It’s been 28 years since Bruce Springsteen double-parked his Corvette convertible outside a seasonal casino amphitheater, grabbed his guitar and stunned 4,000 people — including the headliner — by jumping on stage and jamming with his pal, Jackson Browne, on three songs.
Although he’s played several Boardwalk Hall concerts since, the impromptu session with Browne marked The Boss’ first actual appearance at an Atlantic City casino.
And though it’s almost certainly not going to happen again — a surprise Springsteen appearance, that is — if it did, Saturday could be the night.
That’s when Ben Harper and his reborn band The Innocent Criminals will perform 9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, at Caesars Atlantic City’s Circus Maximus Theater.
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Harper and Springsteen have had their own personal mutual admiration society for over 20 years, ever since Springsteen told Time Magazine that he’d been listening to the guitar-playing Harper’s eclectic mix of folk, soul, blues, rock and reggae and encouraged others to do the same.
“I’ve known Bruce over the years, and I don’t drop that (fact) lightly,” he says during a recent phone call. “I recognize the full weight of that sentiment.”
There are probably two encounters between Harper and Springsteen that define their relationship and will never be topped, Harper explains.
The first was in 2009, when Springsteen asked that Harper be included in the list of artists who were paying tribute to New Jersey’s native musical son at the Kennedy Center Honors.
The second happened in 2013, and this one has a direct connection with Atlantic City.
Harper and Springsteen were among the performers playing the TW Classic Festival in Werchter, Belgium. Santana, Blondie and Charlie Musselwhite were some of the other artists on the bill.
“I get a knock on my dressing room door, and in comes Bruce,” Harper recalls. “Everyone in the dressing room, their jaws hit the floor.”
Harper and his band had done a cover of a Springsteen song and popped it up on YouTube, and Springsteen saw it.
“We had covered ‘Atlantic City,’ and Bruce mentioned (in the dressing room) that we had done a hell of a version of it,” he says. “Then he asked if I would come up (on stage) and do it with him and The E Street Band.”
Harper laughs when asked if he’s checked to see if Springsteen is free Saturday night when he plays Caesars. Even if he doesn’t show up to do a few songs with him, Harper is keenly aware of Atlantic City’s reputation as “America’s Playground,” to resurrect a pre-casino marketing phrase used to describe the town.
“Atlantic City is legend, from being in Woody Allen movies all the way to Bruce Springsteen,” he says, even though he’s only performed on the Boardwalk once before, years ago, as a guest artist when Bonnie Raitt was headlining. “I don’t know, there’s just something about Atlantic City that holds weight (with people).”
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Harper, who formed the Innocent Criminals in 2001, broke the band up in 2008 to pursue his eclectic career of exploring different styles of music with different artists. But in 2015, he brought the band back together.
Harper speaks in measured tones. When he’s asked about his music, his tour, reuniting with the band — just about anything — he takes his time before answering a question. This isn’t some programmed pop star reading answers from a script for a generic interview.
He says he realized he and the band still had some unfinished business. Knowing when and how to say yes or no is one of the more difficult parts of being the leader of any kind of band.
“That’s a drag, that’s a plight with different aspects and layers to how music gets made,” he says thoughtfully. “Some people build buildings. Some people own buildings. It’s actually a much longer conversation than we have time for.”
The Innocent Criminals, he says, were all on board with Harper’s reunion plans.
“All I know is that when I called (the band members), they were game,” he says. “Not only did no one say no, everyone had a renewed perspective on what the mission statement was to be. Too much music was sitting there that needed to be made, and it could only be made with that band. It could only be written with that band. We have more records to make in the future and it was time. And it’s my role to know when it’s time to pull back and it’s time to push forward. At the moment, it’s feeling better than ever with this band.”