I was in a crowd that was collectively becoming more and more deranged as the night went on, screaming and crying and living and dying for Antonoff, who was performing many songs for the first time live that evening? Was it a charming lack of subtlety that won me over? Too many $8 beers? Did I drink enough water? Is everyone else here having a quasi-religious experience? Where’s Bruce?