Live Rock: The Steve Miller Band and Los Lobos at the Greek Theatre

By Mike Finkelstein

On Sunday night, the Greek Theater presented an attractive double bill featuring the Steve Miller Band and Los Lobos to a near capacity audience. This was a show that targeted the legions of classic rock fans who have typically attended a lot of concerts and rock shows for most of their lives.

Like many headlining bands SMB used a huge banner to accentuate their entrance, emerging from behind a star covered Space Cowboy image that covered the stage from top to bottom.  While many bands use huge two dimensional banners as backdrops, Miller has raised the bar up a notch with a very clever 3 dimensional spiral galaxy of guitars.  Dozens of bigger-than-life- to life- sized photos of Miller’s personal guitar collection plunged into a musical vortex behind a beautifully scaled, 30 foot sculpture of an Fender Stratocaster neck and headstock, detailed with colorized strings and spotlight tuning heads.  Fender must surely be elated by this arresting presentation.

Steve Miller

Miller and his cohorts hit the stage energetically, launching into “Jet Airliner,” one of many hits in their long and FM-friendly career.  Throughout the evening Miller wove together a whole grip of hits — “Take the Money and Run,” “Abracadabra,” and “The Joker” — with some very tasty, familiar blues and r & b covers such as “Mercury Blues,” “Come On,” and “I just Can’t be Satisfied,” keeping the show at a fresh pace.   The band had an unorthodox lineup for most of the night, with two guitars, drums and keys, without a bass guitar.   But the sound never suffered as keyboardist Joseph Wooten smoothly handled the bass lines with his left hand.   On songs like “Shubadadumama,” which features several quick and funky signature bass runs, Kenny Lee Lewis switched from rhythm guitar to five string bass and had it covered.   Drummer Gordy Knudtsen was steady and popping all night, too.

Miller’s songs are at times rich in vocal layering and for this reason he has wisely hired the talented Sonny Charles to sing backups, harmonies and unisons with him onstage.  Charles’ voice is tailored to fit with Miller’s parts, particularly the unisons, and he is such a good blues vocalist that Miller, to his credit, turned the reigns over to him at times.   On several of the covers, like “Further On Up The Road,” Charles just nailed it.  Interestingly, Miller brought a pre teen-aged prodigy from his music school Kids Rock for Free onstage for “Rockin’ Me” and  “Fly Like An Eagle” at the end of the show.  The kid could really play, trading leads with Miller and playing in a rocker’s stance.   Miller was clearly delighted to see the boy get off on guitar in front of a full house, though one song would have gotten the message over just as well.

At the age of 66 and in the music business for more than 43 years, stories develop and fellow musicians pass on.  Recently, Miller lost two very close friends and reconnected with another.  Norton Buffalo played harmonica in the SMB for 33 years and died suddenly of cancer in October, 2009.  For his brother in harmony Miller played “Wild Mountain Honey” solo on acoustic guitar.  Les Paul, who died in August 2009, was Miller’s godfather and the best man at his father’s wedding.   Miller had known and learned from Paul for his entire life.  He dedicated the moving standard “Nature Boy” to him.   On a different note, SM told the story of an exemplary Martin 12-string guitar that had gotten away from him, stolen by an airline worker in 1980. It was actually returned to him 3 years ago by the FBI!   He played a simply beautiful, if obscure, song of his named “Seasons” on it.

Steve Miller Band

Miller’s material is shrewdly constructed using a lot of basic blues voicings. Most of his songs are stylized to feature simple rhyming lyrics about love and harmony that are meant to be sung along to the radio.  The bass lines are warm and often walk all over the place.   The drums are big but not over the top and very crisp.  The guitar lines and textures complement each other beautifully.

But guitar playing is really Miller’s calling card.  Alternating between Strats and Les Pauls to get a rich warm tone, Miller made it all look very easy.   Nor did he depend on a distorted sound to make his points..  His sound was basically clean and sustained, though he did use some delay in places on tunes such as “Fly Like An Eagle.” His style, honed over many years, is rooted in the nuances of the blues.   Like so many good blues players he says more with less, emphasizing the tone and subtlety of a phrase. Since he wore aviation sunglasses all night, we never did see his eyes.  And it appeared that he wasn’t big on facial contortions, either.

Anyone who was around in the mid ‘70’s and listened to FM rock radio undoubtedly heard all of Miller’s hits to the point of saturation.  A catchy song can become so familiar as to create a bit of a backlash at the time.  But there’s nothing like passing time to allow an old song to bring back memories of what we were doing when the song was all over the airwaves.   This was the case with Miller’s Sunday performance.  It’s also worth noting that in his prime, the vinyl LP was the main medium for listening to recorded music.  A 12-inch album cover is a much better format for looking at cool album art than a 5 inch jewel box CD.  His lush air brushed album covers of the time definitely dovetailed with his use of synthesizers to create a spacy mood that many people embraced then.  As he told us in “The Joker” he is… “A midnight toker.”   And so it was back in the day.

Los Lobos

The show was opened by the legendary East LA band Los Lobos, who have been together since 1973.  The band’s front five — Cesar Rojas, David Hidalgo, Conrad Lozano, Louie Perez, and Steve Berlin — are as versatile a band as one could hope to find, and they covered a lot of musical ground in a little less than an hour.  From big beat Texas blues, to 50’s boogie-woogie rock and roll, to traditional Tejano (Texas/Mexico) music, to bluesy ballads and tight jangly pop they touched on all of it.

Rojas and Hidalgo both played guitar and traded off or combined their lead vocals from song to song.  Their voices mesh famously, with Rojas’ being lower and slightly more gravelly than Hidalgo’s smooth and higher voice.  Having these two contrasting vocal timbres available was one of the reasons they were able to take things in so many different directions.  Hidalgo is a fine lead player, too, and his leads were clean and articulate each time through. Rojas and Hidalgo were supported in style by Perez on third guitar and the steady grooving Lozano on bass.   To watch Lozano play was to watch a man dialed into the connection between his bass and __his band.   The way he walked it, let it growl and drove the band with it personified smoothness.  At the far end of the stage, Berlin skillfully colored each song, mostly honking the baritone sax but also rotating on tenor sax and keyboards.

Los Lobos could easily have headlined at the Greek.  As it was, they cruised through a quickly paced, very well played set.  Their catalogue of songs is as extensive as it is impressive and while they touched on many areas of what they do, they left the crowd wanting more.   Songs like “Shakin,’ Shakin,’ Shakes” and “Evangeline” (with its ‘50s structure and boogie woogie bass line) rocked, plain and simple.   “Evangeline” in particular, came across with a power and style that only Los Lobos could deliver.  Similarly, but on a completely different musical path, the haunting and beautifully evocative “Kiko and the Lavender Moon” went over beautifully, enhanced by the harmonies between Hidalgo’s accordion and Berlin’s keyboard. “Will the Wolf Survive?” a beautifully crafted bit of jangling guitars and vocal harmony recorded in the early 80’s, still sounds phenomenal, with Hidalgo’s voice as expressive as it was 26 years ago.  “The Neighborhood” allowed him to cut loose and play some great, biting blues, and the show ended with a quick but rocking medley of  “La Bamba” and “Good Lovin’.”   So much talent and material, yet too little time.

Even so, on this clear summer night, in the Greek’s remarkably pleasant, mountainside setting, Los Lobos left us with a memorable stanza of “The Neighborhood” -– words to live by which the band continued to sing as the song cooled down:

Thank you Lord for another day

Help my brother along his way

And please bring peace to the neighborhood…”

To read more of Mike Finkelstein’s reviews cliick here.


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