BRISTOW, Virginia – Sitting under a tent backstage, Patrick Simmons and Tom Johnston offer a simple philosophy about The Doobie Brothers’ 50-year tenure.
“The songs,” Johnston says. “When people get up and sing back at you, that’s the magic part.”
The soft-spoken Simmons also credits authenticity.
“It’s almost a novelty 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.
Indeed, nary a dancer nor acrobat was witnessed at The Doobie Brothers’ Friday night show at Jiffy Lube Live in Virginia, the band’s first performance since a mini-residency in Las Vegas in May, as well as its continuation of the 50th anniversary tour that played its first round last fall.
The veteran rockers planned to kick off this new tour leg last week, but as goes COVID, so do postponements. Despite the caution being practiced backstage – masks a must, social distancing when possible – and the monk-like existence the guys practiced while in Vegas (“I didn’t go anywhere except to walk to CVS,” Johnston says, while Simmons admits to missing meals out with the gang), the virus insinuated its way into the Doobie ranks. Five dates have been rescheduled; just another speed bump for a tour that, like dozens of others, was originally planned for 2020.
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The specialness of the anniversary run – which runs through October – is partially to celebrate the Doobies’ achievement of still attracting thousands of fans to blissfully sing along with their chameleonic catalog. But, it’s also about the inclusion of Michael McDonald.
The snowy-haired soul-pop luminary joined the band in 1975 and helped recast their sound. He departed in 1982 for a thriving solo career, but McDonald always maintained an amicable relationship with his bandmates. Given that he last toured with them in the ’90s, his return is an unmistakable draw.
“I think Mike is having a great time,” Simmons says, while he and Johnston concur that a possible worldwide tour extension in 2023 – South America, Australia and Japan are in discussion – makes sense since McDonald is an appealing part of the package.
A couple of hours after talking, Simmons and Johnston cede the spotlight to McDonald to saunter onstage first, slipping behind his keyboards to unfurl the opening of “Nobody.”
The rest of the frontline – Simmons, Johnston and guitarist John McFee – join him as the band segues into “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While),” offering fleet-fingered guitar playing from the spindly Simmons, a gravelly yell from McDonald and impeccable singing from Johnston, his voice like honey mixed with grit.
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For the next 2 ½-hours, The Doobie Brothers enthrall a packed amphitheater with album cuts (“South City Midnight Lady,” “Here to Love You”) and mellifluous radio hits (“Rockin ‘Down the Highway,” “Minute By Minute , ”“ What a Fool Believes ”). They present three new songs from last fall’s “Liberté” album – their first since 2014 – and in a rare scene, hardly anyone in the audience rushes out for a bathroom break, possibly because the tracks, particularly “Easy” and “Better Days, ”Are pleasant and comfortable additions to their oeuvre.
McDonald’s distinctive 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 tag of a 50th anniversary edition, this tour showcases The Doobie Brothers in peak form, with both their vocals – especially the scintillating harmonies that anchor “Black Water” and “Listen to the Music” – and musical dexterity undiminished. It’s an admirable feat considering the core players are all in their early 70s and lifelong road dogs.
But more than three weeks of rehearsals last summer and an indisputable affection for performing keeps The Doobie Brothers motivated.
“The band really sounds great,” Simmons says. His eyes crinkle as he smiles. “Not that I want to brag.”
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