Photo by Armando Brown/For the Orange County Register
A version of my review ran in the Register
Huey Lewis and the News
Pacific Amphitheatre, Costa Mesa
“I’m taking what they’re giving ‘cause I’m workin’ for a livin’”
The lyrics to that song, which closed Huey Lewis and the News’ fun and highly enjoyable 85-minute set at the Pacific Amphitheatre on Thursday night, best encapsulates their rise to fame.
When the Bay Area group began attracting national attention with second album Picture This in 1982, it was hardly an overnight success story. Various members had paid their dues for a decade, slogging away in bars here and abroad, making independent releases that went nowhere and serving as sidemen (a couple guys helped record Elvis Costello’s acclaimed debut).
Once their videos started airing on MTV, the story suddenly changed. Lead singer Lewis, then in his early 30s, wrote songs about being a reluctant romantic and the girls swooned. Others appealed to the working class at large. The singer came across as an Average Joe – someone guys wouldn’t mind hanging with to shoot some pool or down a couple brews. There was no rock star attitude, unlike so many British new wave exports topping the charts at the time.
The music, often rooted in classic rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues of the Fifties and Sixties, also separated Huey Lewis and the News from the pack.Sports, released in 1983, was a blockbuster, spawned five top 20 singles and eventually sold 10 million copies.
In Costa Mesa, a familiar heartbeat sound signaled the nine musicians’ arrival on stage. Lewis played a harmonica intro and they launched into “The Heart of Rock & Roll,” the first of five tunes culled from Sports. Despite a three-man horn section (Johnny Colla, among four original Newsmen, did double duty on sax and electric guitar), the sound never got too loud.
Lewis and Colla engaged in some fine tandem harp and sax work on “I Want a New Drug.” Then a nasty fight erupted between a man and woman near the left orchestra section (and we were only 15 minutes into the show). It took quite awhile for the handful of Pac Amp security people to figure out what was going on. By the time the band transitioned into the jazzy “Small World,” police officers finally arrived and escorted half a dozen louts out of the row (some were later allowed back inside).
Last time I saw the band was a 2000 gig at Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula. Lewis’ voice struggled with a few big hits then. He is even more taxed by selections like “If This Is It” and “The Power of Love” these days (how Lewis survived a stint as lawyer Billy Flynn in the Broadway musical “Chicago” a few years back is beyond me). Still, the soaring brass notes and doo wop-styled backing vocals carried Lewis every time.
“We haven’t been in O.C. for awhile. We didn’t get the (government) bailout, so we’re back on the road,” quipped Lewis, before dedicating a compelling “Walking on a Thin Line” to all veterans. Sans horns, it was lean and mean. Later, Lewis jumped around the stage during the whimsical “Hip to Be Square.”
Known for their a cappella vocals segments in concert - back in the day, they would often sing the National Anthem at big baseball games - the band wowed the audience with finger snapping renditions of Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions’ “It’s All Right” and Chubby Checker & Dee Dee Sharp’s “Slow Twistin’”. Despite Lewis’ disclaimer that the latter one was only worked up last week and “hasn’t gone well, frankly,” it came across fine with unobtrusive bass, sax and drum machine. Definitely a high point.
One humorous moment came during the group’s soulful Stax-style hit cover of “It’s Alright” by J.J. Jackson (these ‘60s titles sure can get confusing). When Lewis’ short xylophone solo arrived, a young sexy girl came out holding the instrument for him and she was rewarded with a kiss.
While there was a generous dose of fan faves, there were some surprising set omissions (“Trouble in Paradise,” all but one of five top 10 hits from 1986 triple platinum seller Fore, more recent Adult Contemporary radio charters, the cool title track to last year’s Seth Rogan and James Franco comedy “Pineapple Express.”). I would’ve traded the so-so new songs (“Saturday Night,” “Feel It”) for any of the above.
By the home stretch, Huey Lewis and the News seemed to be hitting their stride, especially on punchy “Back in Time” - a second “Back to the Future” soundtrack number where Lewis did playful synchronized moves with the horn section. And the slower, reworked Hammond organ-led “Do You Believe in Love” was wonderful as usual. The bluesy “Workin’ for a Livin’,” with Lewis displaying his chops on the mouth harp capped the proceedings off before 10 p.m.