Eagle Records/ Eagle Vision [Release date 25.05. 12]
Somebody once said that despite having sold over 40 million records The Doobie Brothers could probably walk into your local pub and nobody would recognise them. And while that is stretching a point – Pat Simmons’ long hair and Tommy Johnson’s moustache cut a pretty arresting double act – when confronted with an eleven piece band as on this live CD/DVD, you can see where the observation came from.
Simmons and Johnson remain the core members, while the two long standing drummers Keith Knudsen and Michael Hossack have both sadly died since this recording. Happily, multi-instrumentalist guitarist John McFee who joined in 1979 is still in great form adding light and shade to the band’s biker boogie palate.
The front line players are supplemented by Skylark on bass and vocals, who also subsequently quit touring because of a stroke. A 3 piece horn section, keyboard player and a percussionist, help bring one of rock’s strongest back catalogues to life in irrepressible style.
And what a catalogue it is. They inevitably save their best for last, as the rootsy ‘Black Water’, ‘Long Train Runnin’, ‘China Grove’ and ‘Without You’ all bristle with undiminished vitality. Their gospel tinged anthem ‘Listen To The Music’ has become a community sing-along, but there’s enough diversity, great playing and above all trademark harmonies to remind us why we originally liked the band in the first place. Put simply, even if you don’t know the faces, you instantly recognise their harmony driven west coast trucking sound.
On the evidence of this concert, long time fans might scratch their heads and wonder how there could ever have been a Doobie Brothers line-up without Tommy Johnson? He fronts the band with gusto and his signature voice. But that would be to forget about their second successful phase with white boy soul singer Michael McDonald, whose ‘Taking It To The Streets’ is handled well by both Pat Simmons and Skylark. For the rest, ‘Live At Wolf Trap’ is a return to the band rockaboogie harmony style with rootsy edges.
The Doobies make great use of 6 part harmonies, generously feature McFee’s multi instrumental versatility and use an endless supply of guitars, on a live and concise career resume. They go right back to the beginning with their first single ‘Nobody’, (now recorded three times) and give us two version of 1999’s ‘Dangerous’, their last song to hit the Top10.
The Johnson/Simmons axis still provides the perfect equilibrium, with Tommy providing the rocking blues bluster and Pat the rootsier end with occasional intricate finger picking, though Tommy’s southern sounding ‘Spirit’ also features McFee’s fiddle playing as part of a rocking groove.
The horn section punches above its weight on newer material like Johnson’s ‘People Gotta Love Again’. The song comes from their then current album ‘Sibling Rivalry’ and cleverly updates the Doobies original sound.
Simmons also has a great ear for a melody as evidenced by ‘Steamer Lane Breakdown’ – a lovely blend of finger picking, dobro and rolling piano – and he revisits the enduring Eagles sounding ‘South City Midnight Lady’ from ‘The Captain & Me’. He also enjoys a Hawaiian guitar duet on ‘Five Corners’ with the song’s co-writer McFee and slips into unplugged mode on ‘Rainy Day Crossroads Blues’. It’s back to electric for a harmony guitar duet with Johnson on ‘Neal’s Fandango’ which also benefits from McFee’s pedal steel. The really impressive thing is the way all the material fits the band’s mould with perhaps only the blues standard ‘Don’t Start Me Talkin’ being a filler.
‘Live At Wolf Trap’ finds a mature band with a real pedigree still apparently as enthusiastic as they were when they started, and Simmons’ ever present smile is confirmation of the optimism he radiates in a back stage interview on the bonus portion of the DVD.
With two hours of the best of the Doobies (they never seemed to play ‘Ukiah’), plus 3 festival clips and extensive interviews, ‘Live At Wolf Trap’ is an obvious alternative to their 1982 ‘Live at the Greek Theatre’ farewell tour.
12 years on, ‘Wolf Trap’ finds them a little older and a little wiser but still having much to offer. **** (4/5)
Review By Pete Feenstra
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