Down the Shore: Aaron West delivers a spontaneously special set in OCNJ

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Aaron West on the Ocean City boardwalk| photo by Joe Bloss
Aaron West on the Ocean City boardwalk | photo by Joe Bloss

Ah, the Jersey Shore. It’s home to pesky seagulls, lame t-shirts, and now, Aaron West concerts. The side project of The Wonder Years frontman Dan Campbell made an appearance at the 17th Street boardwalk pavilion Tuesday in Ocean City, NJ…although, if there’s one thing to take away from the set, it’s that Aaron West & The Roaring Twenties is much more than some side project.

After fans stuffed into Underground Arts to see an Aaron West solo performance early last month, a venue like the tiny boardwalk pavilion doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. But considering Campbell (West? I’m never too sure of where to draw the line between character and reality) shared the news of this impromptu set on Twitter just two days ago, it couldn’t have made for a better setting.

West (I’m going with West because Campbell’s transformation into Aaron is magnificent) arrived just a few minutes past 6 p.m. “Soupy,” as his loyal fans call him, took only a brief moment to bust out his guitar and find his perch on the benches at the edge of the evening’s makeshift venue. And for those not familiar with the 17th Street Pavilion in OCNJ, don’t try to overthink this — it really is just one of those tiny roofs that jut out from the boardwalk, housing only a few benches. 

Once he introduced himself, and referenced the fact that he is sometimes accompanied by a group of gentlemen who call themselves The Roaring Twenties, West began with “67, Cherry Red,” off the Bittersweet EP released in May. Immediately, a feeling of awkward isolation set over the tiny wooden hut. Beachgoers leaving their sandy paradise walked by in confusion as some bearded man sang songs to several dozen twinkle-eyed listeners. After just one song, West had to remind the faithful that singing along, while not mandatory, was encouraged. He said that he had gotten too used to crowds joining in and things felt weird without it. 

The problem was remedied on “Grapefruit,” a track from West’s 2014 debut We Don’t Have Each Other, and it remained a non-issue for the six ensuing songs. After jumping back into the new EP with “Goodbye, Carolina Blues,” West had to address the noticeable difference between the order of songs that had appeared so far, and what normally occurs at his shows. His music is a story, and his method of storytelling is almost always in chronological order, with spoken background info filling in the gaps between songs. But on Tuesday, he chose to play with no timeline involved, considering the fact that he wasn’t totally sure if the cops would come to break up the fun. He told the crowd he’d called Ocean City the day before to ensure the event wasn’t breaking any rules, and all they said was that he couldn’t get paid to perform. (Although no one would be cited if they happened to throw some cash in his open guitar case). Still, no one knew how long of a lifespan the pop-up show would endure.

Luckily, the police never showed up. West continued with the angry “Runnin’ Scared” and then admitted he should’ve brought a harmonica before moving into the slower “Carolina Coast.” All this time, the small audience sang along to create an environment that surpassed intimacy. It was so informal that it felt personal, like a one-on-one serenade. Campbell’s connection with West was so rich that it bled into the crowd, creating a bond between West and each listener. It felt like Aaron was pleading to each of us, not to his dear Diane. 

After playing fan favorite “Our Apartment” and his cover of The Mountain Goats’ “Going To Georgia,” West finished with the horribly sad “Divorce and the American South.” Every song West sings paints the image of its story in the listener’s mind, but for me, none do so as vividly as this one does. I can so clearly see a man breaking down in the tiny confines of a phone booth, hopelessly waiting for the call that he doesn’t want to admit will never come. I had heard this song performed at the Underground Arts show, another solo acoustic show. And without a band, the trumpet part is left as the crowd’s responsibility. The approximately 500 people did a good job back in June, as I’m sure they do each time. But on Tuesday, things felt even better with a smaller group. Seeing the smile leak through the orange hairs on West’s face as a bunch of kids bop-bop-bop’d what should’ve been coming from a brass horn validated the connection that existed in that very moment (watch it below via West’s brand new Instagram page).

OCNJ. #aaronwestbusking

A video posted by @thisisaaronwest on

This summer, I’ve been lucky enough to see some of my absolute favorite bands at unforgettable venues. But this little get together in OCNJ, man, it was special. It’s one thing to stand among thousands of people to see an artist you love perform in a massive concert hall. But it’s something on an entirely different level to stand up after sitting in front of a performer you drove roughly 60 miles to see, without even knowing if the show was legit, and have him ask you how you’re doing. To witness such a genuine person give a free performance in a tiny improvised setting was a gift. West had mentioned during the show that his label, Hopeless Records, had contacted him after he sent out the tweet announcing his plans. They asked why he was doing something for free, when he can easily play in settings that will make him money. He said that he wanted to get away from the lights and bullshit that go along with putting on a full show.

Basically, all West told them was that he wanted to have funAs he took some pictures with fans after quickly selling the few t-shirts he found in the trunk of his car, everyone seemed to be having the fun he looking for. And the best part about it was that at the Jersey Shore — a place where fun is accessible through a plethora of options — the people in those pictures came together to make the fun all by themselves.

Setlist:
67, Cherry Red
Grapefruit
Goodbye, Carolina Blues
Runnin’ Scared
Carolina Coast
Our Apartment
Going to Georgia
Divorce and the American South

 

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