Bring ‘em in with the Ear Candy Pop…then Throw ‘em the Red Meat Blues

After the flowering of Sixties rock and before the blunt commercial thunder of 80s arena rock, fans took a breezy ride up the escalator of power chords, catchy hooks, and growing audiences—listening, bobbing and maybe dancing to the major acts of the mid-Seventies: Led Zeppelin, Queen, The Who, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, The Eagles, Cheap Trick, Fleetwood Mac, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Van Halen, Blue Oyster Cult, Styx, Jethro Tull, Journey et al. Some of these acts created less lucrative but more innovative music in the Sixties: Zeppelin, The Who, Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Jethro Tull, and my guilty pleasure, the Steve Miller Band.

I got to go hear and see the Steve Miller Band for about the eighth time, at the mid-sized Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery here in Western Washington. It’s a nice place for us oldies…comfortable, in a setting among trees and vineyards, but still capable of hosting raucous and swinging rock music. This show, at the end of Miller’s tour, brought great music, entertainment, communality, and satisfaction to the crowd, a crowd he schooled and made wriggle, rock, and roll.

Partly due to my bias of growing up in the Bay Area, but mainly by way of how great their first five albums were, I fell for the Steve Miller Band’s psychedelic blues approach. They landed with the trippy but sturdy late-Sixties LPs Children of the Future and Sailor. The next two albums, Brave New World and Your Saving Grace, featured some of the best rock piano playing by the best rock piano session man, Nicky Hopkins. They recorded evergreen hits like Livin’ in the USA and Space Cowboy (my deep cut: off the album Number 5, “Goin’ to Mexico”)Miller explored a rock/blues/psychedelia form along with countless other white boy bands, mainly Brits and Yankees. He tweaked and mutated the music until he found a commercial resonance, and then ree-bop ba-diddly bop, he rode a wave of huge radio hits: The Joker, Take the Money and Run, Rock’n Me, Fly Like an Eagle, Jet Airliner, Jungle Love, etc. And after more than fifty years as a consummate, professional, rock’n act, Steve Miller continues to write his own ticket, playing classic blues and blues-infected country to audiences in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s.

Miller wants to be remembered as part of the blues lineage, both bringing the tradition back and innovating upon it. And he will be. He serves on the Board of Directors at Jazz at Lincoln Center. He learned guitar at a very young age listening to Les Paul in his living room and getting lessons from family friend T-Bone Walker. He played with Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, James Cotton, and Paul Butterfield. His first San Francisco band included his Texas high school buddy Boz Scaggs. Steve Miller is one of Paul McCartney’s favorite and most frequent collaborators. He’s the real thing.

Steve Miller with Les Paul, 2004.

He hit me over the head with his 2 by 4 of love. First, Miller gave his own history of the blues and his influences to the audience, including among those influences the original electric jazz guitarist Charlie Christian. He then shared his artistic goal: to sound like Jimmy Reed and Freddie King playing a Robert Johnson tune with a T-Bone Walker guitar solo. Okay, cool. But in our over-saturated music-as-wallpaper world, most people, a, don’t listen to music, and b, once they recognize a genre, for example a T-Bone Walker solo, they go oh yeah, this is cool for about 7 seconds and then go back to talking to their friends about whatever. Which is what this show was like. Crappy audience not really giving the musicians enough of a chance…until Miller pulled out that 2 by 4.

He did something I’d not witnessed or participated in for a long time: he got that crowd to listen to, dance to, and dig a T-Bone Walker styled blues, like, all the way through. Who’s T-Bone Walker? He’s Mr. Stormy Monday Blues, he’s the original urban blues artist, but from Texas, he’s the originator of the guitar style that Chuck Berry took and made into rock and roll. So congratulations, Mr. Miller! Thank you for that bit of psychic surgery, taking that audience on a trip down Blues Alley.

And the overall achievement of this show is that Miller has dialed back the arena rock bombast enough to allow for sets that travel through several genres, mixing in blues, country, love ballads and hard rockers. They sounded like a band, not a hit machine.

Steve Miller, Chuck Berry, and Lonnie Turner. 1967, San Francisco.

Take a look at that list of big rock acts from the Seventies from the beginning of this piece. Who among them has taken their prestige as an “oldies group” still able to command a substantial audience, and used that as a means to educate more people about our country and blues roots and some of the truly great artists who continue to go undiscovered, under-appreciated and uncompensated?

Speaking of which, this 2019 tour featured the incredible Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives, opening the show and joining Miller and his band for several tunes. Stuart is cut from the same cloth as Johnny Cash, but with a more urban sound (when he wants), as well as the ability to change hats and go for a bluegrass-tinged acoustic country sound. In fact, he’s made entire albums of honky-tonk, rockabilly, country rock, traditional country, Western music, gospel, and bluegrass. He’s the real thing, too, having come to fame in 1972 at the age of 13 playing mandolin in Lester Flatt’s band, and in the 80s he joined Johnny Cash’s band. He plays that mandolin still, and well…he’s killer, and able to connect his virtuosity with audiences. He’s got a little of that telepathic mojo that began to bring the audience into the music. Stuart and his band played Woody Guthrie, they played Cash, they played a song about Martin Luther King, JFK and Bobby Kennedy (Tommy Cash’s “Six White Horses”…they took you home before you sang your song). He’s one of the main consultants on Ken Burns’ upcoming Country Music documentary series. He’s about to begin his tenure as the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Artist-in-Residence. And he’s performed with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Steve Miller loves his life as a musician, and he’s a musician on a mission, really on a bunch of missions. He toured with Peter Frampton last year, to give him one last hurrah; Frampton has had to stop touring due to a rare degenerative muscular disease. Now Miller continues on his determined path with Marty Stuart, educating the audience on musical connections as he rocks us. Calling the tour Classic Rock Meets Classic Country is an understatement, if not a downright misnomer. The two bands’ sets combine in a breathtaking panoply of disparate styles—from the glitzy synthesizer effects of Miller’s Seventies hits to one of his traditional blues, The Lovin’ Cup. From Stuart tearing it up on his mandolin with the fiddle riffs from Orange Blossom Special, to a bred-in-the-bone folk rendition of Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd. And that’s just a small sample.

What once was guilty pleasure has grown to shameless admiration for the music, accomplishment and missions of Steve Miller.

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