(Photo by Mike McEntire)
When Wade L. Moore and Dick Penner wrote “Oobie-Doobie” as sung by Roy Orbison and then John Fogerty, I know they didn’t have the Doobie Brothers in mind. After all, the song was written 14 years before the Doobies started as the house band for the Hell’s Angels in Northern California. Yet I found myself excitingly singing it in the car on the way to the PNC Bank Arts Center on the Parkway in Holmdel.
Tom Johnston is a working man’s hero. More than just a poor man’s Fogerty, he’s the heart and soul of a band that refuses to give in to popular misconceptions. Don’t think Michael McDonald! As Johnston tells the Aquarian backstage, “We wouldn’t be around today if not for him.” OK, fine, but, still, as far as I’m concerned, he ruined a perfectly good band. Now that he’s long gone, they can go back to being one of the premiere Americana Rock Bands in the country.
Johnston knows how to put on a show and in all the excitement of his performance, you tend to forget all the great songs over the past few decades that are ingrained in our DNA like a tattoo of the brain. Opener “Jesus Is Just Alright” is a cover of a cover. The Byrds covered it in 1969. The original was by The Art Reynolds Singers in 1966. The Doobies own it now. It’s a rousing anthem that has no religiosity whatsoever for me yet I love it! It might as well be “Pasta Is Just Alright.”
“Rocking Down The Highway” is still downright thrilling, even 45 years after it came out on one of 1972’s best rock albums, Toulouse Street. But it wasn’t until the bluesy “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman”—from 1973’s The Captain And Me—where things really started smoking (as did half the crowd). Johnston is one of the more underrated and overlooked lead guitarists around. He knows how to perfectly manipulate a crowd into a frothing frenzy. You’re right up there with him when he starts to shred. No wonder numerous males got up intermittently to play air guitar along with him.
Little Feat’s Billy Payne has been a Doobie for years and, whatever band he’s in, he gives a sparkling sheen to, a degree of class, and some nimble pianistics. Then there’s Patrick Simmons. It’s the interplay between the spider-like fingers of Simmons as he picks out those charming Appalachian back-porch runs juxtaposed with Johnston’s rock star electric leads. And when John McFee started fiddling while Tom burned, the crowd went wild, as they did for “Black Water,” “Long Train Running,” “China Grove,” “Listen To The Music” and, yes, “What a Fool Believes.”
Backstage, I offered Johnston a real doobie and he turned me down flat. At 68, the man is an athlete. The show he puts on is draining and he does it night after night with more energy and good will than those a third of his age. May they rock on down the highway forever.
Hold the presses, I’m festing, man! Yeah, it’s an honor and a privilege to be in a position to totally fest over the course of 10 August days (4-13). I use the word “fest” as a verb because now it is one. Change the dictionary! To go from one great platz of music to another while sipping wine from a big covered mug and walking around downtown Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with it like I’m back in New Orleans gawking at the skirts, high-fiving the friends and chowing down on Portuguese meat sandwiches or huge turkey legs is, indeed, the act of festing. That and discovering amazing new sounds from all over the world. I set my MusikFest app to tell me where bands are playing in real time (it even gives you directions thereof) and off I go for 10 straight days (almost).
The largest free festival in the country—now in its 34th year—is in two distinct neighborhoods with hundreds of band from all over the world on 16 stages, 15 of which are free. Laugh at polka music all you want but to see the twirling couples dancing to polka music, you can’t help but be caught up in a joyous corny mode of pure happiness. Then hit Plaza Tropical for some worldbeat. Walk down Main Street and bands are playing from noon to 11:00 p.m. Roads are cordoned off for all the merry-making and there literally is dancing in the streets. (Hey, summer’s here and the time is right!) Head on over to Liederplatz for some acoustic blues or folk music. Or sit in the ornate lobby of the Hotel Bethlehem in air-conditioned comfort for some hip jazz. The chapel at the Moravian Church hosts music lovers too.
Sure the main stage commands the larger crowds what with the acts one has to pay for, this year Santana, Jethro Tull, Chicago, Father John Misty, Live, Godsmack, The Band Perry, Toby Keith and more, but the heart and soul of festival is discovering new loves for free. (I won’t soon forget discovering Trombone Shorty that way two nights in a row.)
I made my annual pilgrimage to the offices of genius booker Patrick Brogan to ask him about this year’s crop of freebies and he recommended Colin Hay (the Aussie who once fronted Men At Work), Smithereens, reggae band the Skatalites direct from Jamaica and about a dozen more that space prevents me from mentioning. (www.musikfest.org has them all.) Some of the stages even have small dance floors right up front.
Brogan: “I know what you like, Mike, and you have simply got to see this pop-punk-party band called SsingSsing from South Korea fronted by a guy in drag.”
I’m so there.
From Tex Mex, Samba, Salsa, Cajun, Celtic and Funk to Classical, Hip-Hop, Folk, Bluegrass, Oldies, Pop, Rock’n’Roll, Jazz and Blues, this year’s MusikFest is a gas gas gas.