Niagara Gazette

July 8, 2013

In town Tuesday at Artpark, Doobie Brothers taking a step back in style these days

By Thom Jennings
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — This Tuesday, Artpark welcomes a rock band that has sold more than 40 million albums worldwide with hits like “Long Train Runnin’,” “China Grove,” and “Black Water.” They are The Doobie Brothers, featuring founding members Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons along with longtime member John McFee.

Opening the show will be a great Buffalo-based original music band, The Informers.

The Doobie Brothers burst on the scene in the late 1960s, landing a record deal with the help of the late Skip Spence, of Moby Grape fame.

Their eponymous debut album appeared in 1971 failed to chart upon its release, but a year later the band’s “Toulouse Street” album proved to be their breakthrough album with hits like “Listen to the Music” and “Jesus is Just Alright.”

After a few years of non-stop touring and recording, guitarist vocalist Tom Johnston was forced to leave the band due to health issues. His role was taken over in part by now former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald.

As Tom Johnston recalled by phone last week, it marked a huge shift in the band’s sound.

“We went from a bar room boogie rock kind of band to what Michael brought was a blue-eyed soul feel. It also went from guitar based to keyboard based,” Johnston said.

“Michael wasn’t originally brought into the band to be the main guy, he was brought in to fill a void instrumentally when I went to get my ulcer fixed in 1975. I decided I couldn’t tour for the “Stampede” album and it put the band in a bad place. I felt bad about it but I didn’t have any choice, I almost died from that ulcer.”

The Michael McDonald era spawned plenty of hits, but not all of the Doobie Brothers fans embraced the new style with McDonald at the forefront and Johnston’s role limited. The band coming to Artpark is closer to the band that Johnston and Simmons formed in the late 1960s

“Basically, we are a two-era band, the era before Michael and the era after, and right now we are back to the style of the first era.”

Through it all there was one constant that was vital to the band’s success — their association with one of rock music’s greatest producers of all time, Ted Templeman.

“We did a lot of work with him that’s for sure. There were only three albums we didn’t do with Ted. He is a really fun guy to work with, and he has some great ideas musically. For instance I was reticent to record ‘Long Train Running’ because I thought it was just a jam track.”

Templeman’s presence is felt on the band’s last album, “World Gone Crazy,” released in 2010, it is a personal favorite of mine.

After years of personnel changes, the band’s current eight members represent the sound of The Doobies well.

“I would say the band sounds better now than it ever has and I’m not just saying that to beat my chest. It’s in part due to the personnel, but it’s also because people are taking their job more seriously. In the old days nobody practiced, we just went out and played. It’s not because we didn’t care, we were just so tired from being on the road that the last thing I wanted to do when I got home was practice guitar or do vocal exercises.”

That makes for a better show according to Johnston.

“It’s made a huge difference, and because we are a little more sedate in our partying, the show is really tight and rehearsed. It’s not predictable, it’s a high-energy show.

As for the band’s future, Johnston said that he recently found out that many modern country stars cite The Doobie Brothers as a major influence, and thus the band is going into the studio to rework their classic songs in a special way.

“We’re working on an album of our old songs with country music stars as guests. The list is too big to mention them all but of you are into country music you will know them all.”

Tickets for The Doobie Brothers at Artpark are $15 and available at Artpark’s box office or online. VIP tickets are sold out.

Thom Jennings covers the local music scene for the Gazette.