Fifty years ago I was in Chicago on Spring break after I got out of the army and was going to college on the GI Bill back in Detroit. I was staying with an army buddy and while we were in a blues club in Old Town on Saturday night we saw a poster on the window advertising “The Iron Butterfly” with the “Steve Miller Blues Band” the next day at a downtown theater. It was Easter Sunday and my friend and one of his friends went to the venue and bought tickets and found seats since it was festival seating. Just before the show began the theater was evacuated because of a bomb threat but the three of us never left and when the crowd returned we moved to seats in the front row center stage.
The “Steve Miller Blues” band played first and at the time it was a power trio like the “Jimi Hendrix Experience” or “Cream,” made up of Steve Miller on guitar, harmonica and vocals, Tim Davis on drums and vocals and Lonnie Turner on bass guitar. I had already seen the “Iron Butterfly” in Detroit but never saw Steve Miller until then and I was completely blown away. The volume and quality of sound that emanated from the trio was some of the tightest harmonics that my ears had the pleasure of experiencing at the time. It was amazing to say the least with a fifteen minute rendition of “Mercury Blues.” After a 90 minute long set the “Iron Butterfly” came on and it was good but I was more impressed by Miller. There were two shows and they didn’t kick us out after the first one finished and the next one started so we stayed for that as well and it was just as phenomenal.
When I got back to Detroit I purchased all two of Steve Miller’s albums and would go see him every time that he came to town. The 1970s rocketed the “Steve Miller Band” to arena rock with a string of radio hits. By the 1980s I was living in the Pacific Northwest in Oregon where Steve Miller then lived, so he played around regularly. He was even a headliner at the Portland, Oregon Waterfront Blues Festival a number of times, so I had racked up enough Steve Miller concerts to be called a fan.
L.B. Day Amphitheater in Salem, Oregon where I live is an outdoor venue on the grounds of the State Fair that holds 14,000 people. This year one of the headliners was the “Steve Miller Band. ”Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives opened for the Steve Miller Band and he reminded me of Duane Eddy with a deep low sound on guitar with Johnny Cash sounding country singing. They performed “Ring of Fire” as the crowd sang along. Stuart switched from guitar to mandolin and back again. The final song of his 45 minute set was “Wounded Knee” a hard driving rock song with blazing electrified acoustic guitars and on screen black & white visuals of Native American’s in a variety of environments. There were cemeteries, slums and a dancing warrior in full regalia and then many others dancing with him and then the band itself playing in an open field. Their set ended in an explosive bring down the house outro.
The first song of Steve Miller’s set was “The Stake” a hard driving guitar driven blues based song with Steve beginning with the ferocity that I loved about him. Miller sang “Nobody loves you the way that I do” and the audience sang the refrain back to him. The band was comprised of Steve Miller on lead vocals and guitars, Kenny Lee Lewis on bass, Gordy Knudtson on drums, Joseph Wooten on keyboards and Jacob Peterson on rhythm guitar. “Jungle Love” was next and the guy behind me was loud and going nuts because he told me before the concert that he’d been a Steve Miller fan since the late sixties but never saw him before. The people around me were getting upset and telling him to be quiet.
“Abracadabra” had Steve doing some amazing guitar work as the guy behind me screamed “Yeah, Steve! Go man! Wow! Far out! Ahggggggggeez! Wow!” After the guy drowned out the guitar solo he started singing the words of the song louder than the band. Some people begged and pleaded with him and another guy even tried to intimidate him but he didn’t budge. One of the technical problems at the show was that Miller’s microphone would cut out periodically so it was even harder hearing him sing with the loudmouth behind us. “Living in the USA,” a blues based song was next, which was the only song that I knew when I saw him the first time back in 1969. If you listen to the version on Sailor his second album he sings about “living in a ‘plastic’ land,” which was late 1960s vernacular for phony or insincere. However, for a number of decades now the lyrics have changed to “living in a ‘fantastic’ land.” I missed the harmonica that was always part of the song. In the beginning Miller played harmonica and guitar but by the late 1970s Norton Buffalo became his harmonica player and he passed away eight years ago.
The next song presented the reason for the shift to “fantastic land” as Miller began one of my favorite songs which he performed at that show in Chicago in the spring of 1969, “Space Cowboy.” At the time the entire country was looking to space as a diversion to earthly problems like the war in Vietnam, civil rights, assassinations, riots and rebellious protesting college students. The moon landing wouldn’t occur for another month but the countdown influenced social commentators at the time and besides that the song had a great guitar solo break, which Steve performed with precision proving that he still can still rock out at seventy-five years of age. “Seranade” continued the space journey as Steve sang “wake up and look around you we’re lost in space.” “I Want To Be Loved Only By You” was performed as a kind of jazzy excursion with another killer guitar solo.
Miller called out Marty Stuart and his band as they dove into “Going To The Country” a hard rocking song from his fifth album in 1970 that was performed as an acoustic country song this time. They also did “Dance, Dance, Dance” from 1976’s Fly Like An Eagle with Miller singing “I don’t know but I’ve been told if you keep on dancing you’ll never get old.” After the country interlude Stuart and band left the stage and Steve picked up his combination harp and 6 string guitar to play “Wild Mountain Honey” with ethereal delicacy. “Fly Like An Eagle” from 1976’s album of the same name is one of many signature songs by Miller, since the U. S. Postal Service used it for advertisement. The song is always played as an extended jam for about 15 minutes allowing Miller to pull out all the stops as he performs stellar guitar licks that alternate with Wooten playing some amazing keyboard runs with the rest of the band following suit.
Steve introduced all the band members prior to beginning “Rock’n Me” another high energy rock’n out number that is driven by the rhythm section with Kenny Lee Lewis thumping out bone compressing bass as Gordy Knudtson drives the beat with rhythmic fills and flourishes. Miller sang, “Well, I’ve been lookin’ real hard and I’m tryin’ to find a job but it just keeps getting’ tougher every day.” Then he and Jacob Peterson traded licks and rocked out as they closed the show with an explosive finale.
The encore began with “Take the Money and Run” again from 1976’s landmark Fly Like An Eagle album and had the guy behind me still singing and screaming “Yeah, Steve!!!” The loudmouth drove everyone within earshot out of the area by this time. Unfortunately Sharon and Maurice who sat next to me left before Miller performed his first signature song “The Joker” from 1973’s album of the same title. Maurice told me that he never saw Steve Miller before but wanted to hear him perform “The Joker” where he uses his name “Some people call me Maurice ‘cause I speak of the pompitous of love.”
While the band was performing “The Joker” I exited the venue and walked onto the State Fair midway and around to an open fence area where there was a crowd watching the big screen projection of the band. Steve Miller was clearly visible through the fence and the sound was better than in my seat without the loudmouth singing. I figured that “The Joker” would be the last song, but when 14,000 people screamed and clapped he asked them if they wanted another song and began playing “Jet Airliner” as the final one of the night. The crowd sang the refrain as the band played “Big ol’ jet airliner don’t carry me too far away.”
Review by Bob Gersztyn