BRISTOW, Virginia – Seated under a tent backstage, Patrick Simmons and Tom Johnston offer a simple philosophy about The Doobie Brothers’ 50-year tenure.
“The songs,” says Johnston. “When people get up and sing back to you, that’s the magic part.”
The soft-spoken Simmons also credits authenticity.
“It’s almost new to see a band that sings and plays and doesn’t have a big dance production that’s part of the show,” he says, smiling behind his mask.
Not even a dancer or acrobat was featured on The Doobie Brothers’ Friday night show at Jiffy Lube Live in Virginia, the band’s first performance since a mini-residence in Las Vegas in May, as well as the continuation of the 50th anniversary tour that played last the first round in the fall.
The veteran rockers planned to embark on this new tour last week, but like COVID, so has procrastination. Despite the caution practiced backstage — masks a must, social distancing where possible — and the monastic existence the boys practiced while in Vegas (“I didn’t go anywhere except to walk to CVS,” says Johnston, while Simmons admits missing meals with the gang), the virus insinuated its way into the Doobie ranks. Five dates have been shifted; just another speed bump for a tour that, like dozens of others, was originally scheduled for 2020.
Turning 50 in 2022: Albums from Elton John, Eagles, Rolling Stones and More
The specialty of the anniversary run – which runs through October – is partly to celebrate the Doobies’ achievement by still attracting thousands of fans to sing blissfully along to their chameleon-like catalog. But it’s also about the inclusion of Michael McDonald.
The snowy soul pop star joined the band in 1975 and helped reshape their sound. He left in 1982 for a thriving solo career, but McDonald always maintained a friendly relationship with his bandmates. Since he last toured with them in the 1990s, his return is an undeniable asset.
“I think Mike is having a great time,” Simmons says, as he and Johnston agree that a possible global tour extension in 2023 – South America, Australia and Japan are in talks – makes sense, as McDonald is an attractive part of the package is.
A few hours after their conversation, Simmons and Johnston handed over the spotlight to McDonald to be the first to saunter up the stage and slip behind his keyboards to unfold the opening of “Nobody.”
The rest of the frontline – Simmons, Johnston and guitarist John McFee – joins him as the band transitions into “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While)”, featuring smooth fingered guitar playing from the spindly Simmons, a shrill cry of McDonald and impeccable vocals of Johnston, his voice like honey mingled with grit.
In honor of Taylor Hawkins: The Foo Fighters pay tribute to the drummer this fall
For the next 2 ½ hours, The Doobie Brothers captivate a jam-packed amphitheater with album excerpts (“South City Midnight Lady”, “Here to Love You”) and sweet radio hits (“Rockin’ Down the Highway”, “Minute By Minute”, “What a foolishly believes”). They present three new songs from last fall’s album “Liberté” – their first since 2014 – and in a rare scene no one in the audience rushes outside for a bathroom break, possibly because the songs, most notably ” Easy” and “Better Days,” are pleasant and comfortable additions to their oeuvre.
McDonald’s signature lead vocals remain a combination of smoke and silk, and the band’s supporting cast—bassist John Cowan, percussionist Marc Quiñones, drummer Ed Toth, and saxophonist Marc Russo—are all seasoned aces.
Even without the label of a 50th anniversary edition, this tour showcases The Doobie Brothers in top form, with both their vocals – especially the sparkling harmonies that anchor “Black Water” and “Listen to the Music” – and their musical agility undiminished. It’s an admirable feat considering the core players are all early 70s and lifelong mutts.
But more than three weeks of rehearsals last summer and an unquestionable affection for performance keep The Doobie Brothers motivated.
“The band sounds really great,” Simmons says. His eyes wrinkle as he smiles. “Not that I want to brag.”
Grammys Expand: Five New Categories Added for 2023, Plus Social Change Song