Bruce Springsteen & Willie Nile Join Up With Steve Earle at 7th Annual John Henry’s Friends Benefit (SHOW REVIEW)

For the 7th Annual John Henry’s Friends Benefit for the Keswell School Steve Earle and company raised the most money in the fundraiser’s history at a time when it is desperately needed. The all-star lineup was the reason why Town Hall easily sold out, leaving many fans hoping to buy tickets in the seasonably warm Monday night (12/13) air along the Times Square sidewalks pre-show. 

Earle started hosting this benefit (with help from City Winery and Town Hall) to support the school his son John Henry attends in New York City. Keswell’s mission is to ensure that children on the autism spectrum experience school as joyous and enriching. The school delivers one on one instruction to students with autism ranging in age from 2-21.  

In between performances Earle and school officials thanked the audience and explained some of the issues they faced while artists took the stage to play about three songs each. The Mastersons started the night as the duo delivered a strong version of “Eyes Wide Open” before jazz pianist Matt Savage arrived. While all the artists have a connection to Earle and his family, Savage’s is especially noteworthy as the autistic artist himself has taught John Henry music directly. The three-song solo piano set was bright, delivering a unique version of Alanis Morisette’s “Head Over Feet” and an original “Southie To Soho”. 

Willie Nile backed by The Dukes was up next and the rock and roll kicked in as Nile sang some righteous pandemic-inspired numbers including the moving “The Day The Earth Stood Still”. The NYC-based artist received the first of many sing-alongs on this night with his hometown anthem “New York Is Rockin’” before Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal brought back the acoustic vibes. The sonically wonderful Town Hall found Cash’s voice and Leventhal’s eerie strumming ring out on their haunting rendition of “Long Black Veil”. Cash mentioned she was going to post on Twitter after her set that she was opening for Bruce Springsteen as most in attendance were there to see the New Jersey native. 

Backed by The Dukes, who were in their most rocking form, Springsteen brought down the house with a four-song set. Opening with “Darkness on the Edge of Town” the drum beats were seismic and the riffs rang out, before a full-throttle version of “Promised Land” as Springsteen delivered the passionate lyrics and harmonica lines with rousing energy. Nile returned to join in on a crowd participation version of “Glory Days” and as Earle stated, he couldn’t let The Dukes have all the fun, engaging in a duet with The Boss on “Pink Cadillac”, highlighted by some great pedal steel and fiddle solos.    

Earle told a brief story about seeing Bruce play in Tennessee when Earle was at a low point in his career and became so inspired he went home and wrote “Guitar Town”, explaining that Bruce was the “good rockin’ daddy down from Tennessee”. The band tried to keep the energy going but it is hard to follow Springsteen and The Dukes and Earle worked best when they stripped down for their folk-rock with “Mystery Train Part II” and the Celtic inspired “Galway Girl” which bled into the bagpipes by way of Texas boogie “Copperhead Road”. 

Eleanor Whitmore’s vocals were a late show highlight as she delivered a stunning rendition of Earle’s recent “If I Could See Your Face Again” from his Ghosts of West Virginia album before the band wrapped up their set with a tribute to Earle’s son Justin Townes Earle via a dramatic deliverance of his “Harlem River Blues”. 

The whole collection of musicians returned to the stage to perform an encore of what has become the benefits theme, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Teach Your Children” with the crowd participating in one final sing-along, the successful night of fundraising and music ended on a pleasant high note. 

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