Here’s a paradox for you: The current performance repertoire of the Doobie Brothers relies heavily on music the band cut in the early 1970s, when the songs “Listen to the Music” and “China Grove” ruled the airwaves and a string of hit albums led by 1973’s “The Captain and Me” topped the charts and tapped into the formative days of FM radio.
That might suggest that the present-day Doobies, which retain singer/guitarists Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons from those heyday years, are living off that legacy with whatever proficient pick-up musicians they can find, as so many elder classic-rock acts do with back catalogs. Well, get a load of the all-stars who pack the current Doobies roster.
First, there is guitarist John McFee, who joined in 1978, when the band reinvented itself as a massively bankable pop-soul unit with Michael McDonald as featured vocalist. Next comes Bill Payne, mainstay keyboardist for Little Feat, who sat in on most of the early Doobies albums, including “The Captain and Me.” Now things get really interesting. On bass is John Cowan, co-founding member of New Grass Revival and a champion among regional bluegrass and Americana audiences. On saxophone is Marc Russo, an alum of the veteran funk and soul troupe Tower of Power and jazz-fusion favorite Yellowjackets. On drums, formerly of Vertical Horizon, is Ed Toth.
From Simmons’ perspective, such an assemblage breathes new life into songs like “Long Train Runnin’,” “Black Water” and other tunes that have been staples of the band’s concerts for roughly 45 years.
“We’ve tried not to take the songs far away from the original arrangements,” said Simmons, who performs with the Doobies on Tuesday at the EKU Center for the Arts. “But we give the guys opportunity to stretch the songs out a little bit and find moments where we can add some things but still stay within the framework and context of the song. We want to able to bring things down a little bit here and there to showcase different combinations of players and just different grooves within the grooves. So in that regard, we’re able to make the tunes new again.”
Here is what Simmons had to say about the celebrated pros who make up today’s Doobie Brothers:
▪ On John McFee: “John might not have been on the early records Tommy and I made, but he’s such a wonderful musician that he finds the parts, learns them and plays them just the way they’re supposed to be played. With John there, we’re really able to bring things more to a studio level. He is a great utility guy, too, in that he plays pedal steel, slide and a little harmonica. John is a great fiddle player, also.
▪ On Bill Payne: “Bill has played on almost every album we’ve recorded, even stuff with Mike McDonald. He has had so much input into our songs through the years. When we were looking for someone to play keyboards on ‘Toulouse Street’ (the Doobies’ 1972 breakthrough record), Ted Templeman (who produced ‘Toulouse” and Little Feat’s “Sailin’ Shoes” the same year) said, ‘I’ve got just the guy.’ I had heard Little Feat through their records and thought they were great, but we didn’t know exactly what he would bring to our records. To me he is one of the great keyboard players of our generation.”
▪ On Marc Russo: “This is my own opinion, but Marc is really a virtuoso player. You can mention a style to him and he can play it. He has a ridiculously full vocabulary of music to choose from. He’s a very funky player, too. His time with Tower of Power has enabled him to bring that James Brown kind of vibe to some of our tunes. But he can do it all. He’s a great blues player; he’s a great jazz player. I can’t say enough about the guy. He brings so much to what we do.”
Today’s Doobies steer clear of most of their late-’70s hits with McDonald, but the singer sits in with the band on occasion and maintains a close friendship with Simmons.
“I probably see Mike more often than anybody, because he’s got a place not too far from where I live (on Maui). We hang out, go surfing. A lot of times, we’ll do some benefit gigs here on the island, so I talk to him fairly often. We’re still very good friends.”