MANHATTAN, NY—The Doobie Brothers formed in California in 1970 and went on to sell more than 40 million albums worldwide. It would appear that the band also has had as many lineup changes in its 43 on-and-off years, a time period that included at least two farewell tours. Original guitarists and lead vocalists Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons are back and leading the brand name. The Doobie Brothers’ most recent album is 2010’s World Gone Crazy, and a documentary, Let The Music Play: The Story Of The Doobie Brothers, was released in 2012.
Four decades ago, the Doobie Brothers started as a guitar-based rock and rhythm band, became a softer and jazzier Steely Dan-type band with the addition of Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and then later evolved into a neo-soul band when Michael McDonald assumed most of the lead vocals. Baxter and McDonald are not members of the present configuration, so at Roseland Ballroom on Feb. 1, the Doobie Brothers pretty much ignored this period and returned to its original driving rock sound. Headlining what was billed as the MVP Party and following a panel discussion with four past National Football League Super Bowl Most Valuable Players from New York, the Doobie Brothers performed its earliest hits and newer songs for an audience that had paid $1,000 per ticket.
The band launched the set with a trio of its hits from 1972 to 1975, beginning with a cover of the Art Reynolds Singers’ “Jesus Is Just Alright” leading into “Rockin’ Down The Highway” and a cover of Kim Weston’s “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While).” Rather than simply reproducing the radio staples, the band elongated the live versions with instrumental breaks and longer choruses. The newer songs that followed similarly showcased the Doobie Brothers’ blues, country, roadhouse boogie, rock and roll and even jazz jam roots. This was more than filler; it gave depth to the band’s current incarnation.
Simmons especially proved to be an accomplished finger-picking guitarist and multi-instrumentalist John McFee added authentic bluegrass flavor on pedal steel on two songs. If the band lost any listeners during the instrumental interludes in this segment, the Doobie Brothers recovered its audience with a McDonald-less version of “Takin’ It To The Streets.” This was followed by an extended sing-along on the band’s first number one hit, 1975’s “Black Water,” as Johnston and Simmons repeatedly encouraged the audience to sing, “I’d like to hear some funky Dixieland, pretty mama come and take me by the hand.” “Long Train Runnin’,” “China Grove” and “Listen To The Music” likewise rocked the old-school fans. McDonald’s signature “It Keeps You Runnin'” and “What A Fool Believes” were noticeably missing, as much as McDonald himself was noticeably missing. Nevertheless, this generation’s Doobie Brothers performed a set that was vintage, lively and worthy of the classic brand name.