The Continuing Voyage of Pablo Cruise

Pablo Cruise today: Robbie Wyckoff, Larry Antonio, and original members David Jenkins, Cory Lerios, and Steve Price.Photo by Peter Lyons/Courtesy of Pablo Cruise

One of the more interesting aspects of pop culture is when a musician or band whose songs have not graced the charts in years (sometimes decades), suddenly has an unexpected resurgence. It could be from a song well-placed on a movie, TV, or video game soundtrack. Or a remake. Or some namechecking by/collaboration with a younger artist.

For ‘70s rockers Pablo Cruise, though, the zeitgeist came in the form of a garment. As in the band T-shirt that Will Ferrell’s lead character wears for a chunk of screen time in the 2008 comedy Stepbrothers. And no one was more pleasantly surprised than the band themselves.

“We had to sign off on it, but had no idea how much it would be in the movie! And that gave us some great publicity. It got our phones ringing again,” says keyboardist/vocalist Cory Lerios. “They wanted us to walk the red carpet at the premiere, and I didn’t want to. We didn’t have anything to talk about! But we did and when reporters asked us what we were doing there, we said ‘We have a T-shirt in the movie!’”

Guitarist/vocalist David Jenkins adds that the band got to play the after-screening premiere party, joined on stage by Ferrell and co-star John C. Reilly. But there was an even bigger benefit for him. “For six to ten hours, my son thought I was the coolest guy in the planet!” he laughs. “He was 12 years old, and his dad knew Will Ferrell!”

Today, Pablo Cruise is in the midst of its busiest touring schedule in nearly 20 years. And while part of that is due to the continued appeal of classic rock among fans middle aged and older, Lerios says their audiences are made up increasingly of multiple generations and younger faces.

Will Ferrell: Lovin’ the CruiseScreen Grab from the Columbia Pictures movie “Step Brothers.”

“I always make jokes to some of the audience that they’re too young to be there!” he laughs. “But now, we can have a lot of and fun interplay with the audience. Our [original] fans are older and not screaming all the time, so they come to hear the music. We joke with them that we want them to get up, but slowly!”

“It’s interesting and encouraging when parents bring their kids to the show,” Jenkins adds. “Afterward, I love seeing the look in their faces when they realize that people our age can still rock, and they get fired up over classic rock.”

Pablo Cruise first formed in 1973 in San Francisco when some members of the bands Stoneground and It’s a Wonderful Day joined forces. The original lineup included Lerios, Jenkins, Steve Price (drums), and Bud Cockrell (bass), with Jenkins and Cockrell sharing lead vocals.

The party line is that their name came from the idea that “Pablo” represented a down-to-earth person ,and “Cruise” a fun and laid back attitude toward life (in a TV interview for the show “Through the Decades,” Jenkins would admit that, um, there also might have been some LSD involved).

Their self-titled debut came out two years later, but it would be their third record A Place in the Sun and the single “Whatcha Gonna Do?” that launched their career, hitting #6 on the charts. The lyric was inspired by Jenkins’ troubled romantic relationship at the time, with Lerios asking his bandmate he was going to do when she left him. But despite having “hit” written all over it, it was not the album’s first single release.

“I thought it should have been the first single, but it came out after ‘A Place in the Sun,’ because that’s what the record company wanted. When it did come out and was a big hit, I felt vindicated!” Jenkins says. “And the sort of duet part with me and Bud made it something special. I wish I had tapped into that more.”

Cockrell abruptly left the group, replaced by former Santana bassist Bruce Day. The next album, Worlds Away, offered the equally big hit “Love Will Find a Way” (also peaking at #6), and equally inspired by the same woman as “Whatcha Gonna Do?”

“It took me a whole frickin’ year to get over that relationship! But at least I got two great songs out of it!” Jenkins laughs. Other minor hits like “Don’t Want to Live Without It,” “I Want You Tonight,” and “Cool Love” would follow, with more albums and lineup changes, but Pablo Cruise would call it quits in 1986.

Lerios would go on to score a lot of TV shows and movies (including “Baywatch”), while Jenkins would form country rockers Southern Pacific, work as a sideman to some big names, and occasionally fly the Pablo Cruise flag. That was sometimes with Price, whose “day gig” was heading a successful e-learning company. Bruce Day passed in 1999.

The original lineup: Cory Lerios, David Jenkins, Bud Cockrell, and Steve Price.A&M/Universal Record Cover

Flash forward to 2004 and the four original members regrouped to play Price’s wedding. The groom, Jenkins, and Lerios reformed Pablo Cruise the next year. The current lineup also includes Larry Antonio (bass/vocals) and newer addition Robbie Wyckoff, now handling the majority of lead vocals. Cockrell died in 2010.

Still, having 75% of the original lineup together for a band inching toward 50 years is pretty damn good. “We’ve been a three-legged dog for most of the time. If we didn’t have that kind of camaraderie, we would be doing this,” Lerios offers.

“When we were out on the road and had hit songs on the radio all the time and playing to a young audience, it’s almost surreal to look back on it. If we did anything wrong, it’s we just stopped touring as a band. But our show today is way better because we took that time off. We are really appreciating it now.”

Jenkins adds “Having Steve and Cory and me together playing the songs…there’s a reason that it works. The songs are one thing, but the lineup is the element that makes it happen.” When asked what one piece of advice the David of today would give his younger version, it’s this.

“I would tell him to dig in deeper to the writing and just do more. And stay focused on that. Don’t tire out and don’t get lazy. We have a nice body of work, but I wish I had written more songs.”

The music of Pablo Cruise – and in particular their two big singles – are essential components of any Yacht Rock playlist, a throwback genre simply getting more and more popular today.

“We were a Yacht Rock band before there were Yacht Rock bands! I mean, we’re Pablo Cruise,” Lerios laughs. “And so many of our songs were about the islands and the beach and the water. We were always moving in that ‘escape’ direction.”

For his part, Jenkins is happy to be lumped in with the same company as Michael McDonald, Christopher Cross, Kenny Loggins, and his friend Steve Lukather of Toto. Pablo Cruise has even sat in one gig with the Yacht Rock Revue – the country’s premier Yacht Rock cover band.

“Pete [Olson, Revue co-founder] is always telling me where they’re playing and asking if I want to sit in. And they learn the songs!” Jenkins says. “And they sell out shows! But it cracks me up. People show up, wear this silly captain’s hats, and have a good time.”

The current version of Pablo Cruise put out a live CD/DVD package in 2017, and is working on a new song, but expectations are modest. “It’s not like we’re going release the song and radio is going to jump on it and fans are going to buy it. Things don’t work like that anymore,” Jenkins says, noting that they’ve also signed to new management.

As for Lerios – whose sons are also songwriters/producers and spearhead the band Fox Wilde – he’s excited that Pablo Cruise is sailing smoothly, and excited about the waters ahead. “There’s a lot of good energy around us now,” he says. “If we had the guys in the band then that we do now, we never would have stopped!”

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Bloomfield’s Big Book O’Blues

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band with guest guitarist Mike Bloomfield runs through a blues at their sound check prior to the New Folks concert at the Newport Folk Festival.Photo by Dr. John Rudoff/Courtesy of University of Texas Press

BOOK REVIEW

Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield’s Life in the Blues

By David Dann, 736 pp. , $39.95, University of Texas Press

At one point in the mid/late ‘60s, Michael Bloomfield was considered by many as the country’s premiere blues-rock guitarist, seamlessly meshing the traditions of the genre’s past with the louder inclinations of the counterculture. Yet a combination of erratic career moves, a tendency to quit projects, lethargy, manic behavior, fear of competition, and a predilection for substance abuse (mainly heroin) derailed all of that.

Today, his name is mostly known to music nerds, despite being ranked as #22 on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of all time. But in this exhaustive, detailed doorstopper of a tome, Dann tells the troubled player’s story through research and more than 70 interviews with friends, relatives and bandmates, but explores seemingly every nook and cranny of his music.

The Chicago-born, upper class Bloomfield was first exposed to blues at a young age by his family’s housekeeper’s radio. At 14, would travel alone at night on city buses or rail cars to go to the heart of the south side of Chicago and try and catch players like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf at mostly black clubs like Pepper’s Lounge – listening outside when he couldn’t get in. In just a few years’ time, he’d be sharing the stage with both men.

The teen became so obsessed with listening to and then learning to play the music – at the expense of school, family, and “normal” life – that his conservative, emotionally distant businessman father had him committed to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation.

But word was getting around about Bloomfield’s explosive guitar playing, and it was his work with Bob Dylan on two projects that brought him to national attention. That’s his lead guitar on the unlike-anything-else “Like a Rolling Stone” (and other Dylan tracks like the stinging lines on “Tombstone Blues”).

And his controversial appearance backing Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. As Dann points out – what history has since etched in rock history as The Time Dylan Went Electric, they are really referring to Bloomfield’s playing during the short set, which was a lot wilder and louder than the frizzy-haired Bard of Hibbing’s.

Bloomfield’s star rose higher as part of the groundbreaking Paul Butterfield Blues Band. But upon seeing how Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton were taking blues rock into different stratospheres intimidated him. Especially when Bloomfield witnesses Hendrix’s helter skelter set at the Monterey Pop Festival.

Shaken and never able to sit still in life or career for much time, he quits Butterfield just as they are about to break big. And his self-doubt about his legitimacy as a white man playing a black man’s music is exacerbated when a Rolling Stone columnist (unfairly) accuses him in print of “shucking.”

Then there were the lifelong medical issues. The mile-a-minute talking Bloomfield today surely would have been diagnosed as bipolar or with ADD. He also suffered from severe and debilitating insomnia, which led him to constantly frying his senses.

Dann then begins to detail decades worth of starts and stops for Bloomfield, during which he is his own saboteur. He forms the politically charged rock/pop act with horns the Electric Flag, only to cede leadership to his showboating singer/drummer Buddy Miles, and then quits.

When friend/keyboardist Al Kooper invites him to play on an experimental jam session record, Bloomfield quilts during recording, disappearing in the middle of the night and leaving Kooper a note that said “Dear Alan, couldn’t sleep, went home, sorry.” Kooper frantically recruited Stephen Stills to fill out the other side of the album. Ironically, 1968’s Super Session would be his greatest commercial success, but also an albatross that framed fans’ expectations.

Michael Bloomfield solos in February, 1973 at the Winterland Ballroom.Photo by Jonathan Perry/Courtesy of University of Texas Press

Periods of isolation would follow, as the guitarist would shut himself in his house, play a little, shoot heroin, and watch endless amounts of TV (sitcoms and “The Tonight Show” were his favorites). His mother was concerned enough that she went to a B.B. King show and managed to get backstage to ask the blues star (and her son’s musical hero) to call and cheer him up. Which he did.

The book’s weaving through the 1970s reads a bit like repeat as Bloomfield continues to falter. At one point, Bloomfield is scoring porn movies – his music often the most creative work in the project.  Then in 1981, Michael Bloomfield is dead of a drug overdose at the age of 37, his body found sitting up in his beat-u, parked car on a San Francisco street.

Dann recreates the guitarist’s final hours, the likely scenario that Bloomfield went to a party hosted by his drug dealer, took some mixture of narcotics that left him unresponsive and turning blue, after which partygoers put him in his vehicle, drove several miles, then left him in the front seat to be found.

“I’m a musicologist as much as a player,” Bloomfield would say in one of the last interviews he would ever give. And indeed his enthusiasm for other’s work over his own is seen throughout this book. But with Guitar King, the spotlight is absolutely on the subject, a wealthy, Jewish kid who just wanted to play the blues.

This review originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

 

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Peter Noone is Hardly a Hermit These Days

Peter Noone today. Those genes! Photo by Loyd Overcash.

Peter Noone has heard it for years: “You should write a book!” After all, the lead singer of British Invasion band Herman’s Hermits certainly has a lot of stories he could tell.

About hanging out with members of the Beatles and the Stones in swinging London clubs like the Ad Lib and the Scotch of St. James. About touring all through the world. About recording any of their classic ‘60s pop hits like “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” “I’m Henry VIII, I Am,” “There’s a Kind of Hush,” “I’m Into Something Good,” “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat,” and “A Must to Avoid” among them.

He says he keeps telling his agent he’ll “do it in ten more years” and that there’s no drama to his career and people might not be interested. But pressed, he’s at least got an idea for a true-life intro.

“It would start on August 6, 1963, in field near my grandmother’s house. That’s where a bass playing friend and I went to see the Beatles who were performing at a country fair or something like that to 112 people. They had just come back from Germany,” he offers.

“My friend sees them, quits his band, and never touches instrument again. But me, I was inspired! I needed to find guys who would work 10 hours a day on being different than the Beatles and make it, and steal those young girls and boys in the audience. It’s me thinking ‘how can I be part of this?’ And then the book finishes three years later. It’s just a magical trip.”

Herman’s Hermits, 1965 clockwise from left: Derek Leckenby, Peter Noone, Karl Green, and Keith Hopwood. Barry Whitwam is in the center

The Manchester, England-based band’s name came, famously, because some of Noone’s friends thought he resembled the character of Sherman from the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons. “Sherman” became “Herman,” which morphed into “Herman and the Hermits” and finally “Herman’s Hermits.” In addition to Noone on vocals, the lineup would shift a bit until settling on Derek Leckenby (lead guitar), Keith Hopwood (rhythm guitar), Karl Green (bass), and Barry Whitwam (drums).

Today, the music of Herman’s Hermits is unfairly dismissed by some as fluffy  pop, with bands like them, the Dave Clark Five, and Freddie and the Dreamers on one side of an imaginary line while “serious” bands like the Beatles, Stones, Who, and Kinks on the other. And while it’s true that latter group wrote most of their own material and experimented more, Noone says his band never wanted to be like them.

“We made a conscious decision at the beginning that we weren’t going to be a band that made records to impress other musicians. We wanted to impress young people and make music that they could play right after the BBC News. And we only had one radio station!,” Noone says. “The A-sides were always something upbeat, though sometimes we’d put something different on the B-side. I mean, our song called ‘The End of the World’ was the B-side of ‘I’m Henry VIII, I Am.’ Talk about a dichotomy!”

Photo by Loyd Overcash

He notes that producer Mickie Most often brought songs to the group to record, including tracks like “Bus Stop” and “For Your Love” that, when they didn’t gel for the Hermits, became hits for the Hollies and Yardbirds respectively.

“Well, Mickie wasn’t so much a producer as he was a director. But he was my best friend, the best man at my wedding, and my daughter’s godfather,” Noone says. “We completely understood each other musically. If I talked about the reverb on the Everly Brothers’ ‘Walk Right Back’ he knew what I wanted. He knew how to pick a melody, and how I should sing the words so they would make sense and people would believe it.”

Noone left Herman’s Hermits in 1971, and members have toured in various combinations and periods of activity over the years. Green and Hopwood no longer perform actively, and Leckenby died in 1994. After some legal wrangling, Noone now fronts “Herman’s Hermits featuring Peter Noone” while Whitwam has his own version of the band, playing mostly in Europe.

In addition to a very, very active touring schedule, Noone currently hosts the Sirius/XM radio show “Something Good with Peter Noone” where he spins mostly ‘60s tunes and tells stories and anecdotes. But the energetic 71-year-old (who still looks impossibly younger) has no plans to slow down, with plenty of shows booked through the rest of the year. “A lot of people my age start to wind down, but not me. I’m really enthusiastic about the future, and naively optimistic about the future of the world,” he says.

He also recently released a cover of the Easybeats’ 1966 hit “Friday on My Mind” with the retro-sounding band the Weeklings. Noone’s version is surprisingly strong, more urgent and frantic than the original. And coming from the perspective of a man who has spent too many weeks working a shit job and really can’t wait for the weekend and time with his lady love.

A version of this article originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Michael McDonald and the Sound of His Voice

Michael McDonald today. Photo by Timothy White/Courtesy of Sacks and Co.

Note: This interview was conducted some months prior to the recent announcements of the Doobie Brothers being inducted into the 2020 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and their upcoming 50th anniversary tour and reunion with Michael McDonald.

On “Hail Mary” – the opening track of Wide Open – Michael McDonald plaintively asks this question of the woman who he is desperately trying to win back: “Does the sound of my voice still carry?”

And on 70+ minutes of the 2017 record of all-original material (his first in nearly 20 years), the answers is a resounding yes. Then again, Michael McDonald has had “That Voice” for his entire career. It’s one of rock and R&B’s most distinctive set of pipes. A smooth, warm, and buttery vocal cloak that somehow manages a simultaneous soft and gritty feel, akin to the beard that McDonald has sported in some version for decades.

It’s the kind of voice that a former bandmate once said “makes women melt” when they hear it. It has given life to a thousand impressions, including a “Tonight Show” skit where host Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake – joined by a good-natured McDonald himself – sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as “The Three Michael McDonalds.” All were dressed (and coiffed) identically.

Michael McDonald, Justin Timberlake, and Jimmy Fallon sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as The Three Michael McDonalds on “The Tonight Show.”

“This record kind of came out in a different way,” he says of Wide Open. “Of course, all records start with the demos as you try to flush out the arrangements. But a lot of the tracks here were the original demos just spruced up. Most of those vocals are the original demos.”

Wide Open also lives up to his name in that of the dozen tracks, the shortest is 4 ½ minutes long and most run in the 5-and-6 minute range, allowing a lot of breathing room as the songs unfurl. Many of the songs are in familiar territory of romantic difficulties, but McDonald gets social/political on “Free a Man.” About the struggles of African-Americans and equal rights in today’s society. It almost comes off as spiritual sequel to the Doobie’s “Takin’ In to the Streets.”

“That was written by a friend of mine, Richard Sheckle, who I think is one of the best American songwriters ever. I put him in a class of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan,” McDonald says. “I think he’s unheralded as an American treasure composer wise. And what I love about the song is that is just seems like a conversation that we’re having in our society right now. We’re trying to reevaluate ourselves more than ever, even than in the ‘60s.”

Going back to that era, McDonald remembers his parents watching Martin Luther King, Jr. give speeches on TV or the coverage of the racial unrest in Selma, Alabama during the Civil Rights era. He says they had a “call of consciousness” about how the U.S. was not living up to its promises made in the Constitution for all. “Things have to evolve toward the truth or you miss an opportunity. And it’s sometimes it’s never comfortable when you raise the ugly head of bigotry,” he offers.

Last year, McDonald embarked on a summer tour with R&B legend Chaka Khan opening. That might seem odd on paper at first – many would expect he’d be paired with another classic rock band. But upon further reflection, it makes sense.

McDonald has just as much of a footprint in R&B as rock (including three very successful records of all-Motown covers) and has long been a presence on that record chart. And when he does occasional tours with Boz Scaggs and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen as “The Dukes of September,” all three cover choice ‘50s and ‘60s R&B/soul songs that inspired them early in their careers.

McDonald’s career in the national eye began in the mid-‘70s with his vocal and keyboard contributor to Steely Dan in the studio and on the road (most noticeably on “Peg”). Then becoming lead vocalist for the Doobie Brothers and churning out massive hits like “What a Fool Believes,” “Minute by Minute,” “It Keeps You Runnin’” “Real Love,” and “Takin’ It To the Streets.”

A thriving solo career produced “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” and “Sweet Freedom.” And if that weren’t enough, his slew of duets and backing vocals have paired him with Patti LaBelle (“On My Own”), Christopher Cross (“Ride Like the Wind”), James Ingram (“Yah Mo B There”) and Kenny Loggins (“This Is It”).

More recently, he and Loggins collaborated with cutting edge singer/bassist Thundercat on the single “Show You The Way,” which they also performed on CBS Saturday Morning. McDonald also shared the stage with Thundercat at Coachella.

Finally, he is also very cognizant of his place as the #1 captain in the Yacht Rock universe. “Yacht Rock” started as the title of a comedy web series (that included actors playing real-life musicians, including a “Michael McDonald”) that both celebrated and gently skewered the soft and smooth sounds of the mid-‘70s to early ‘80s. The sort of songs you’d imagine being played on a yacht during the summer where the wind is brisk and the champagne flows.

“I’m usually introduced to all this stuff like Yacht Rock and ‘The Family Guy’ skits by my kids. And they can’t wait to Tivo it and make me watch it!” McDonald laughs. “But I thought the Yacht Rock series was hysterical the first time I saw it. It was such a great laugh! And the fact that it’s become a musical genre since then is kind of amazing. But I’m glad to be part of anything at my age!”

A version of this interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Tom Johnston & His Brothers Doobie Revisit Their Classics

HOU_MUS_Doobies1

The Doobie Brothers main trio at the Beacon Theatre: Patrick Simmons, Tom Johnston, and John McFee.Photo by Mark Weiss/Courtesy of the Richlynn Group

Note: This interview was conducted some months prior to the recent announcements of the Doobies making the ballot for the 2020 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and their upcooming 50th anniversary tour and reunion with Michael McDonald.

When most people think of PBS programming, shows featuring 18th century English castles and tea rooms, home improvement, quilting, and cooking programs, or Ken Burns documentary rotoscope fiestas come to mind. But this month, good viewers of public television will see something a bit different as an enticement during Pledge Drive – a full on rock and roll concert by the Doobie Brothers.

The network will screen Live from the Beacon Theatre, which features first-to-last-track performances of the band’s two breakthrough albums, 1972’s Toulouse Street and 1973’s The Captain and Me along with selected hits. When asked if he ever thought he’d see the partnership that pairs PBS with the Doobies, founding singer/guitarist Tom Johnston is succinct.

“Ah….no!” he laughs. “We’ve played a lot of fundraiser shows, but not been part of something like this. We’re still working away!”

A 2CD/1 DVD set from Rhino came out this past summer, and the Doobies will trekked out on a  tour opening for Santana.

As to why the band chose to play their second and third albums in full – something that’s become increasingly popular for classic rock bands, but the Doobies had never attempted before – it’s because they were pivotal releases. First in establishing the band on a national scale, and then catapulting them higher. Not that Johnston and co-founding singer/guitarist Patrick Simmons were feeling any sophomore pressure at the time.

“We were just trying to make the best album we could. Nobody really thought about that ‘make or break’ situations in those days,” he says. “We’d already done one album that didn’t get anywhere [the 1971 debut The Doobie Brothers], but it took Toulouse Street and the song ‘Listen to the Music’ to do something for us.”

Like “Listen to the Music” – their signature tune – tracks from those two albums have likely figured into most shows the band has played since their original release: “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” “Jesus is Just Alright” “Long Train Runnin’,” “China Grove,” and even “South City Midnight Lady.”

But other songs like “Mamaloi,” “The Captain and Me,” “Cotton Mouth,” “Ukiah” and a few others, the band has never played on stage before. So Johnston, Simmons, and the rest of the current band including multi-instrumentalist John McFee (the other principal member, a Doobie since 1979), Bill Payne (keyboards), Marc Russo (sax), Ed Toth (drums), John Cowan (bass/vocals), and Marc Quinones (percussion) had to reconsider the material from scratch.

“Yes! We had to completely relearn them!” Johnston laughs. “Some of them are more complex songs with a lot of lyrics and a lot of picking. We spent seven days in Nashville just working to get it all together. And then doing them in order on the albums, that was the first time we’d done that. It’s not how you’d sequence songs for a normal set, so we’d go up and down in the intensity of the songs from rock and roll to laid back. That was an interesting thing to do.”

For the Beacon show, the Doobies also added a couple of extra horn players (Roger Rosenberg on sax and Michael Leonhart on trumpet) to beef up the sound, which Johnston says really added a lot to tunes like “Cotton Mouth” and “Dark Eyed Cajun Lady.” (“it really sounds sweet with those guys playing!” he enthuses). And while the Doobies had used the Memphis Horns on a couple of ‘70s tours, and recorded with a horn section for a 2004 DVD at Wolf Trap, it was still a rare move.

Live from the Beacon Theatre – like their live shows – also showcases a lot of what can be called the “Tom Johnston Air Punch,” something he does onstage when he’s especially pleased. It’s an extension of the genuine enthusiasm and affection he has for live performances, but says it’s not possible without one crucial ingredient.

“The biggest thing is the crowd. For us, it always has been that since we started, to try and get the crowd up and moving with us,” he says. “The interaction between the crowd and the band is really paramount. And also the pleasure of playing a song really well, not matter how many times you’ve played it.”

Increasingly, that crowd he sees has younger faces as older fans bring their kids and even grandkids out to shows. Johnston says it’s hard to make them out in the audience from the stage, but he sees a lot of them at meet and greets and doesn’t take them for granted.

And while rock (and general music) history has long promoted the line of thought that you’re not supposed to like your parent’s music, classic rock has disintegrated that idea (my own 15-year-old son, Vincent “The Classic Rock Kid” Ruggiero’s two favorite two bands are the Eagles the Doobie Brothers).

The Doobie Brothers are working on new music as well – Johnston says the songs are completed and in the mixing stages, and this will be their first new material since 2014’s Southbound. It’s coming out as an EP, though, and there’s a reason for that.

HOU_MUS_Doobies2

John McFee, Tom Johnston, and Patrick Simmons Photo by Andrew Macpherson/Courtesy of the Richlynn Group

“It’s not a full album because people don’t buy albums anymore. Say you do 10 or 11 songs, you’re throwing away 5 or 6 of them. People are downloading just the songs they want to hear, and they may not all even make it to streaming,” he says. “Things have changed drastically. I’m sure Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran could sell CDs and go gold, but that’s about it. Most people can’t do that because today people would rather listen to playlists.”

Finally, what many, many fans would also like to hear is the Doobie Brothers playing live…at their induction ceremony for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Though they’ve been eligible since 1996, have a double CD worth of hits and big selling records, and still tour extensively, the Doobie Brothers have shockingly never even been on the ballot for potential induction (and are #1 on this writer’s list of unconscionable snubs – don’t get me started).

Recent times have seen more classic rock-era acts like Chicago, Yes, the Moody Blues, Journey, and others enshrined. A few years ago, the Doobies switched management to the storied and super powerful Irving Azoff, who either personally or through his company also handles the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, and others. Azoff himself ranked #4 last year on Billboard’s “Power 100” list for the music industry.

For his part, Johnston is biding his time. Still.

“We’ve talked about [the Hall of Fame], but not a lot because it’s kind of pointless. And it’s political thing and one of the reasons….nah, I’m not gonna go there!” he says. “When it’s supposed to happen, it will happen, that’s how I look at it. There’s other people that are shocking who aren’t in there. It is who you know, and I think you’re right, having changed management to Azoff and Company might help. But I don’t want to jinx it!”

Much of this article originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Nils Lofgren Talks Solo Record and Time with Lou, Bruce, and Neil

Nils Lofgren’s songwriting collaboration with Lou Reed was unexpected, but fruitful. Photo by Carl Shultz/Courtesy of Conqueroo PR

Even in terms of rock and roll pairings, they seemed like a truly odd couple of musical collaborators. But more than 40 years ago, singer/guitarists Lou Reed and Nils Lofgren worked on a baker’s dozen of tunes, and nearly half of those are making their public debut on Lofgren’s latest solo release, Blue with Lou (Cattle Track Road Records).

It was 1978 and Lofgren was working with fabled producer Bob Ezrin on some solo material. Lofgren had the music, but wasn’t really confident with the lyrics. Ezrin suggested that he get together with someone he had also produced: Lou Reed. Lou Reed? The famously gruff rock Prince of Darkness, who didn’t suffer fools – or other musicians – gladly?

“I take public reputation with a grain of salt, and I was always a fan of Lou’s so I didn’t have any issues there. But he’s…Lou Reed! Wonderful artist. Doesn’t do much co-writing,” Lofgren says today. “I thought the idea was beautiful, but I was surprised and grateful that Lou was up for it, and it worked in grand fashion.”

Interestingly, Lofgren and Reed found some non-musical bonding over…sports. Both were avid NFL fans, and when they watched a 1978 match at Reed’s apartment between his favorite Dallas Cowboys and Lofgren’s beloved Washington Redskins, a friendship was sealed. There was also whiskey involved. Long story short, Lofgren sent Reed a cassette with some of the song embryos in rough form. He heard nothing for weeks. Then the phone rang.

“He woke me up at 4:30 in the morning raving about the cassette – though in his understated Lou Reed way,” Lofgren recalls. “He had completed 13 sets of lyrics and wanted to dictate them all to me over the phone right then! So not to lose it, I put on a pot of coffee and spent the next two hours taking very careful dictation.”

After some further tweaking, the songs started to appear. Three each in 1979 on Reed’s The Bells and Lofgren’s Nils records, and two more trickled out on Lofgren efforts over the ensuing years. That left five unheard, unrecorded tracks left: “Attitude City” (inspired by the strutting Brooklynites of Saturday Night Fever), “Give,” “Talk Thru Tears,” “Don’t Let Your Guard Down,” and “Cut Him Up.” Reed died in 2013.

“Once we lost Lou, I knew it was time for me to share the rest of the songs,” Lofgren says.

For the 12-track Blue with Lou, Lofgren also included his version of their “City Lights” (the Charlie Chaplin-inspired number previously released by Reed). The passing of Reed also inspired the title track, a Lofgren original. As did the deaths of Tom Petty (“Dear Heartbreaker”), and his and wife Amy’s dog, Groucho (“Remember You” – the Lofgrens are big dog advocates).

“We always saw Tom and the band when they had a Phoenix date, and they didn’t have one on that tour. So Amy and I treated ourselves on a trip to Denver to see him at Red Rocks, and I’m so glad we did,” Lofgren says. “I think the last time they were an opening band was for me in 1977! I go way back with them, and Benmont [Tench, Heartbreaker keyboardist] and I have become great friends and he arranged for us to have a quick visit with Tom. Amy and I spoke with a lot of rage and sadness after he died, and we still do. I had no intention of writing as song about him, but the music kept coming. And it’s the music [of Petty’s] that we still have to remember him with.”

Blue with Lou was recorded with just Lofgren (vocals/guitar), Kevin McCormick (bass), and Andy Newmark (drums) in Lofgren’s home studio. Joining the trio for the tour (which stops in Houston May 31 at the Heights Theater) will be Lofgren’s brother and former Grin bandmate Tom on guitar and keyboards, along with backup singer Cindy Mizelle, a familiar face at Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band shows.

“It’s a remarkable thing. I’m so used to playing alone or with my friend Greg Varlotta on acoustic songs – we did that the last time we came through Houston. But this is a beautiful, overwhelming cast of characters,” he says, adding that it’s been about 15 years since he hit the road with his own band who also played on the record.

Photo by Carl Shultz/Courtesy of Conqueroo PR

Nils Lofgren, of course, has another pretty high profile gig – as guitarist with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. The unit has been on sabbatical since the Boss did his run of solo dates on his hugely successful Springsteen on Broadway and then put out a solo effort with Western Stars (though he also said in a recent interviews he’s already written the next E Street record). The breather has given Lofgren as well as fellow E Streeters like Little Steven Van Zandt a chance to pursue their own recording and tours, including Van Zandt’s Summer of Sorcery.

Lofgren and Van Zandt are also both active on social media. Earlier this year, they got into a Twitter back-and-forthing with a disgruntled Springsteen fan, upset that the band wasn’t touring (as if that were up to Lofgren and Van Zandt), throwing in a crack about how no one was “getting any younger.” When it’s suggested the guy was…well…an idiot, Lofgren took a surprising turn.

“I don’t see them as idiots. I’m a big fan of dozens and dozens of people – Bruce included. So I don’t begrudge anyone feeling disappointed that we aren’t playing. But if it gets over the top once in awhile, [I’ll try to] respond with a bit of humor. I just don’t get wrapped up in it,” he says.

“Music is there to entertain. There are some bands that I wish would play more. But I know how hard it is to hit the road. I’ve been doing this professionally for 50 years, and music has been my sacred weapon my entire life. I think it’s the greatest gift on the planet. And billions of people look to it as their sacred weapon as well to deal with this mad world we live in. But I get that people are that way about Bruce – ‘When is he touring? What is he doing?’”

But it was an unexpected call from another collaborator has sent Lofgren back into the studio this past spring – Neil Young. Lofgren has played on Young’s classic After the Gold Rush and Tonight’s the Night albums, as well as on the Young-affiliated Crazy Horse group on their 1971 self-titled debut for which he was a full member. He was also with Young on his 1982 Trans tour.

Last year, Young called Lofgren out of the blue from to ask if he would play a handful of already-scheduled dates with Crazy Horse in Canada last year (there’s been no definitive word about what happened with regular Horse guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro). Those shows (with no set setlist) went so well, Young called the trio in to work on a new album. The resulting effort, Colorado, recently came out.

“I’ve hooked up and played with Neil a few times over the years, and playing with [Crazy Horse] again is beautiful,” he says. “To prepare for the shows, we went to Billy’s home in South Dakota in the middle of nowhere on the prairie during the polar vortex, and the three of us just played together for four days. We’re never rusty when we see each other. I mean, it’s been almost 50 years since I walked in on them playing at the Cellar Door!”

A version of this interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Boz Scaggs’s Got the Blues…But That’s Good!

Photo by Chris Phelps/Courtesy of Michael J. Media

On the surface, actor Matthew McConaughey, writer Stephen Harrigan, photographer Mark Seliger, actress Jennifer Holliday, and musician Boz Scaggs may not have a lot in common. But as of this year, they’ve all got the same thing to display in their homes: A Texas Medal of Arts award.

Bestowed biennially upon Texans for a lifetime body of work, Scaggs – who grew up in Plano and later attended school in Dallas – was among 11 recipients who received the award this past February in a ceremony in Austin with Gov. Greg Abbott. The evening also had a performance aspect, which Scaggs happily participated in.

“It was like a full blown concert! I did a couple of songs that people know me for like ‘Lowdown.’ And I had some Texas guests with me. Jimmie Vaughan sat in and also Ray Benson from Asleep at the Wheel, along with some friends from L.A. and Chicago.”

For now, Boz Scaggs is back on the eternal road, this time in support of his record, Out of the Blues (Concord Recordings). But despite the title of his new record, it’s not the one most steeped in the blues, according to its creator.

“Well, I also think about my album Come On Home from the late ‘90s. That was the closest I’ve gotten to pure blues material,” he says. “What I wanted to express with this one was that a lot of things I’ve done came out of the blues idiom. Some of the songs could be classified as rock, and it has had a lot of play in the Americana market, believe it or not. I wanted to expand on what the blues is and what I’ve done with it. The Grammy nomination it received was for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Whatever that means!”

Growing up in Texas,  Scaggs says blues music was “all around” – though he also absorbed the New Orleans-based style of the genre. Out of the Blues includes both originals and covers, including two versions of songs originally performed by Bobby “Blue” Bland on the Houston-based Duke-Peacock label.

And while notorious record executive, producer, and Duke-Peacock owner Don Robey is the credited as the sole writer on both “I’ve Just Got to Forget You” and “The Feeling is Gone,” many music historians have arched their eyebrows (and pens) at that, uh, assignation.

“Well, let’s just talk about Bobby’s material, because that’s what I know more about [on Duke-Peacock],” Scaggs says. “We were coming up and learning to play the music that was around us – let’s call it the indigenous music of Texas – like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Freddie King and Jimmy Reed. Bobby and those productions of his were more sophisticated and the arrangements more complex and progressive. So while we were learning from a lot of artists, his music was sort of a step above.”

Photo by Chris Phelps/Courtesy of Michael J. Media

Scaggs also notes that Bland’s music borrowed more from jazzy roots and American traditional music, with more complex chord changes, voices, and harmonics than that of traditional blues. “You had to go to school a little bit to learn how to play that stuff!” he laughs. “They didn’t spare anything to support Bobby and that enormous voice.”

“Little Miss Night and Day,” is Scaggs’ sole original on the album (co-written with multi-instrumentalist Jack “Applejack” Walroth, who also contributes other songs). In liner notes for the album, Scaggs calls the scatted vocals over layered guitars “one of the happiest, most joyous things I’ve ever recorded…and the band gave me everything that I’ve ever wanted out of a Texas shuffle.”

Historically, Boz Scaggs is best known for a run of hits in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s including “It’s Over,” “Lido Shuffle,” “Lowdown, (all from his breakthrough 1976 album Silk Degrees), “Jojo,” “Breakdown Dead Ahead,” and “Look What You’ve Done to Me” – the last off the Urban Cowboy soundtrack.

A 5x Platinum seller, Silk Degrees remains the one Boz Scaggs album most likely be in his concert audience’s collection. The work was nominated for a slew of Grammys in 1977, and Scaggs took home “Best R&B Song” for “Lowdown,” which he co-wrote with Toto’s David Paich (in fact, much of the rest of Toto were also involved with the recording and touring at the time). Audiences on this current tour can expect to hear material from the album, along with other tunes spanning a long career over a variety of genres from rock and blues to jazz, ballads, and R&B.

Silk Degrees is of course…it was of the time itself. It has legs and the songs were good and the arrangements were good. It was the culmination of a lot of things I’d done to that point,” Scaggs reflects today. “And by working with the studio musicians I landed with in L.A., I gained a new freedom of expression. It was the right [album] at the right time in the right place, combining black music and popular music traditions of the time. It was a serendipitous landing, at a time where music was a very important part of people’s lives.”

A version of this story originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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