Croce Plays Croce – 50th Anniversary Tour-Bergen Performing Arts Center – Englewood, NJ

Croce Plays Croce – 50th Anniversary Tour

Bergen Performing Arts Center – Englewood, NJ – February 9, 2024

Review & Photos – Rebecca Wolf

A.J. Croce, son of the late, great singer-songwriter Jim Croce, has spent the past several years celebrating his father’s iconic music while performing his Croce Plays Croce show to adoring audiences. However, these performances are more than A.J. sharing the music of his father. Rather, it’s also an opportunity for A.J. to showcase his own extensive catalog and to present the music of the artists who inspired both both father and son. And, it’s evening to paint a picture of the musical ties that connect a father and son, even ones whose time together was tragically limited.

A.J. entered the world of music as a piano prodigy.  He forged his own musical path and never looked to fill his father’s shoes nor follow his path. While Jim was a singer-songwriter and guitarist who wrote folk and soft rock, A.J.’s early musical interests leaned towards blues, soul, jazz and rock and roll. With more than thirty years since the release of A.J.’s debut album, this singer-songwriter, pianist and now skilled guitarist, has been performing his music for decades and has built his own devoted fanbase. So, it’s not surprising that A.J. continues to perform to sold out venues across the US. While there may be individuals entering a Croce Plays Croce performance based on their love of Jim Croce, they undoubtedly exit the venue as A.J. fans as well. 

February 9th at Bergen Performing Arts Center was another Sold Out performance of Croce Plays Croce.  Audience members were abuzz with excitement from the moment they reached their seats and their cheers rang out as Croce and his band entered the stage, including touring band members: Gary Mallaber, drums, David Barard, bass, James Pennebaker, guitar, and background singers, Jackie Wilson and Katrice Donaldson. Making his way to the piano, Croce greeted the crowd with a warm, broad smile. Having attended several Croce Plays Croce performances, A.J. consistently connects to the crowd and radiates joy in celebrating the two generations of Croce music. 

The evening opened with the perfect, energetic, Jim Croce favorite, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” instantly boosting the energy in the already electrified crowd. Moving to the electric piano, Croce kept the mood soaring with his father’s “Roller Derby Queen,” followed by a spirited rendition of the bluesy “Better Days,” which A.J. recorded for his 2021’s album, “By Request.” Rising from the piano Croce made his way to centerstage, grabbing an electric guitar for Jim Croce’s emotional, hard-knocks song “Box #10”. Switching to an acoustic guitar for the next beloved, heartfelt Jim Croce number, A.J. spoke to the enthralled audience. “My father was a master storyteller and in 1965 he was stationed here in NJ, at Fort Dix.” Applause rang out amongst the hometown crowd. “This song got started because he was waiting in line for the payphone, on a phone booth without a door. For a young songwriter this was a gift because  listening to other peoples’ tragedies you get a lot of depth of character. You can certainly write a good song from others’ stories. But, to write a great song you need some of your own character-building experiences. That’s why this song didn’t get finished until ’72 and it was great. If you feel like singing, please do. You probably know some of the words.” Audience members cheered as A.J. began playing the first instantly recognizable notes of “Operator,” and joined in singing along to this iconic number.

Returning to the piano, Croce’s phenomenal keyboard skills were again on display, for both eyes and ears. Croce played numbers from his album “By Request,” showcasing music of artists that inspire him, including Sam Cooke’s “Nothing Can Change This Love,” and an exhilarating performance of Billy Preston’s “Nothing from Nothing,” which had the audience rocking in their seats. He also performed material from several of his albums, including “The Heart that Makes Me Whole,” a bouncy, jivey piece from 2007’s “Just Like Medicine.” Noting the exhilaration of the audience, Croce enthusiastically stated, “You guys are fun tonight!  I’m going to do some songs I wrote with Leon Russell. This is “Rollin’ On.” You can join; it’s easy. Just sing rollin’ on.” Performing this spirited number from his 2013 album Twelve Tales, thrilled fans joyfully sang in unison when directed by Croce to join in.

Between songs, Croce shared brief stories of his parents, including their move from a home outside Philadelphia, to NYC, and back to Pennsylvania. It was this emotional experience that storyteller Jim Croce called upon when writing “New York’s Not My Home,” soulfully performed by A.J., before smoothly transitioning to his father’s beautiful love song to his mother, “I’ll Have to Say I Love You In a Song.” 

“How about we get some audience requests?” Croce said, trying to complete his sentence before a cacophony of shouts rang out across the theater. There were so many different songs titles wafting through the air it was a mystery which ones Croce would choose. “I haven’t heard someone request “These Dreams” in a long time,” he said, before beautifully performing this melancholy tune from Jim Croce’s 1973 album, Life and Times, followed by “Hey Tomorrow,”  from his 1972 debut album, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.” Additional songs from his father’s catalog included “Speedball Tucker,” “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be a Brighter Day,” and “One Less Set of Footsteps.” “You’re giving me some good songs,” Croce said to the crowd, obviously enjoying the audience enthusiasm and participation. “No one’s been giving us these songs. Should we go back to acoustic?” he said, putting down the electric guitar and picking up the acoustic for “Lovers Cross” and  Walkin’ Back to Georgia,” both fan shout-outs. “We don’t do this many requests this often,” Croce shared, bringing thankful applause from grateful fans.

“Rapid Roy” provided an opportunity for A.J. to be a storyteller and share his experiences at the stock car races with his young children. And, Jim Croce’s chart-topping hit “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” had the crowd crowd hooting and whistling as A.J. pounded on the piano keys and shouted, “Sing it with us now!” Returning to acoustic guitar, Croce ended the set with the title song of his father’s last album “I’ve Got a Name,” released after Jim Croce’s passing. “I’ve got a name, And I carry it with me like my daddy did.” What an ideal song for a boy, now a man, who shares his legendary name, and carries it like his daddy did, with his own phenomenal, musical talents. 

The evening could not end without one more incredibly beloved number, a posthumous Billboard number-one hit. With the darkened stage illuminated by a backdrop of home movies, dad Jim played with toddler A.J. to a soundtrack of the tender, heart-grabbing ballad “Time in a Bottle.” As the chorus began, the stage became awash in light as A.J. took over singing, accepting the passing of the musical baton from father to son. This connection, the building of a musical bridge, is Croce Plays Croce. If you are a Croce fan, father and/or son, it’s surely a bridge worth crossing.