Rant ‘N’ Roll: Steve Miller Band Rocks The Sands With Blues, Sugary Pop & Psychedelia

BETHLEHEM, PA—For a solid 1:45, Steve Miller, still in great voice at 72, and nominated for the 2016 Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame class (with Cheap Trick, Nine Inch Nails, Los Lobos, NWA, The Spinners, Chic, Chicago, Janet Jackson, The Cars, The Smiths and Yes), played his guitar like a’ringin’ a bell, taught some blues (including a fact-filled rant about the legendary Little Walter [1930-1968]), blew into his harmonica, told a few hippie stories from 1960s San Francisco where The Steve Miller Band was born, and led his latest band of young ‘uns through a hit-filled set. The sound pounded in your gut. The presentation was top-notch, especially the light-show during “Wild Mountain Honey,” a song that stood out on the night. As hit after hit pounded home like “Swingtown,” “Jungle Love,” “”Take The Money And Run,” “Abracadabra,” “Jet Airliner” (in two versions: one an acoustic solo blues, the other a rampaging full-band set-closer), “Fly Like An Eagle,” “The Joker” (to which, right smack dab in the middle, he sang, in its entirety, in perfect pitch, key and phrasing that raised goosebumps on my arm—that I showed my +1—Nat King Cole’s 1948 “Nature Boy”), “True Fine Love” and “Rock N’Me.” Damn, I forgot he’s had so many hits and sold so many millions of records.

With the psychedelic effects in full flower, Miller jammed it out like the true hippie hero he is. Most folks don’t realize he hit Chicago running at 22 from his native Texas (he was born in Milwaukee) in the early ‘60s, jamming with Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Buddy Guy and Paul Butterfield. By the time he started The Steve Miller Band in 1966 San Francisco, he was part of a vibrant scene with the Dead, Santana, Janis, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Love, Moby Grape, Sly & The Family Stone, New Riders Of The Purple Sage and Jefferson Airplane. It wouldn’t be until 1973, six albums later, burnt out and only moderately successful after working his ass off, that a little album called The Joker changed his life.

Rock star Miller then released a string of albums that would go on to sell 46 million and counting. But he never forgot the blues. In fact, his last two albums—Let Your Hair Down (2011) and Bingo! (2010)—are 100% stoned-out blues. (It’s been 22 years since his last rock album: Wide River in 1993.) So I expected a blues show…but Miller’s too smart for that. He knows what the people want to hear. To that end, he’s re-recorded The Joker live for its 40th anniversary but instead of giving it to a label, he’s selling it at his gigs old-school-style.

Miller told Alan Sculley in local newspaper The Morning Call that, “I love performing, and connecting with an audience never gets old for me. What does get old is when my audience is only interested in something they’ve already heard, and it makes doing my new stuff very [difficult]. It’s a strange experience right now.”

Strange or not, he’s picked the right kids to back up his ragged glory and he still knows to psychedelicize it for those so inclined.

December at the Sands Event Center, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: Tony Orlando (1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9 & 10), Eddie Money (4), Brett Eldredge and Thomas Rhett with Danielle Bradbery (5), Kenny G (11), Celtic Woman (13), Voiceplay (21) and Jerry Blavat (31). Next year on January 10 is “Dancing With The Stars” and February 19 means Janet Jackson.