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Chicago/Doobie Brothers, Comfort Dental Amphitheater, Denver, June 23, 2010
My law pardner walks into my office and suggests that we go see the Doobie Brothers and Chicago. “They’re playing right across the street,” he says. That’s true, the “Comfort Dental Amphitheater” is right across the street from our office making attendance at a weekday concert ridiculously simple. (Who thought that putting the word “dental” into the name of an entertainment venue could possibly be a good idea?) The idea is intriguing. My pardner and I have done that before in years past with Jeff Beck, B.B. King and Steely Dan. The Doobie Brothers were one of the great rock bands of the 70s and provided a big part of my high school and college soundtrack. Chicago? Well, they had their moments; moments of brilliance and moments of insipid schlock. But they’re both right across the street, so why not?
Now comfortable in the dental amphitheater, we debate which band will be on first. All the ads I saw had Chicago on top and Doobie Brothers below indicating that Doobies will be first. But the Doobies are far and away the best band, so they should headline. Suddenly the somewhat uninspired PA music switches to some original Robert Johnson. That’s weird, the delta blues in the midst of the all the comforting dental work?
Just as suddenly, the Doobie Brothers are on the stage launching into a rocker from their Stampede album, “Take Me in Your Arms, Rock Me.” Stampede wasn’t their best album, but this is one of the better songs from it. That was also the last album before Michael McDonald joined the band and sent it plummeting music-wise and accelerating sales-wise. Tom Johnston, the main man from the Stampede-and-before days is front and center singing and playing guitar. Michael McDonald is nowhere to be seen or heard. The harmonies sound good, except the backing vocals on this tune go “Take me, take me, take me.” The album version features a chorus of chick singers singing that line. I always liked that. Now a bunch of guys are singing “Take me, take me, take me.” Yeah the harmonies are spot on, but we’ve definitely lost something in the translation.
“Take Me in Your Arms” ends and the distinctive “Do do do do do do do do” from “Jesus Is Just Alright” starts. At this point it’s obvious Tom Johnston got his band back. Hallelujah! The Michael McDonald takeover of the Doobie Brothers was one of the tragedies of 70s rock. They went from a rockin’ guitar driven band with a biker attitude to a far too civilized pop/soul sound. Their second, third and fourth albums, Toulouse Street, The Captain and Me and What Were Once Vices are Now Habits stand as three of the best 70s rock albums. Now here’s Tom Johnston back in control doing a tune from Toulouse Street. Redemption! Plus, there’s the memories attached to these songs; like how this one was played at high school dances and how the slow section in the middle was a great excuse to grab your date and hug and munch a little bit.
That song ends and now they’re explaining they have a new album coming out in a couple months. Uh oh, here we go with some new stuff nobody’s heard and nobody cares to hear. The first one of the new tunes turns out to be a remake of an old tune “Nobody” from their first album. That album wasn’t too great, but that song is and we used to play it on KTCL back in the day. (“The Day” being defined as 1978 to 1982). The next two tunes from the new album are catchy and pleasant, but really, let’s get back to the hits. The band accommodates (sort of) with a Pat Simmons (who is on stage tonight) tune from the Captain and Me, “Clear as the Driven Snow,” not a hit, but a great song from a great album. It reminds me of one reason I like music from this era; it has several different sections, almost like movements in a mini symphony. Sweet. That song ends and Johnston walks to center stage and starts talking about the blues. He even calls Denver “Home of the Blues.” Ha! Pretty funny Tom. Yeah we like blues, but “Home of the Blues?” compared to the Mississippi Delta, Chicago, Memphis? Pretty funny. The Doobies weren’t really known as a blues band (which could account for Johnston’s confusion), but of course most of their music uses the blues as a basis. They launch into “Don’t Start Me To Talkin’” from Toulouse Street. It’s a song that was written by Sonny Boy Williamson (the first one or the second one? I don’t know, doesn’t matter, they are both legitimate blues guys). Nice; the Doobies specifically pay homage to the blues. Next up they do kind of a doo-wop piece I can’t quite place, but the vocal harmonies are great.
Next the band starts to pull out some acoustic instruments including a violin; gotta be time for “Black Water.” Sure enough, here we go, complete with the sing-along portion toward the end. Now we’re hearing “Long Train Runnin’,” another tune, this one a hit, from the Captain and Me. It’s getting exciting now. Then we hear the distinctive power chords of “China Grove,” another Captain and Me classic and a bone fide rock anthem. Is that the closer? No, next it’s “Without You,” yet another from the Captain and Me, see I told you that was a great album. Then they walk off the stage and the roadies swarm indicating no encore. Dang, there are still some hits out there.
During the set change law pardner and I try to brace ourselves for Chicago. We both know “Colour My World” is inevitable and we do our best to try to accept our fate. Despite the classy English spelling of “Colour” that song still blows. I hope for several tunes from their first album, when they were known as the Chicago Transit Authority, before the real CTA sued them to make them change their name. That first record was a double album with all kinds of great songs on it. Some were hits that were pretty good and there were others that rocked, others that were bluesy and others that had a pretty serious jazz influence. Check the attachment; “Introduction,” the first song on their first album.
It’s only a 15 minute intermission and Chicago is on with “Make Me Smile.” That one’s not too bad, it has a nice horn part. That’s actually a reason to like Chicago; their horn section and tonight, the three horns, trumpet, sax and trombone are right down front and center. Yeah, there’s some respect for the horns! Just as I’m getting comfortable with both my own dental work and the horns front and center, the song morphs into “Colour My World!” At least we’ll get it out of the way early. Nevertheless, I can’t help but remember how the high school cheerleaders that organized the school dances loved this song and wanted to keep using it as the theme for those dances. Ug, enough already. At this point in the concert, I’m thinking somebody needs to start shaking a rugalator. Fat chance.
The next tune, “Dialogue (We Can Make It Happen)” gets it back in gear a little bit with some more horn work and cool syncopation. By now it’s obvious that Chicago’s vocals haven’t survived the decades as well as the Doobies’ vocals. A big reason for that is that Chicago has lost two of their three original primary vocalists. The other weird thing is that the guys that are singing are using Brittney Spears-style headset-mics so it’s hard to see who’s singing since they don’t need to walk up to a mic stand. And speaking of weird, I swear, there’s a midget on the far right side of the stage playing an acoustic guitar; left handed. WTF?!? No one in the band says a word about the midget and the video cameras never go over there so we can’t get a good look at him on the screen.
The song ends and somebody in the band is talking about their website and how they’re raising money to fight breast cancer. Well, I’m all for that, but then I hear something about how somebody won a contest or contributed the most money and he’s going to sing now. Uh oh. Some guy wanders out on stage with a wireless mic and starts warbling “If You Leave Me Now.” This one isn’t any better than “Colour My World” (it doesn’t even have any cool spelling) and it’s being performed karaoke style. Yikes! I keep telling myself that I knew there’d be times like this. No, wait, this is worse! I never anticipated karaoke! OK, OK, it’s for a good cause. But wait, I suddenly realize this is so bad it’s actually pretty hilarious. Law pardner and I pick up on the obvious farce and end up nearly falling out of our comfortable seats. The song mercifully concludes and the contest winner is escorted off stage under heavy police protection. Now we get “Call On Me,” not great, but at least not seriously offensive. That one ends and somebody announces that they’re going to do a medley from “Chicago 17.” Since I’m pretty sure that each succeeding Chicago album got worse than the prior one, this doesn’t bode well. The band starts playing something, but I don’t even recognize any of it. I suppose the good news is that this means I was successfully able to insulate myself from this stuff when it came out, whenever that was.
I’m starting to think of leaving. But I never leave a concert before it’s over. I have to write these reports. My public demands a full accounting. Plus, somebody said something about the Doobie Brothers coming back, so I’ll want to see that. About this time, the song ends and one guy straps on an acoustic guitar and starts in on the opening chords from “Beginnings” from the first album. At last! It’s not my first choice from the first album, but this is a good one. Things are looking up. I wonder if they’ll do the percussive ending that’s on the studio album. Nope, the song ends. Then, to my amazement, I hear the intro bass line to “I’m a Man,” another tune from the first album. This one is great rocker and minor FM hit way back when. The song starts with first the bass, then some percussion joins in, then a growly Hammond B-3 organ followed by an electric guitar, then the first lyric, “My daddy’s sentimental/’bout the whiskers on my chin.” Hmm, those lines sung by a guy in his 60s seem just a little…ironic. But it’s a great tune!! Yeah, we’re jammin’ now!
Well, of course, it can’t last. Now we get a fairly early hit “Just You ‘n’ Me,” another one that’s OK and at least isn’t too offensive. They follow that with one that’s slightly better, “Saturday, In the Park.” Look, the horns are still front and center. And the midget’s still playing that left handed acoustic guitar. Still no explanation on that one. Now they regress again with “All That We’ve Been Through.” Well, I’m sure at least some of the women in the audience like this one. I don’t. Now they pick it up again with another fairly early hit, “Feelin’ Stronger Everyday.” There’s another one that brings back memories. We kind of used this as an unofficial theme song for the high school cross country team. It also played pretty good in my head as I ran mile after mile. And then they were gone from the stage. Without a trace of a Doobie Brother. Well, the plan must be for them to join in the encore.
After a brief pause, both bands come to the stage. I count about 19 musicians (including the midget). That includes about 4 or 5 drummers, four horn players, three keyboard players, almost half a dozen guitarists and two bass players (they have to take turns). Their first tune is a Doobies’ rave up, “Rockin’ Down the Highway” from Toulouse Street. It’s a big sound. It’s a big band. It’s big fun. Now they’re doing a Chicago tune, “I Just Want to be Free,” with multi (too many to count) part harmony. The energy level is nearing the boiling point. Law pardner and I are so excited, we move down front. Of course we’re confronted with an amphitheater Nazi who thwarts our attempt to join the mosh pit right down front. We are however about 15 rows back from the stage and there’s some open spaces in the rows (everybody’s standing up, it’s so exciting), so we slip in. From here, I can get a better look at the midget who turns out to be an 8 to 10 year old boy. He must be somebody’s kid (or more likely, grandkid), but nobody specifically claims him.
Next we hear the only Doobies’ tune from the Michael McDonald era, “Takin’ It To The Streets” which was actually one of his better songs. It works. By now I see the pattern, we’ll get a Chicago tune next. Yessir, it’s another one from the first album, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is?” Nice. Now more Doobies: their first big hit, “Listen to the Music.” It sounds good with six guitars and four horns. That ends and the driving guitar part from “25 Or 6 To 4” rings out. This one cranks and all 19 players are into it, cookin’! That’s it. The double size band walks off the stage and I stroll back to my office.
Doobie Bros. Set List
Take Me in Your Arms
Jesus is Just Alright
World Gone Crazy
Clear as the Driven Snow
Don't Start Me Talkin’
Do Wop tune
Long Train Runnin’
Chicago Set List
Make Me Smile>
Color My World>
Make Me Smile
Dialogue (We Can Make it Happen)
If You Leave Me Now