Inside the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, NJ on November 1, 2016, a few members of this sold-out house of 40- to 50-somethings can be seen gazing up at the domed ceiling with the painted blue sky and puffy white clouds surrounding the golden chandelier as they anticipate a special night of music. Some audience members look ahead at a stage set with drums, microphones, guitars, and keyboards, while still others in the packed house chat about great concerts they’ve experienced here at the Count Basie and elsewhere. All of these folks, however, have something in common at this moment in time in that they can palpably feel the excitement of getting to see the only 2016 New Jersey appearance of the legendary Steve Miller Band live and in concert.
Opening for the Steve Miller Band on this special night of music is folk/pop duo, Porter & Sayles — Chris Porter and Regina Sayles — both from Stroudsburg, PA. Chris appeared on Season 4 of NBC’s The Voice with solid performances that propelled him onto the music scene opening for acts like Gavin DeGraw and Avril Lavigne and performing at the Firefly Music Festival alongside groups including Imagine Dragons and Foo Fighters. Regina was known for her acoustic album, The Ann Street Session, and for her work as an opening act for Ani DiFranco. Porter and Sayles met performing on a joint bill in NYC in 2006, but in 2015 came together as a duo to release a cover version of Sheppard’s “Geronimo” and travel the country as part of Pat Benetar and Neil Giraldo’s 35th Anniversary Tour.
Opening with a catchy original tune, “You Had Me From Hello,” Porter & Sayles get the attention of the crowd — Chris with his warm baritone voice and guitar and Regina with her Natalie Maines-like spunky look and sound and folksy mandolin. Additional highlights of their set include “Dresser Drawer,” another original which features the duo’s soaring vocal harmonies, and a tune about which Porter informs the audience, “This one’s for you, New Jersey!” before launching into an unplugged cover version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” — a folky rendition which features percussive counterpoint from the mandolin, not to mention hoots and hollers from the audience.
Wrapping up Porter & Sayles’ set is a lively audience participation piece, “Free Bird,” written from the point of view of a bar musician asked for the umpteenth time to play Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” in which Sayles sings, “One more night singing songs I don’t like but I’m doing something right ‘cuz you’re still here.”
Following enthusiastic applause, at intermission, we’re able to catch up with Chris Porter who takes a moment to talk about the duo’s journey traveling on the road saying, “It’s been a pleasure performing here in New Jersey! I love playing new places and Red Bank is amazing; we recently played at Asbury Park’s House of Independents, and we’d love to come back here!”
Following intermission, the lights dim and anticipation rises as the Steve Miller Band takes the stage.
Miller, 73, was born in Milwaukee, WI to a mother who was a talented singer and a physician father who loved jazz and was an audio recording enthusiast. As a youngster, Les Paul and Mary Ford were regular visitors to the Miller home, as was jazz bassist Charles Mingus and acclaimed blues guitarist T-Bone Walker. After spending many of his formative years in Dallas, TX, Miller migrated to Chicago where he played guitar with the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, and harmonica player Paul Butterfield, all of whom encouraged him to continue on with his quest to become a blues guitarist.
At the Count Basie, opening with a murderer’s row of rockin’ pop hits including “Jungle Love,” “Take the Money and Run,” and the group’s #1 smash, “Abracadabra,” Miller — dressed in a black suit, black T-shirt, sunglasses, and shiny medallion— welcomes the screaming throng with a friendly, “How are you doin’?”
Moving on to a hard-drivin’ version of “Livin’ in the USA,” Miller and his band — Joseph Wooten on keyboards, Gordy Knudtson on drums, Kenny Lee Lewis on bass, and Jacob Peterson on rhythm guitar — rock the house with Miller’s lead guitar chops on display and his signature vocals never sounding better. Ending with the famous line, “Somebody give me a cheeseburger,” Miller and the band segue into a bluesy tune he co-wrote with rocker Boz Scaggs, “Goin’ to Mexico,” his guitar synthesizing an incredibly accurate harmonica sound.
Telling the audience, “In 1965, I played with the Goldberg/Miller Blues Band and we went to New York where we played the Hullabaloo TV show — along with The Supremes and The Four Tops — and I made $178!” Taking the money and running, Miller went to Manny’s music store in NYC — “I was 20 or 21 at the time,” he reveals — and not being able to afford any of the instruments adorning the walls, noticed “in a barrel by the door there were guitars with a sign saying ‘Your Choice — $125.’” At this point, Miller displays his trusty ax exclaiming, “And that’s where I found this baby…”
Going on to add, “… and it sounds like this…,” Miller starts to play a mystical sounding version of “Wild Mountain Honey,” his guitar resonating like an East Indian sitar. He follows that with a lively rendition of “I Want to Make the World Turn Around,” featuring a guitar solo complete with looping bright blue lights spinning to the “livin’ in a world of light” lyric, and women from the audience getting up and dancing in the aisles to the tune’s infectious driving beat.
Revealing to the crowd that his next song was “written inside the Fillmore West, inspired by Santana,” Miller introduces a tune which he calls “a little tail-shaker.” Known as “Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma,” this song features a screaming guitar solo à la Carlos Santana and Latin-influenced percussion expertly played by drummer Gordy Knudtson.
Next up is “Serenade,” a song which features impressive bass playing from electric bassist Kenny Lee Lewis — the entire band, including rhythm guitarist Jacob Peterson, sounding great thanks to the Count Basie Theatre’s top-notch sound system and excellent theater acoustics.
Flashing a double-necked guitar, Miller says, “You know this next song is gonna sound good ‘cuz it’s got twice the wood!” He goes on to perform “Winter Time” on his combination 12- and six-string Gibson featuring a swirly and passionate extended guitar solo.
Earlier this year, Miller was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The incident had some controversy surrounding it, however, in that Miller reportedly said the Hall of Fame needed to improve their track record in terms of inducting women and also needed “to respect the artists they say they’re honoring,” notably with respect to music licensing agreements.
“In spite of everything you may have read,” Miller informs the crowd, “I was very pleased to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” adding, “people need to know the truth.” At this point, he proudly displays his sparkly metallic blue guitar, a gift he received as a result of having this honor bestowed upon him.
Talking about how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation “supports music education worldwide” and how much he approves of this lofty goal, Miller launches into one of the songs he played on stage at his induction ceremony in Cleveland — his 1974 #1 hit, “The Joker.”
On this number — one of the standout performances of the night — the audience spontaneously begins to sing and dance, and following a standing ovation from the entire crowd, Miller salutes them. Then, taking an acoustic guitar and breaking out into an unplugged version of his 1977 Top Ten hit, “Jet Airliner,” Miller — ever “The Joker” — quickly pulls the plug on the song by stopping after just a verse, explaining, “I was just teasing — havin’ some fun, but we will do it later — I promise.”
Instead, he treats the audience to a story about how, in 1956, when he was 12 years old and living in Dallas, he, along with several other seventh graders including Boz Scaggs, started a band and “sent mimeographed sheets to any places with live music” in an effort to line up gigs — the only problem being, as he explains, “I was 12 and I had to go to bed at 10 pm.”
That said, they ended up getting a whole “school year full of gigs” on Friday and Saturday nights where, according to Miller, “the band earned $125 per night.” In fact, the youngsters did so well for themselves that Steve ended up teaching his 16-year-old older brother to play bass so, as Miller explains, “he could drive us to the gigs.”
One of the songs the boys often performed at shows in those days was “Gangster of Love,” a tune Miller presents to the audience as a solo piece featuring his bluesy voice and boogie-inspired acoustic guitar playing. Following whistles and screams, Miller concludes his story by exclaiming, “And I’ve been playing every Friday and Saturday night since…and that’s a lot of playin’.”
At this point, Miller and the band perform an up-tempo version of his toe-tapping country tune, “Dance Dance Dance,” featuring an out-of-this-world keyboard solo by Joseph Wooten, while the audience sings and boogies along.
As the backdrop shifts to twinkling lights, one can hear the spacey intro to Miller’s 1977 #2 hit, “Fly Like an Eagle,” a tune which features an extended organ solo by Wooten as laser lights blink in time. Miller follows that up with a sensitive but rockin’ guitar solo while the rest of the band jams on, the song finally coming to a triumphant conclusion following its fitting “tick-tock-tick” vocalization.
After a standing ovation, the group performs its concluding number of the evening — a “rock’n me” version of the band’s 1976 #1 hit, “Rock’n’ Me,” the sold-out crowd clapping, dancing, and singing along. “You sing it well!” exclaims Miller, who, after yet another standing ovation, accepts a bouquet of flowers from an admiring audience member.
For an encore, Miller and the band return to perform “The Stake,” Miller clearly singing from the heart on lyrics like, “Nobody loves you like the way I do,” and he and the group follow that up with a killer version of their 1977 hit, “Swing Town.” Everyone is smiling and dancing and Miller asks the crowd, “You having fun tonight? One more?”
With people screaming for another song, Miller and the band go on to perform a full-blown version of “Jet Airliner,” everyone singing along.
Looking out at the happy crowd, Miller says, “Thank you for coming out,” and then concludes his high-energy set with three simple words, “Peace. Love. Happiness.”
Exiting the theater, people talk about the show they’ve just witnessed.
“It was great!” exclaims Stella from Eatontown.
Michelle and Joanne, from Toms River, reveal they have seen Steve Miller in concert “umpteen times” — literally “15 or 16 times” they clarify — and, according to both women, they still “enjoyed it” citing it a “very personal” experience.
Lastly, another couple which has also seen this group before — Francis and Kaycee, visiting New Jersey from Nashville, TN — contend that Miller is “better than ever after the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction,” Kaycee stating he has “so many hits” and Francis summing things up by pointing out, “Many people his age — or even half his age — ‘mail in’ their live stage appearances, but Steve doesn’t….he really cares.”
And just what might we have to say to Steve Miller about his band’s impressive performance at the Count Basie Theatre?
“Keep on a rock’n me, baby!”
Show date: Nov. 1, 2016
For more information on the Steve Miller Band, please go to stevemillerband.com. To learn more about future performances at the Count Basie Theatre, please go to countbasietheatre.org.