Few artists embody the spirit of the American heartland quite as much as Bob Seger. While others- John Fogerty, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty- can lay equal claim to creating that distinctively American take on classic rock, only the Ann Arbor, Michigan native has the advantage of being born and raised in the Middle America between the coasts.
By a remarkable coincidence, on a trip to visit my partner’s family in New Mexico., at lunch I heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend (apologies to another Mid-West institution) that the man himself with his Silver Bullet Band was in town the next day. As he hasn’t been to the UK in nigh on 40 years, and is now 73 and on a farewell tour, this was a must see opportunity and luckily we were able to buy tickets.
With the Tingley Coliseum having an 11,000 capacity, this promised to be a more intimate occasion than the only previous time I had seen them, four years ago in an enormodome in Phoenix. However, originally built for state fair rodeos in the fifties, it is now horribly dated and I counted our blessings we were on the floor as many of the tiered seats had pillars obstructing the view.
They opened with ‘Shakedown’, which bizarrely was his only US no 1 single, but despite the atypical eighties movie soundtrack pop-funk groove, the Silver Bullet Band were already into their intuitive stride with the four man horn section prominent, then a piano intro to a more typical classic in ‘Still the Same’ was reassuring.
Making no concessions to image, a t-shirted Bob then pulled his bouffant silver hair into a headband which stayed in place all set, giving him the air of the leader of a seniors fitness class as he energetically worked the sides of the crowd during the more up-tempo ‘The Fire Down Below’, before ‘Mainstreet’ with its soothing sax break from the flamboyant looking longtime bandmate Alto Reed, and one of the few times an image was projected onto the back screen in a well lit but no frills stage presentation. ‘Old Time Rock n Roll’ then get several moving in a mixed age crowd.
Recognising it was his farewell tour, a couple of times Bob mentioned songs had been reintroduced to the set after a gap of 30 odd years, including another atypical big hit in the countryish ‘Shame on the Moon’ and ‘You’ll Accompan’y Me’. These weren’t obscure songs but the clear purpose of this tour was to create a legacy, some short anecdotes about the origins of most songs adding to this impression. Four years ago in Phoenix a diverse set included showcasing his then new album- this time it was a pure Greatest Hits and it was hard to think of a major number that wasn’t played.
The Silver Bullet Band, numbering 14 by my reckoning, delivered some extremely tight and disciplined ensemble playing, best showcased on the muscular, R’n’B influenced ‘Come to Poppa’ and ‘Her Strut’. It was notable how, when introducing them, Bob rolled off the awards won by so many of the session musicians and backing singers in the band alongside long-time stalwarts such as bassist Chris Campbell.
While for the most part up-tempo, at no stage was the music heavy riff-based rock. As well as the horn section much of the sound was created by long-time band member Craig Frost and Jim ‘Moose’ Brown as they swapped between two giant keyboards, epitomised by the piano providing a rolling rhythm to the likes of ‘The Fire Inside’, and ‘Roll Me Away’. Lead guitarist Rob McNelley was very impressive though with his concise solos and in particular with some great slide playing during ‘Like a Rock’ which showed his award winning Nashville pedigree.
What was most admirable was that there were no set pieces or long instrumental solos to allow the Septuagenarian to catch his breath, but instead a fast-paced two hour plus set. At the risk of being harsh, on the up-tempo numbers his voice was perhaps not as gruff and powerful as on that pair of classic live albums we all grew up with.
But in contrast the slower material was delivered with as much warmth and feeling as ever, notably when he took to piano for ‘We’ve Got Tonight’. After rocking out with ‘Travelin Man’ which segued seamlessly into ‘Beautiful Loser’, he returned to piano for a quite superb ‘Turn the Page’, with the haunting sax intro and mid-song breaks from Alto receiving the biggest cheer yet of the evening.
Bob then paid tribute to close friend and Michiganite Glenn Frey and in the surprise of the evening covered Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’- the montage of Glenn and other recently departed rock stars was a moving example of how we are gradually losing a generation, plus, in my view, a Dylan song always sounds better when sung by someone else. He then mentioned the brief time Glenn played with him as they went right back to the start with a lively ‘Ramblin Gamblin Man’ to close the main set.
With Bob back playing acoustic guitar, the encore opened with a perhaps lesser known song ‘In your Time’ written for his then young son for the ‘Greatest Hits’ album, which made it probably the most recent of the set at about 25 years old; before another of his warm-hearted classics in ‘Against the Wind’. Shouting ‘lets go on a road trip to Hollywood’, with a backdrop to match, Bob worked the crowd during ‘Hollywood Nights’, occupying the same anthemic rabble rousing role ‘Born to Run’ does in a Springsteen show.
However despite the rush for the exits the gig was far from over with a second encore. For the last, but not the first time in the evening, I had a ‘I’d forgotten he did this one as well’ moment with ‘Night Moves’ before traditional closer ‘Rock and Roll Never Forgets’ with the band loosening up and jamming, after which he took his leave in a typically low key fashion without any emotional farewell speeches.
In any walk of life, the best time to retire is while still being able to perform, to depart with dignity at a time of your choosing and to go out on a high note. On every account Bob Seger and his band succeeded. It was a privilege to witness this legend and may he have a long and fulfilling retirement.
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
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