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The audience at Tuesday night’s Doobie Brothers show at Rogers Place were eminently sensible.
Puffer jackets, toques, gloves; likely very different from what the hockey arena will be seeing at the Jonas Brothers concert in three weeks time when the kids unleash their fashion stances. Also, very different than what Michael McDonald and touring saxophonist Bill Russo hinted at as they pulled out Still Crazy After All These Years as a duo performance near the end of the Doobie Brother’s encore. Wild, wacky, out of control!
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Not that the current configuration of the Doobie Brothers is particularly wild. These are older, wiser musicians who have honed their nearly two-and-a-half hour stage show into a perfect gloss reflecting different eras of the band. You hear it all; the early hippie era (Jesus is Just Alright), the biker rock (Rockin’ Down the Highway), blue-eyed soul (What a Fool Believes), even a touch of Stax funk (Eyes of Silver). A remarkable back catalogue to draw on, and though most have been driven into your skull by endless shopping mall, oldies radio and doctor’s office repetition they still percolate at the back of the brain.
While they’re clearly canny veterans who know what their audience wants, there definitely has to be a little bit of crazy in their makeup. After all, they’ve gone from ‘70s and early ‘80s chart toppers to perceived irrelevance through the decades, focusing on the road over studio and teaming up with other classic rock bands like Chicago for summer nostalgia tours. The grind can kill or turn you mad, but for the Doobies that madness has worked: they’re cresting forward on a new generation’s interest in their discography.
Minus original vocalist and singer Tom Johnston, unfortunately. He’s recovering at home from back surgery, which means that bassist John Cowan has taken on many of his lead vocals for this leg of the tour, including last night’s performance at Rogers Place. Guitarist and vocalist Patrick Simmons is still standing front and centre, acting as ringmaster, soloist and lead singer on a few tunes, while new boy John McFee (he joined in 1978) stood at his side, alternating on electric and pedal steel. For a lot of people in the crowd the centre of attention was hidden behind the keyboard most of the evening: Michael McDonald.
The Doobies kept the audience waiting on the bigger hits through the first hour of the show, letting McDonald loose a few songs in with Here to Love You, dipping back to their fifth album with the Russell-led Neal’s Fandango. The band dug deep with the acoustic Slack Key Soquel Rag, McDonald picking up a mandolin while Russell and McFee switched to acoustics. A band that never settled on one particular style, now they simply sound prescient in the current era where genres bleed into each other. Boogie rock collided with soft rock (One Step Closer), Motown covers (Heard it Through the Grapevine; Take Me in Your Arms) with KISS-like hard rock (Without You), all sung and played wonderfully. By the time the set began to wind down the song voltage heated up, starting with What a Fool Believes.
From there on it was everything you ever wanted as a Doobie fan, with extended takes on Long Train Runnin’ and China Grove driving the crowd further into nostalgia bliss. The encore was where they really laid it down, though, stomping out Black Water, a jubilant Takin’ It to the Streets, and the piece de resistance, Listen to the Music. The capper? A cover of Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic, which is both fitting – the band always incorporated a lot of the Dan in their sound – and definitely cool. Still crazy after all these years? Maybe not, but they can still surprise.
The Doobie Brothers
When: Tuesday night
Where: Rogers Place