Kenny Loggins notched another feather in his cap Monday night when he opened for himself at The Kent Stage.
The balladeer and blockbuster movie musician is now a full-time member of the country rock super-group Blue Sky Riders, whose self-released debut Finally Home is one of the year’s biggest surprises.
The trio—which also features the husband-wife team of Gary Burr and Georgia Middleman—performed eight tracks from the disc before Loggins took fans on a nostalgic (but electrifying) ninety-minute trip through the past with some of his greatest hits.
Burr first hooked up with Loggins on the latter’s 2008 album How About Now. It wasn’t long before the pair realized they had a special dynamic—one whose output couldn’t be repurposed to another Loggins solo effort. When Kenny suggested bringing a female singer aboard for a proposed new band, Burr didn’t have far to look. His then-girlfriend Middleman—a respected songsmith in her own right—was a perfect fit with her powerful pipes and charismatic stage presence.
Burr told the Kent crowd that most of the Blue Sky Rider songs are “themes” touch that on their musical friendship. The upbeat “I’m a Rider (Finally Home)” celebrated their initial collaboration. Loggins said the tender “Another Spring” was about how people rebound from emotional pain, like foliage after a California wildfire. Middleman recalled composing “Little Victories” for “anybody struggling out there”—and as a personal catharsis shortly after her father’s passing. She commented how lonely she felt in a Facebook post—only to find her “wall” flooded with sympathies the next morning.
“That’s when I realized I wasn’t so alone,” she said.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the stunning Middleman feeling isolated in any manner, judging from her command at center-stage. The petite brunette was an eyeful in black, rocking on heels (in red socks!) while strumming acoustic guitar, belting verses, and adding to the group’s gorgeous three-part harmonies. The native Texan has penned songs for Faith Hill, Martina McBride, and Reba McIntyre—but can sing as well as any of ‘em.
Georgia’s bearded hubby, Gary, is an ASCAP Songwriter of the Year and 2005 Country Music Songwriter Hall of Fame inductee. He’s racked up over twenty top ten hits and a dozen #1’s in his prolific career, including Juice Newton’s “Love’s Been a Little Bit Hard On Me.” Burr’s also worked with Carole King, Ringo Starr, and Richard Marx—and had Keith Urban, Shawn Colvin, and Jack Blades (Night Ranger, Damn Yankees) guest on his own albums.
But success hasn’t gone to Burr’s head. The Nashville hit-maker revealed himself the Riders’ resident funnyman with his between-song banter, during which he recalled autographing everything from T-shirts and CDs to babies and puppies. He mentioned that one overenthusiastic male concertgoer had Middleman sign his “man boobs.”
“Any of you guys out there in Polo shirts that pull up, you’re in for a real treat!” Burr joked.
The musicians accompanying the Riders were all-stars, too—and performed double-duty with Loggins by backing him later. Jazz-trained Tom Brechtlein (Chick Corea, Al DiMeola) kept time on his Yamaha drums and Sabian cymbals without sacrificing style. Bassist (and opera tenor) Shem von Schoeckle (Ambrosia, Steve Perry) also played the occasional keyboard part. In-demand session vet Scott Bernard handled lead guitar, tweaking stellar solos from a sunburst-stained axe and a bit ‘o bottleneck slide blues on a sea foam-colored Strat.
Watch Blue Sky Riders perform “Dream” Live at The Rutledge: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bXFOQOjhLHc&feature=player_detailpage
The singers’ voices sparkled on “You’re Not the Boss of Me” and “Just Say Yes,” drawing an ovation. Burr teased that everyone—band and audience alike—knew they’d return for an encore or two (or “Song A” and “Song B,” as he called them), so they dispensed with the false exit and callback, staying put for the eloquent “Dream” and a rollicking bluegrass cover of The Beatles’ “Help!” (with Burr on mandolin).
One of The Riders’ first gigs together took place at Kent’s historic, theater-style venue last September, noted Middleman, who thanked the Ohioans on hand for spreading the word and forking up for second helpings of BSR. It’s telling that two of Nashville’s most gifted writers hedged their bets, keeping these new nuggets for themselves rather than hawking ‘em to the highest bidder. The inherent risk testifies to their belief in the authenticity of the matchup and the music behind it. The chemistry Middleman and Burr enjoyed onstage with Loggins was immediate, effortless, and palpable—wonderfully organic—and a stark contrast to today’s sterile pop and its manufactured marionettes.
Now in his fifth decade as a consummate entertainer, Loggins remains a musical chameleon whose songwriting chops, instrumental skills, vocal range, and intuition have afforded him more bites at the apple his contemporaries. The guy has nothing left to prove, yet the Santa Barbara soft-rocker keeps swaggering through the swinging saloon doors of public consciousness every couple years with that confident “Look what I did” twinkle in his eyes. As ever, it behooves listeners to lend the Caddyshack crooner’s new material an ear.
Following a brief intermission, Kenny kicked off his Kent headlining set with the acoustic gems “Danny’s Song” and “Return to Pooh Corner.” Loggins prefaced each by explaining how—or why—he wrote them: The latter number saw the young artist clash with Disney lawyers in 1970 over his usage of the A.A. Milne bear in song (Fortunately, he was dating the daughter of a Disney executive at the time). Both sounded sweet in stripped-down, “unplugged” format, with Bernard supplementing Loggins’ acoustic guitar with his own and Von Schroeck chiming in on background vocals. Kenny deliberately left some the “count all the bees in the hive / chase all the clouds from the sky” lines for the audience, who took up the slack willingly.
The shuffling, pseudo-samba “Wait a Little While” dipped back to 1978’s Nightwatch. It also featured acoustic guitars—but Bernard indulged in some funky finger-style and artificial harmonics as Loggins ignited his signature falsetto. Introducing “This Is It,” Loggins recalled how he and co-writer Michael McDonald avoided one another after topping the charts together with “What a Fool Believes,” dreading a sophomore slump. Loggins suggested they overcome their anxiety by just writing some throwaway “piece of shit”—which turned out to be another Grammy-winner (dedicated to Loggins’ father, who was forced to confront his mortality pre-surgery). The band rendered the “Redwoods” version of the tune (a la Loggins’s 1993 live album), substituting the original’s keyboards with gritty guitars and a funky bass line. Bernard and Brechtlein fielded McDonald’s husky vocals, augmenting Kenny’s cascading lead.
Watch Blue Sky Riders perform “Feelin’ Brave” at SXSW 2013:
Loggins dusted off the dog-centric “Moose ‘n’ Me” from his 2009 children’s project, All Join In, and got the Kent constituency barking and singing along. He spoke of enjoining Stevie Nicks to duet with him on 1978’s “Whenever I Call You Friend” after he provided tour support for Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours tour—but it was Middleman who strode back onstage to tackle the Bella Donna’s high notes. “Angry Eyes” dipped into the Loggins / Messina catalog for some of the evening’s most spellbinding guitar work, courtesy Bernard. Von Schroeck thumped his five-string to Brechtlein’s strident rhythm—which was punctuated by cowbell during a protracted jam section.
Kenny went guitar-less on a passionate “Celebrate Me Home,” bringing down the house by wandering out into it with his wireless microphone. Fans broke out cameras and cell phones to steal shots as Loggins marched methodically up down an aisle and into a middle row, where he perched himself on someone’s seat and scatted through the gospel-tinged refrain. Returning to his cohorts onstage under the hazy, pastel lights (mounted on faux pillars), the star revisited 1991’s eco-conscious Leap of Faith with “Conviction of The Heart,” welcoming back both Middleman and Burr for the anthemic chorus.
Loggins could have stopped there and sent fans home happy, but he returned with his ensemble for a movie medley encore (“Danger Zone,” “Playing with the Boys,” “Footloose”) that finally got the boomer-dominated crowd on its feet.
It was a remarkable show by any measure, and more so when one considers how faithful Loggins’s four-man rock band recreations were to his highly-nuanced, meticulously-layered studio versions (particularly the synth-laden keyboard ‘80s hits). The multiplatinum musician may be in his ‘60s, but he hasn’t lost any depth, control, or lungpower. And his James Taylor-esque acoustic guitar flourishes still beguile, warming souls and planting that ol’ familiar lump in the throat.
By all means, Loggins disciples should pick up the Blue Sky Riders disc and pencil in the date when he brings his new friends to town. If you dig Loggins / Messina, Lonestar, Rascal Flatts, or Dixie Chicks, you’ll certainly delight in Kenny’s latest brew.
Twitter @blueskyriders @kennyloggins @gmiddleman @garyburr @sjbguitar