Review by Jason Berk
Photos by Stevo Rood
Every artist, at some point late in their career, will be forced to reckon with a familiar conundrum: How can you give the people exactly what they want, while also maintaining your integrity as an artist? It’s a tricky balance to strike, but that balance was felt keenly throughout the YouTube Theater as the Steve Miller Band brought their tour to a packed house. The band played every song you’d want to hear them play, while still giving Miller an opportunity to stretch out and subvert expectations, never feeling like a nostalgia cash-grab.
Fifty-five years have passed since the release of the debut album by the Steve Miller Band, though you wouldn’t know it to hear Miller sing. Across the set’s 17 songs, only three had their keys lowered (and “Space Cowboy” actually had its key raised a whole step). Miller’s voice has barely aged since his voice first hit the airwaves decades ago, and while he’s physically a little slower and stiffer than he used to be, at nearly 80 he’s still a charismatic frontman and an impressive guitarist, taking all the leads himself throughout the evening with a satisfied grin on his face.
There were a couple flubs here and there — a missed entrance to a verse, a vocal missing from the mix — but overall the show was a solid, polished affair. The stage was set with faux Roman columns and decorated with a flag bearing the iconic Book of Dreams horse, which fell to reveal a backdrop of illuminated stars, before a giant tapestry of the album cover for The Joker came into view. Little wonder as the album is celebrating its 50th anniversary with an epic box set called J50: The Evolution Of The Joker.
Miller gave the audience a journey through his childhood, explaining how Les Paul came to become his godfather before launching into “Jet Airliner” (the first of two performances of the song — a slower, acoustic solo version was performed just two songs later, preceding “Dance Dance Dance”). He strategically placed “Space Cowboy” directly after the song it references, “Living in the USA,” and wrapped up the main set with “The Joker” (which itself references “Space Cowboy”).
Aided by a crack band including guitarist Jacob Petersen, drummer Ron Wikso, longtime bassist Kenny Lee Lewis, and keyboardist and “right-hand man” Joseph Wooten (of the illustrious Wooten musical family), Miller and company played every song note perfect, but still left room for exploration, like on an extended “Fly Like An Eagle” that gave Wooten, Lewis, and Miller all moments in the spotlight. With little exception, the entire setlist focused on songs from 1973-77. This would seem limited for any other artist with such longevity, but with that many great songs in such a short span, Miller can be forgiven for keeping his focus narrow. A half-century later, he’s still Rock’n ‘em.