The Doobie Brothers formed in 1970 in San Jose, California, first as a guitar-centered rock band, then evolving into a blue-eyed soul band with a change in personnel in 1975. Along the way, the band sold 50 million albums. Now on a 50th anniversary tour, delayed two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a good chance that the band would play most of its 16 charted hits. There was also a good chance that most of the audience would be old enough to have bought those records back in the 1970s.
All such predictions were fulfilled. The 50th anniversary was an effective marketing tool, but the Doobie Brothers’ live set has not changed radically since the early 1980s. The band has been steadily playing the 1970s hits alongside deep cuts. The 50th anniversary tour largely featured the same hits that the band performed on its 1982 farewell tour (the band regrouped after a five-year hiatus).
The major difference on this tour was that it reunited several of the Doobie Brothers’ principal players. Founding members Tom Johnston (guitars, vocals) and Patrick Simmons (guitars, vocals) led the band, with significant contributions from recurring member Michael McDonald (keyboards, vocals) – his first full tour with the Doobie Brother in 26 years – and John McFee (guitars, pedal steel, violin, harmonica, backing vocals). John Cowan (bass, vocals), Marc Russo (saxophones), Ed Toth (drums), and Marc Quiñones (percussion) completed the eight-member touring ensemble.
The retrospective set began appropriately with “Nobody,” a little-known song that served as the Doobie Brothers’ very first single release in 1970 and which the band re-recorded for its 40th anniversary in 2010. Although the song was commercially unsuccessful in both releases, as the opening song in concert it showed the promise of what the Doobie Brothers would become. Johnston was in strong voice, enriched by four-part harmonies on the choruses. The three guitarists proved the value of melodic leads both in the introduction and in the bridge of the song. The double percussion propelled the mid-tempo song.
Not waiting too long for the audience to hear a familiar song, the Doobie Brothers followed quickly with a galloping “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While).” The third song, “Here to Love You,” was the first of many songs scattered through the show that recalled the band’s smooth adult-contemporary era, with McDonald on impassioned vocals and Russo taking extended, vibrant leads on his saxophone.
The first hour of the two-hour performance highlighted mostly minor hits and deep cuts. The second hour of the show gave the audience its car-radio staples in succession, including “Jesus Is Just Alright,” “What a Fool Believes,” “Long Train Runnin’,” “China Grove,” “Black Water,” “Takin’ It to the Streets,” and “Listen to the Music.” Rather than simply recreating the recordings, the band demonstrated its musical integrity by injecting frequent solos and, in the case of the final song, allowing for lengthy sing-alongs.
The band showed its versatility in the 25-song set, often by extending songs with saxophone, fiddle, harmonica, slide guitar and pedal steel breaks. The lesser-known “Clear as the Driven Snow” featured an all-out rocking jam although, instead of building on that energy, the band followed with the much tamer “It Keeps You Running.” During the encore, McDonald and Russo traded Jazzy licks for a couple of minutes as an innovative introduction to “Takin’ it to the Streets.”
This year’s tour included three songs from the Doobie Brothers’ 15th and most recent studio album, 2021’s Liberté. This was also the band’s first album of original material in 11 years. “Better Days,” “Don’t Ya Mess with Me,” and “Easy” were pleasant enough, yet rather unmemorable, repeating the band’s old yacht-rock formula without sparking a new fire.
In its 50-year history, the Doobie Brothers personnel was in continual flux, with Pat Simmons being the sole continuous member. Numerous musicians left and returned years later. Nevertheless, the band remained steady in keeping its sound stable and breathing. This could be a blessing or a curse, in that the catalog continues to satisfy the baby boomers, but has been unable to replicate the kind of success the band experienced in the 1970s.
Overall, the concert at Radio City Music Hall proved that the Doobie Brothers were very capable of bringing life to old songs. The harmonies and the instrumental interludes were splendid. The presentation was much more than a live jukebox. It was a night of familiar feel-good classic rock and pop sounds.
Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While) (Kim Weston cover)
Here to Love You
Dependin’ on You
Rockin’ Down the Highway
You Belong to Me
South City Midnight Lady
Clear as the Driven Snow
It Keeps You Runnin’
Another Park, Another Sunday
Eyes of Silver
Don’t Ya Mess With Me
World Gone Crazy
Minute by Minute
Jesus Is Just Alright (The Art Reynolds Singers cover)