August 9, 2011
The Filene Center at Wolf Trap
Vienna, VA USA
Review by Craig Hunter Ross
Photos by Craig Hunter Ross
The atmosphere within The Filene Center at Wolf Trap resembled a neighborhood block party or backyard BBQ. Fans had staked their claims to every remaining piece real estate across the lawn. The amphitheater was filled to the brim. A summer's evening celebration was about to begin and no one wanted to miss a minute. Even the local stage hands were chatting with folks near the stage doors. Both were sharing their amazement of the discovery that an arsenal of forty-two guitars would possibly take their turns this evening serving in the capable, masterful hands of ‘the joker' himself, Steve Miller.
With over forty years of music to his credit, Miller needs no introduction. Ironically, that's exactly how the evening began. Sans opening act, and without pomp or circumstance, the Steve Miller Band casually strolled out on stage, unnoticed to many in the audience. As the ever familiar thump of the kick drum and guitar chords to "Jet Airliner" began to ring through the sound system, the stage lights came on. Everyone in attendance leapt to their feet.
Long time fans of the Steve Miller Band noticed there were few changes to the group's 2011 lineup. Blues guitarist, Jacob Peterson officially joined the band prior to the tour. Following that move, long time guitarist Kenny Lee Lewis became the band's full-time bassist. Rounding out the group was Gordy Knudston on drums, Joseph Wooten keyboards, and veteran rhythm and blues background singer Sonny Charles. Before the night was out, he'd see considerable time on lead vocals as well.
As the band broke into "Take the Money and Run" from the 1976 masterpiece, Fly Like an Eagle, a curious background drop of swirling guitars with strategically placed LED's within, made a statement on stage. Miller also wasted little time in acknowledging the size and volume of the welcoming crowd. With a simple, "Let's all make some magic", the band broke into his last No. 1 hit, 1982's "Abracadabra". Fan favorites "The Stake" and "Swingtown" were soon to follow, with Charles providing not only rock solid backing vocals, but dance moves that would surely bring a smile and wink of approval from the late James Brown.
After the opening barrage of Miller's personal classic rock hits, the audience would be treated to a set of blues numbers, and covers, in tribute to some of Steve's old mentors and friends. With nods to Bobby Bland, Eric Johnson and Chicago blues man Otis Rush, the group would tear through "Further Up the Road", "Texas", "All Your Love" and "Tramp". Each song allowed for extended solos and especially showcased the vocal skills Charles brings to the table. The soulful singer kept the momentum going, and the crowd involved, with an almost Cab Calloway style flair with "Ooh Poo Pah Doo".
Perhaps having anticipated a fully set sun in the clear Virginia sky, Miller played the beautiful "Serenade" as the moon and stars provided their own illuminating glow to the Filene Center. Holding the last note, and with a simple tap on the delay pedal, Miller gently nodded to Wooten at the keyboard, resulting in the unmistakable opening to "Fly Like an Eagle". Wooten would provide an organ solo, with Billy Preston-like precision, while Steve Miller responded with his longest solo of the evening. With the stage still awash in amoeba lighting, "Wild Mountain Honey" continued the psychedelic mood. Miller played his custom made 19-string instrument that sounded like an old world sitar through the amps.
This particular evening, Miller's guitar tech certainly got a work out. He swapped out more instruments with his boss than Cher changes costumes during a performance. No sooner had the musician's virtuoso fingers performed its magic on one guitar, another was waiting off in the wings. For one particular set of songs, Miller strapped on a Martin acoustic he dubbed "Ole Red" which he informed the audience, was about to be retired. Everyone was quickly on their feet for "Dance, Dance, Dance", "Shubada Du Ma Ma" and "Living in the USA" (which was dedicated to the armed forces).
Before the last song, Miller discussed his philanthropic work with the "Kids Rock Free" program. It's a non-profit organization providing free, or low cost instruction, for instrument and vocal lessons to students who otherwise don't have access to music education in their own schools. Steve introduced one of the teens in the program, guitarist Matt Rubic. He joined the band on stage to perform a mean solo for the evening's final song, "Rock N Me". Rubic literally stole the spotlight with his playing. His youthful exuberance and joy seemed to rub off on Miller, who appeared to kick up his playing game a notch as well.
The band departed the stage briefly, but would soon return for another set of Miller classics. "Winter Time" was dedicated to former Steve Miller Band stalwart Norton Buffalo, who lost his battle to cancer two years ago. That was followed by "Gangster of Love" and "Space Cowboy" (which Miller said had recently been re-recorded by his friend, the ultimate space cowboy Bill...SHATNER). The hits continued with "Jungle Love" and finally, "The Joker." Rubic would once again reappear on stage to add his personal touch to the music.
As fans cheered and the band gave their final bows, Miller presented an already overjoyed Rubic with perhaps the greatest parting gift of all - Ole Red. The astonished look on the youth's face spoke volumes as he held the acoustic instrument in his hands. Indeed, this was a night to remember.
* Donald Gehl contributed to this review