Over two thousand diehard Doobie Brothers fans flocked to the Hard Rock Live in Northfield, Ohio on Friday (Sept. 22) to listen to the music.
Still anchored by three key members, the Brothers (mostly) sidestepped their Michael McDonald “yacht rock” years (1977-1980) in favor of the boogie, blues, (and bluegrass) rock hits produced in the early ‘70s by vocalist / guitarist Tom Johnston and lead guitarist Pat Simmons.
And that was fine by these Buckeye State spectators.
The San Jose-based band got “Rocksino” ticket-holders off their rumps with their familiar cover of the Art Reynolds Singers’ “Jesus Is Just Alright” and their own 1972 Toulouse Street sizzler “Rockin’ Down the Highway.” Bright Stampede (1975) offering “Take Me in Your Arms / Rock Me a Little While” spilled over into a pair of potent offerings from 1974’s What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits, in the form of rollicking “Road Angel” and acoustic-powered “Spirit.”
“Dark Eyed Cajun Woman” was a cool cut from 1973’s The Captain and Me, while the southern-fried “South City Midnight Lady” showcased the boys’ penchant for southern-fried, fricasseed guitar rock a la Lynyrd Skynyrd and Allman Brothers.
The electric “Eyes of Silver” and sizzling “Sweet Maxine,” demonstrated the ferocious musical facility these dudes still possess: Simmons (who favored a mint-green Westwood Music Strat) is a monster string-bender and slide guitar Svengali. Burly, mustachioed Johnston is a badass singer /showman and masterful finger-picker. And John McFee—who replaced gunslinger Jeff “Skunk” Baxter in 1979—remains a formidable utility man on Variax electric guitar, fiddle, and harmonica. He even sat down to push a little pedal steel, too, marinating the mix with country overtones.
Bill Payne (of Little Feat) provided smooth keys and juke-joint piano on a Kronos, while vested bassist John Cowan (on five-string Sadowsky) conspired with drummer Ed Toth to concoct those irresistible Doobie rhythms.
Mark Russo’s saxophone solos were as hot 'n' spicy as the band’s lead guitar work, and there was plenty of that. Simmons favored a peach-colored Westwood Music six-string, while McFee noodled on a Variax Line 6. The guitar triumvirate shared solos, but sometimes two or three of the guys would "duel" or play off one another at center stage.
“You gotta trust the power of the blues, people!” preached Johnston.
Payne prefaced soulful “Takin’ It to the Streets” with church-like organ. Latter-day Doobie hit “The Doctor” (from 1989’s Cycles) was equally inspirational and holistic, while beloved unplugged oldie “Black Water” shimmered with rural arpeggios (courtesy Simmons and Johnston’s Taylor acoustics) and wistful farmhouse fiddle (McFee).
Then Johnston and Simmons commandeered the proceedings with distorted guitars for a funky “Long Train (Without Love)” and chunky FM staple “China Grove,” by which point most folks in the capacity crowd were on their feet.
Naturally, the septet ensemble returned to regale the audience with timeless Toulouse anthem “Listen to the Music.”
The Doobies’ most recent studio album of original material is 2010’s World Gone Crazy, but they recorded the remake / duets disc Southbound (featuring Zac Brown, Blake Shelton, Huey Lewis, etc.) in 2014.
A new Doobies album is scheduled for Spring 2018.
Other notable Doobie alumni include percussionist John Hartman, drummer Tony Pia, bassist Tiran Porter, and saxophonist Cornelius Bumpus, (who died in 2004). Sadly, longtime drummers Keith Knudsen, Bobby LaKind, Michael Hossack, and John Hartman have all passed away.
Jeff Baxter is now NASA advisor and defense consultant.
And Michael McDonald? The “Sweet Freedom” songster is out touring behind his latest CD, Wide Open.
Supporting the Doobies was acoustic ensemble J.D. and The Straight Shot, who warmed up the venue with selections from their latest album, Good Night & Good Luck.
The group—who’ve opened for the Eagles and Jewel—packs a sweet, mellifluous sound that borrows a bit from each of those influences.
Front man / band namesake James Dolan (MSG /Knicks / Rangers exec) said the new album title is a reverse-take on Edward R. Murrow’s radio sign-off, from “Back when radio had ethics.”
After saluting the Indians for their winning baseball streak, Dolan led his gang through songs about a boy who falls in love with a statue (“Moonlight”), forbidden love (“I Know You Know I Know”), gambling at the track (“Run for Me”), and bad memories of domestic abuse (“Tonight”).
Dolan’s surrounded himself with crack musicians: Guitarist / mandolinist Marc Copley has played with B.B. King and Rosanne Cash, while upright bassist Byron House has thumped strings for Dolly Parton and Robert Plant.
But fiddler Erin Slaver (Martina McBride, Rod Stewart) was a standout on this night, straining her bow and lending harmony and background vocals to the Christmas-themed “Ballad of Jacob Marley” and Three Dog Night cover “Shambala.”
The Straight Shot also boasted a lovely acoustic guitarist and pretty percussionist, both of whom added layers to the stacked harmonies on “Perdition,” from the 2015 Natalie Portman western Jane Got a Gun.