Friday, August 7, 2009

Steve Miller Band concert review

Photo by Kelly Swift/For the Orange County Register
A version of my review originally appeared in the Register

Steve Miller Band
Pacific Amphitheatre, Costa Mesa
Aug. 1

Steve Miller Band fans got a lesson in music history at a packed Pacific Amphitheatre on Saturday night. And that’s a good thing.

Tunes by bluesmen - both obscure (Jesse Hill, K.C. Douglas) and not so obscure (Robert Johnson, Jimmie Vaughn) - were spotlighted, alongside seminal soul and rock ‘n’ roll artists (Sam Cooke, Otis Redding Bo Diddley). The wide-ranging Costa Mesa show also included plenty of Miller’s classic rock radio staples and pop chart hits from the 1970s.

Few people are better versed in those genres than Miller. The master guitarist was taught by instrument innovator Les Paul and cut his creative teeth in Chicago blues nightclubs at the height of Beatlemania. Upon relocating to San Francisco during the hippie era, Miller launched a professional recording career that mixed psychedelic and bluesy elements to minor acclaim.

Half a dozen albums later, he finally hit pay dirt with a string of platinum-sellers (The Joker, Fly Like an Eagle, Book of Dreams). Adapting to Eighties synth-pop, the musician scored his final No. 1 single and top 10 album with Abracadabra. Over the past decade, Miller, 65, has toured regularly. Last year, he recorded a long-awaited new studio album (due out sometime in the near future) and put out a worthwhile concert DVD+CD, Live in Chicago.

The 95-minute, 24-song set kicked off with “Swingtown” as the crowd sang the opening “whoa” line. Miller and his tight six member group (these guys can and often did stop on a dime) immediately locked into a shuffle groove. Marijuana smoke suddenly filled the air.

Backing singer and newest band recruit Sonny Charles, 68, the former front man for R&B group Checkmates, Ltd. (best known for the hits “Black Pearl” and “Put it in a Magazine”) added old school dance moves to the proceedings. The audience got quite a kick out of his antics throughout the evening. At times, it was difficult to choose between watching Miller’s amazing fleet fingers on the fretboard or Charles’ soft shoe routine.

Miller and longtime harmonica player/vocalist Norton Buffalo (who looked like he just arrived from Haight Ashbury) engaged in a sizzling duel on “The Stake” where group harmonies were in full effect. Spacey sounds from keyboardist Joseph Wooten set up the epic length “Fly Like an Eagle.” Everyone got to jam here: Miller did some gorgeous arpeggios and Wooten’s dexterity was mind-blowing.

A solo acoustic guitar segment saw Miller play the pleasant “Seasons” (from 1969’s Brave New World). Then he dedicated a tender take on Cooke’s “You Send Me” to Debbie Shuck, executive director of the Fender Center and Museum in Corona and a group of young students in attendance. Miller has played benefits at the facility and donated memorabilia. Onstage, he talked up their music education program and exhibits (check out for more info).

From there, standouts included the folksy Dobro-fueled hoedown, “Dance Dance Dance” a steamrolling take on Johnson’s “Crossroads” (a set list addition; Miller thanked fans for indulging him) and sturdy rock songs familiar to those of us weaned on KLOS/95.5 FM: “Take the Money and Run,” “Rock’n Me,” “The Joker” and “Jet Airliner.”

All told, Miller put on a laid back, memorable performance and showed no signs of slowing down 40+ years on.

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