Josh Schreiber would be the first to admit, "The Boss" is a tough act to follow, much less emulate. The guy is still touring and "Springsteen on Broadway," currently is streaming on Netflix. So he knew he'd either have to get every detail right as a tribute artist or leave the whole Bruce Springsteen shtick at the Jersey shore and go back to being a singing drummer. Because not only is Schreiber's biggest competitor Springsteen himself, but he is his hometown hero.
As it turns out, in addition to having similar looks in common, they both hail from Freehold Borough, New Jersey, and nothing less than the most accurate representation would do.
Schreiber heads up "The Springsteen Experience," recreating the music of one of the most prolific songwriters and storytellers of our time. That accuracy wouldn't be complete without his cast depicting the E Street Band and "The Big Man," Clarence Clemons. Armed with such an extensive catalog of music spanning more than four decades, the guys take the utmost respect and care with each and every song they perform.
Their show is high-octane, recreating the most memorable songs, moments and stage interactions in a chronological journey that was E Street concert history. From 1973 through the height of Springsteen's fame in the '80s and beyond, the show replicates the full-throttle Springsteen experience including vintage equipment and stage sets, multiple costume changes and note-perfect renditions of his most popular songs. Those songs include "Born to Run," "Adam Raised a Cain," "Sherry Darling," "Dancing in the Dark," "Hungry Heart," "Glory Days," "Born in the USA" and more.
His organic similarities with Springsteen in mannerisms and prowess have served Schreiber well for the 10 years he's been performing this show. He's honed his skills on stages of all sizes, from Orange County, where the band is based, to the Wonder Bar in New Jersey and even Nagasaki, Japan, performing for American troops.
We talked with Schreiber about his own history, his recreation and the show he brings to Harrah's Laughlin as part of their summer concert series on Saturday, June 8. Here's his take...
How did this tribute come to be?
Somebody dared me to do this because I look like Springsteen and sometimes I can sing like him. It was a dare and so I said, “OK, I'll give it a try." I couldn't turn down a dare, you know?
There's more to it than looks, right?
The hardest thing is I was a drummer. I wasn't a guitar player or anything like that, so I had to learn how to play guitar. It was really hard comin' off my normal gigs at 2:30 in the morning and then trying to practice and get the guitar down to do this. It took me about a year to get comfortable to even put the band together. Bruce is one of the best guitar players out there, so I couldn't take lessons to learn how to play 'cause he plays completely different — I would have had to re-learn to play like him. So I tried to do it just like him from the beginning, to the point where the guitar was natural and it looked right — I could perform and play at the same time without any problem. The thing is other Bruce impersonators out there — some of them don't even play guitar, they just sing. The other ones who do play don't look like him or sing like him. So I thought, I have to do it the best it can possibly be done or there's no reason to do it, so it took me a while. I wanted to be as authentic as possible and I had to attack it like that.
Is it challenging to portray someone who's still touring?
Tributes are doing the David Bowie thing and the Prince thing, but with this I'm competing with a guy who plays 200 nights a year out there so people can always go see him if they want to. But now I've been doing a Broadway thing for two years, so I do get quite a bit busier because they couldn't see the live show they wanted to see.
Who's your Clarence Clemons?
Henry Alexander is our "Big Man." And I'd known him for 10 years before I put this together and we played our odd gigs together once in a while. Once I got this thing together, he was the first one I called. I could not have a band without "The Big Man." Once I had him, I just started putting the band together, then I knew I had something
What was your biggest challenge in putting this group together?
They were not familiar with the music so I had to teach them — sometimes every single note to get it right — and the sounds, and the tones and the feel of the Jersey shore sound. It's called "sounds of Asbury Park." It's a special feeling, an East Coast cultural feel and I had to teach them that before just learning the parts of the songs. They really had to know why and where it was coming from and what to sound like. So it was tough for those guys, I grew up with it and I knew it, but they didn't know it. The sounds, the background vocals, the tones, everything has to be just right 'cause I want the people to think when they close their eyes, they're actually hearing Bruce, and that is the point.
What sets you apart from the other Springsteen tributes?
It kind of starts with me, I have to be in Bruce character for the whole time I'm on stage — I can't break that. So they're looking at me mostly, of course, and the other guys are highlighted on solos and my interaction with them, but it's mostly me being Bruce from everything I play to everything I say, at that moment. I think what sets us apart from everyone else is that we play for that exact moment, we don't do the same show everywhere 'cause it won't work everywhere and if we're too big for a small stage or too small for a big stage, it's corny. So we have to be right in the middle for that particular show, like Bruce would do it right then. No one else comes close to anything like that.
What songs do you have to play no matter where you play?
That's a great question because those are the songs I really can't stand playing (he laughs). I started doing this to play Bruce during his early years because nobody else was doing it. But no one I play for knows the early years except for a few people. So I had to expand, and the thing is I look the most like Bruce in the '70s — in the beard and the hat. But I had to try to morph into his later look to be able to play the newer songs in the same character. I couldn't play the new songs looking like the old guy that hadn't written them yet. So it's an acting job, I can always play older songs but I still have to look current, so that was pretty much the hardest thing. But they always ask for "Born In The USA," of course, and they always ask for "Born to Run." When you play "Born to Run," that is like cutting the cake at a wedding — people leave right after that — so I save "Born to Run" until the end of the night so they stay for that.
Talk about the show you're bringing to Laughlin.
In a place like that where we give them two hours, we do have a chance to get to the slower ballads and play the really cool stuff, and not keep it uptempo for the whole time. In addition to the songs people expect, we'll do "Sunny Days" which is always a great song for the summertime and it's really uplifting and it's fun and it creates a nice mood outside in the outdoor venues.
Your thoughts on being part of Harrah's concert series?
First of all there's really good bands starting this series — Led Zepagain and Sin City KISS are great. The level of tribute bands on this particular run is some of the best, we always want to be included in the best. You can get other bands to do this, but it's a big deal for us because we want to be associated with the best bands around. Bruce Springsteen isn't a West Coast go-to thing necessarily, he's mostly East Coast. It's hard to push in there and compete with these other bands that are so heavy West Coast guys, like a Journey band.
You and Springsteen are from the same place?
I am from Freehold, New Jersey, same hometown as Bruce. I went to the same high school, lived a couple of houses down from him. He was our hometown hero, he was the guy, you know? All those years and I never wanted to dive into the music because it was that wall of sound that you remember as a kid growing up and once you start picking it away, it doesn't feel the same and look the same to you any more. I was worried about losing that part of it. I wanted it to be special. But I started digging in and it got even better to me, picking out the parts and learning — every time you hear these songs, you hear different things you didn't hear before. And even the guys who recorded it 45 years ago and from then on, still say the same thing, so it's still cool. But I was really close to that music, I was in that culture, I grew up in it, it was the thing to do in high school at parties to listen to that stuff — so it's like part of me. So I thought it's the perfect fit.
What an ironic twist of fate, right?
It's the hardest thing I've ever done musically in my life — to act like Bruce, sing like Bruce, play guitar like Bruce, and perform altogether. I tell stories, too. Sometimes I'll tell word-for-word stories that Bruce actually tells live or I'll tell my own stories about growing up there because it's the same characters and nothing ever changed in Freehold, it's the same thing. I tell my own stories and they'd still think they're his. It's really cool.