Boss, Grushecky reign over hurricane-force Flood Aid

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2004-12-03, by: Scott Mervis
For anyone who ever sweated through a shirt amid the broken bottles and smell of smoke and stale beer at the Decade, last night was like some weird dream.

In fact, the symphony's stage may never be the same now that the Houserockers played "Pumpin' Iron" on it.

It took The Boss -- with an assist by Hurricane Ivan -- to get Joe Grushecky onto the Heinz Hall stage for the first time. Bruce Springsteen, fresh from his swing state tour with John Kerry, isn't now running around the country trying to fix people's problems -- although that wouldn't be a bad idea. He made a special trip to one of his core cities to play Flood Aid 2004, a benefit for the victims of the September disaster. He came at the request of local hero Grushecky, who has Bruce on speed dial.

They go way back, further even than that night in '84 when Joe dragged Bruce into the Decade. But over the past 10 years, they've become thick as thieves. It's almost routine now for Springsteen to pop up at Houserocker gigs on the Jersey shore. For good causes, The Boss travels.

"I want to thank Joe for inviting me," Springsteen said. "It's always nice to get out of the house!"

Beyond just a meeting of these working-class titans, Flood Aid, also spearheaded by Dan Onorato and Larry Kuzmanko, was a full-scale celebration of Pittsburgh rock.

Springsteen rolled out first to declare "No Bruce-ing!" during the opening acts, the first of which was Grushecky's 16-year-old son, Johnny, boldly playing a three-song set that showed some of the spark of his old man.

He gave way to Jill West and the Blues Attack, a crack bar band led by the Children's Hospital nurse. As West said, they could have gone "all night long" with their blues rave-ups, but they were able to raise the crowd's pulse with three soul-stirring songs.

Exit 105, from Jersey, actually looked like Tony Soprano's boys -- so don't be surprised if they snag that big contract -- and sounded like Jersey-bar-band-meets-Pearl-Jam-on-the-turnpike. What were they doing there? The singer works at the Springsteen house, which The Boss (literally, in this case) explained when he joined them for a shredding version of "All Along the Watchtower."

Bill Deasy, with a honey voice and help from Clarks guitarist Rob James, eased things down with carefully crafted songs, including two, "Blue Sky Gray" and "I'll Rescue You," that were well-suited to a flood benefit. The Houserockers helped climax the set with a rousing version of "Lost in America."

The next contenders were pure Steel City fun. B.E. Taylor, still pretty after all these years, led guitar ace Rick Witkowski and the rest of his boys through a jubilant "This Land Is Your Land" and "Vitamin L," before bringing out a surprise guest: Donnie Iris. The Clark Kent of Pittsburgh rock 'n' roll, Iris goes from mild-mannered real estate agent by day to rock star at night, electrifying the crowd with a big-hearted stage presence and the ability still to hit all the notes on "Love is Like a Rock" and the awesome "Ah Leah." Taylor's big holiday finish was a great tease for his Christmas shows at that same venue Dec. 20-21.

Just after 10, Springsteen emerged again, in jeans and work shirt, to address the weight of the occasion with acoustic readings of "If I Should Fall Behind" and "Land of Hope of Dreams." A solo "For You" was a surprise treat for the diehard fan.

Then, out came the Houserockers for the Pittsburgh version of a palace revolution. "Talking to the King" was a show-stopper, and it was only the beginning.

"The Decade's just a few miles down the road," Grushecky said, "but it's a long way from here to there."

And yet, it's like the Houserockers never left. With the grinding of three guitars and the snarling harmonica of Marc Reisman, they are as gritty as gritty gets, and they played every song to the max -- and then some. "From Small Things" was a burst of Chuck Berry; "Homestead" had a heavy anthemic thrust; and the angry "Code of Silence," a Joe-Bruce co-write, had them at the mike together in a furious stand-off.

The Houserockers went down E Street with the same toughness of Bruce's band: launching "Johnny 99" like a rockabilly song, then slowing it down for the courtroom drama; conversely, building "Atlantic City" from a slow intro to an all-out roar; and getting close to symphony numbers with the addition of sax player Phil Brontz (who became "the Medium-Sized Man") and Jonny G (striking AC/DC moves) on a brutal "Murder, Inc."

Flood Aid raised more than $270,000 for the cause, but its musical ramifications weren't revealed until the Houserockers struck at the heart of the Cultural District with "Pumpin' Iron." It was played in all its fist-waving glory with a round robin of blistering solos from Reisman, Bill Toms and Hermie Granati. In fact, during Granati's nearly acrobatic keyboard attack, Springsteen, who's seen it all, had the expression of a man who'd never seen anything like it.

Just after midnight, Flood Aid came to the most joyous finish a concert could ever get with a cast of thousands, some in Santa hats and throwing candy, forming the choir for "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Springsteen was positively hilarious, instructing Houserockers keyboardist Joe Pelesky on the right tempo and then, despite having to catch a plane, refusing to let the moment end.

When you invite The Boss, you're gonna have a party. Flood Aid was one for the ages.

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2004-12-02 Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh, PA