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Concert review: The Doobie Brothers take it to San Tan Valley

The Doobie Brothers in concert, April 5, 2014, San Tan Valley, AZ
The Doobie Brothers in concert, April 5, 2014, San Tan Valley, AZ
Becky Hansen

The Doobie Brothers in concert, April 5, 2014, San Tan Valley, AZ

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When Tom Johnston, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter/co-founder of The Doobie Brothers, was asked in a recent interview if playing outdoors was a different experience than playing indoors, he responded, “Yes. It affects the crowd and how they think and their perception of the music. I think it puts a better vibe on the entire concert.” On Saturday night, April 5, 2014 at the Good Life Festival at the Encanterra Country Club in San Tan Valley, a sold out, outdoor crowd, proved Johnston correct.

The Doobie Brothers in concert, April 5, 2014, San Tan Valley, AZ
The Doobie Brothers in concert, April 5, 2014, San Tan Valley, AZ
Becky Hansen

For ninety five minutes, the Doobie Brothers pushed back the clock for those in attendance and the vibe was electric. At least it was for the thousands that stood, clapped, danced (in sections where it was allowed anyway), swayed and sang to the Doobie Brothers’ music. The audience came to listen to the music. They interacted a whole lot more.

Those that came expecting to hear songs exclusively from the Michael McDonald, soft rock, blue eyed soul era of the Doobie Brothers might have been surprised at the energy on stage. The set’s only nod to McDonald’s music was “Takin’ It to the Streets” and “Depending on You,” a song co-written with The Doobie Brothers’ co-founder/guitarist/vocalist/songwriter, Patrick Simmons.

Instead, the night belonged to the variety of musical styles penned by Johnston and Simmons. If your taste in music included rock and roll, rhythm and blues, funk and country, you were covered.

As it is on the band’s 1972 release, “Toulouse Street,” a pair of vintage Tom Johnston tunes, “Jesus is Just Alright,” and “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” started out the evening. Unlike the last time the Doobie Brothers came to Phoenix, when the audience was appreciative, but sedate, the crowd was up and clapping. For both songs, Johnston, Simmons and guitarist John McFee, who joined The Doobie Brothers in 1979, each had a brief guitar solo, a trend that would continue throughout almost every song played during the night.

In addition to the blazing guitar work Johnston, Simmons and McFee exhibited, the harmonies the group sang were flawless. Although the singing of Simmons and Johnston, who took turns sharing lead vocals throughout the set, were admirable, when the group broke out their 3 or more part harmony, it was spine tingling.

A solid example was found in “Clear As The Driven Snow,” from The Doobies Brothers’ 1973 album, “The Captain and Me.” Simmon’s quiet, acoustic guitar and vocals supplemented by the group’s harmonies that begin the song gave way to the madcap jam that comprises the second half of the song. Why the Doobie Brothers use two drummers, Ed Toth and Tony Pia, is evident by the fullness they gave the song’s conclusion. As all three guitarists cut loose, the smiles on their faces indicated that they, like the audience, were having a great time.

Many may not know this but they should, in 2010 The Doobie Brothers released an album of new music called “World Gone Crazy.” Had the band not gone in a different direction, “World Gone Crazy” would have been a fitting follow-up to 1975’s album, “Stampede.” The band played two songs off the new album, the catchy “A Brighter Day,” and the title track “World Gone Crazy.” Both songs showed that Johnston’s song writing skills are as strong as ever. With the help of keyboardist, Guy Allison, saxophonist, Marc Russo, and an infectious chorus, the latter song brought several audience members up and dancing.

To determine “how many rednecks where out there,” Simmons let his country side shine with “Neal’s Fandango” off of 1975’s “Stampede,” album. With Simmons guitar and McFee’s pedal steel guitar work, it was not hard to imagine what The Doobie Brothers’ upcoming project, an album of their music performed in collaboration with some of country’s biggest acts, might sound like.

Simmons and McFee continued their own collaboration with an acoustic guitar duet of “Slack Key Soquel Rag,” before McFee returned to the pedal steel guitar for Simmons’ “South City Midnight Lady.” More than one person uttered “beautiful,” while listening, with the live version surpassing the already near perfect studio version.

Johnston then exclaimed that they “gotta lift it up a bit,” and the band did so with the funk like driven “Eyes of Silver.” Johnston’s guitar work for the song would have been right at home on a Sly and the Family Stone album.

Bass player, John Cowan, channeled his inner Michael McDonald for “Takin’ It to the Streets,” before the band took a short number from “Toulouse Street,” “Don’t Start Me to Talkin,” and turned it into a show stopping jam. The great rhythm and blues number allowed each band member to shine. Johnston, Simmons and McFee once again showed off their guitar playing abilities, Allison delighted with his keyboard and saxophone player Mark Russo got the crowd into it as well. At this point it was difficult to tell who was having more fun, the band or the audience.

As Simmons sang “Arizona moon won’t you keep on shinin’ on me,” the lunar light obliged and the crowd helped Simmons out with the lyrics to “Black Water.” McFee went from one side of the stage to the other with his violin before both the audience and the band joyfully sang out “I'd like to hear some funky Dixieland, pretty mama come take me by the hand.”

After finishing the regular set with the hard rocking, “Long Train Running,” anything less than a three song encore would have been a disappointment. Upon returning to the stage, the band began with a jam that turned into the familiar chords that introduce “China Grove.” The crowd erupted. The fist-pumping, “Road Angel,” was a great addition back into the set list. And nobody leaves a Doobie Brothers’ concert without engaging in the biggest sing–a-long of the night, “Listen to the Music.”

As Johnston said in his interview, “I have nothing against playing inside whatsoever, but there are two distinct feelings when you’re playing outside and when you’re playing inside.” Outside, everybody is having a really good time and they are pushing themselves up. It’s a little bit of freedom I guess.”

Outdoors, on a Saturday night in San Tan Valley, the Doobie Brothers once again proved that as good as they are inside on whatever method you now listen to your music, or playing live, indoors, nothing is better than seeing them perform live outside. If you get the chance, don’t just listen to the music. Enjoy your freedom and let yourself go.

Set list: Jesus Is Just Alright | Rockin’ Down The Highway | Take Me In Your Arms | Depending on You | Clear As The Driven Snow | A Brighter Day | World Gone Crazy | Neal’s Fandango | Slack Key Soquel Rag | South City Midnight Lady | Eyes of Silver | Takin’ It To The Streets | Don’t Start Me To Talkin’ | Black Water | Long Train Running | Encore: China Grove | Road Angel | Listen To The Music