Every Thursday night, the Celtic Cottage in Long Branch is packed with people ranging from college students to those in their 60s. They come to see Bob Burger play and they're never disappointed.
Burger may be one of the best kept secrets in New Jersey, but musicians have known about him for years. He's been a member of the Bobby Bandiera Band since the 80s and is a frequent songwriting partner of such artists as Glen Burtnick and Joe Vadala. He's shared the stage with Jersey legends like Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi and earned a Gold Record for his work with Styx's Edge of the Century record. With the release of last year's Cymbals at Dawn CD, Burger is finally ready to take center stage on his own.
One listen to Burger's first solo CD and you'll wonder what took him so long. The songs are exceptionally well crafted with good lyrics and great hooks. Fans will certainly recognize some of his influences (The Beatles to Tom Petty) but Burger molds them into a style clearly of his own. Highlights on the record include "Madalynn," "Vintage Tweed," and "My Crowning Achievement."
Even though he's been playing out more in recent years, Burger generally stays within the Monmouth County area. He regularly plays the Salt Creek Grille in Rumson, the Waterfront Cafe in Sea Bright, and, of course, his weekly gig at the Celtic Cottage in Long Branch every Thursday. Starting May 30th, he'll be playing with Bobby Bandiera at The Columns in Avon By The Sea every Sunday.
"One of the reasons I'm staying in the local area is that I'm trying to build up a local fanbase," explained Burger. "If you spread it out too thin then you can't build it up so much. There's too much time in between gigs that they can forget about you."
His efforts to build a local fanbase are very evident each Thursday. He's been playing every Thursday at the Celtic Cottage - both with Bobby Bandiera and solo - for years and years. It's become something of a Jersey Shore institution and there's nothing better on a Thursday night than heading over to the Celtic to see Burger play. With no cover charge, it might be the best deal around.
"The Celtic is really special, there's no doubt about it," continued Burger. "I think a lot of the people who go there had their roots in Cheers (a former bar in Long Branch). But even beyond that there is the proximity to Monmouth University so they get a lot of younger kids in there. I think it's maybe the fact that we've built a crowd up over a number of years and they know what to expect when they go in. ?There's definitely a vibe and it works really well for me."
His show consists of a mix of original tunes and covers. In addition to the classic rock and popular songs of today, Burger mixes in obscure gems and regularly changes his setlist. The effect is similar to having a really knowledgeable DJ create a mix tape for you. No matter how many times you see him play, it's always different and always special.
"At the Celtic, you feel that the audience is there to listen and I think that's what makes it work," said Burger. "One of the things I've done to create or keep that audience is play with a lot of different players."
On any given Thursday, you might find guys like Jimmy Leahey, Jim Celestino, PK Lavengood, or Rob Tanico playing with him.
"If I don't constantly rotate material or constantly do something different, they won't be coming back. So everytime they come in they know they're not going to get the same thing they got last time."
Burger's in the unique position of not only having to reach out to audiences that have never heard his music, but he has to almost reintroduce himself to people that have known him for years through different assocation. Some people know him as a guitarist in the Bobby Bandiera Band, others only know his name from the songwriting credits on a Glen Burtnick CD. He says people constantly come up to him and tell him that they didn't know he wrote his own songs or even played music. But once they hear him on stage, they're hooked.
He's been pursuing many different avenues to expand his audience - Internet radio being one of them. The CD was recently added to several online stations to go along with the local FM radio stations like 90.5 The Night, which play the record.
Another angle he recently tried was doing a set at the initial open mic at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. Ironically, even though he had performed on that stage well over a hundred times, this was the first night that Bob performed on stage with just him and a guitar. It was also the first time he's ever played an open mic.
Recent sets in Asbury Park at the Writers In The Raw show and the Magazine Benefit earned rave reviews and gained new fans. ?It's clear that all he needs to do is get in front of people and play. His music does the rest. Thankfully, he won't keep his fans waiting too long before the next record.
"I'm always writing," he said. "But my timetable was to write this year and then pick what I think are the best group of songs and start recording next year. So, I'm expecting to have another CD out mid to fall of 2005. That puts them two years apart, which I think is pretty good spacing."
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.