Long train fizzles (Doobie Brothers)
by Seth Rogovoy

(PITTSFIELD, Mass., July 20, 2004) – Underneath skies that miraculously cleared just an hour before showtime, the Doobie Brothers served up the second helping of mid-Seventies nostalgia in this summer’s nostalgia-oriented Berkshire Music Glen concert series at Bousquet on Monday night.

In front of a laid-back crowd that appeared a few hundred stronger than the one that showed up for the series’ previous concert by K.C. and the Sunshine Band – but thousands short of the much-touted sellout predicted by promoters in pre-concert promotion – the 11-piece band entertained the crowd with a selection of greatest hits, new songs, and a few obscurities from the group’s 35-year-old catalog of tunes.

In a nod to the ensemble’s roots as the house band for a Hell’s Angels gang, the group’s entrance was heralded by the sound of motorcycles revving their engines, leading into “Rockin’ Down the Highway.” The number unfortunately set the tone for the next 90 minutes of music with a bottom-heavy sound mix, big on fuzzy, distorted bass lines and hyperactive snare drums, punctuated on top by the group’s three-man horn section and its trademark, three- and four-part harmonies.

Curiously lost in the mix on this and subsequent numbers was the group’s trademark rhythm guitar riffs. While the lead turns by guitarists Pat Simmons, Tom Johnston and John McPhee cut through the densely textured wall of sound, the Doobies’ patented, crunching guitar riffs – the ones that powered a thousand bar bands in its wake – were hidden to the point of being non-existent, as if they had forgotten to plug in their amplifiers.

For fans of those riffs, it was a huge disappointment, and perhaps that was a factor in the vast majority of the crowd’s resolution in sticking fast to their seats until “Long Train Runnin’,” commonly called “Without Love,” the final number of the main set before the encore. The tune began with Johnston’s memorable riff played a cappella for a few measures, sending a palpable, visceral whiff of heavily-scented nostalgic energy through the crowd, which finally got up on its feet and came alive. The crowd’s response was infectious, and the band came alive too, with Johnston and others leaving their set positions in their otherwise stiff formation for the first time all evening. Then it was time to say goodbye before the obligatory encore that included “China Grove” and yet another of the concert’s gratuitous saxophone solos.

Otherwise, the group played a poorly-paced, mixed bag of tunes that highlighted the band’s diversity. There was a feel of summertime Americana about the show, “South City Midnight Lady” nodding to Eagles-like country-rock, “Jesus Is Just Alright” contributing a bit of gospel, and “Take Me in Your Arms” touching on Motown. The band also threw in some Chicago blues and even a duet of Hawaiian slack-key guitar music, which seemed even more like filler live than it does on record.

While Johnston still boasted a good set of pipes, Simmons, who once owned the gorgeous alto that sang “Black Water,” has apparently lost his for good, his voice now just a thin, reedy shell of what it once was, wavery in pitch and utterly lacking in dynamics and heft. While Monday’s “Black Water” got off to a lush start with some gorgeous acoustic fingerpicking, it soon meandered due to Simmons’ vocal weaknesses and the overfueled rhythms of the group’s overpowering rhythm section – two full-kit drummers plus a percussionist and a bassist whose bottom end obliterated the song’s delicate textures.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 21, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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