Review by Shawn Perry
Photos by Ron Lyon
“Summertime and the Steve Miller Band go together like peanut butter and jelly…”
So said the man on the corner, scalping tickets and making a brazen attempt to convince would-be buyers their fair experience wouldn’t be complete without spending a couple hours with the Joker, the Space Cowboy, the Gangster of Love…
Gotta admit though — he’s right. In August 2010, when I saw the Steve Miller Band at the Greek, they had the overheated Los Angeles crowd swaying in the aisles. The following month, they played a fundraiser in Corona and made a more than favorable impression by raising over $500,000 to benefit the non-profit Kids Rock Free® music education program.
Tonight, at the OC Fair, the seats were filled, the night was cool, and Uncle Joe warmed up the near-capacity crowd with an impromptu spit n’ shine intro. At precisely 8:15, the curtain adorned with a Space Cowboy dropped, and the Steve Miller Band flew in on a “Jet Airliner.” As expected, they made a smooth landing amidst the cyclone of guitars that served as their backdrop.
Over the course of a 17-song (plus two-song encore), 105-minute set, Miller and his band — bassist Kenny Lee Lewis, guitarist Jake Petersen, drummer Gordy Knudtson, keyboardist Joseph Wooten and singer Sonny Charles, formerly of the Checkmates — led the audience down a primrose path, paved with big hits and standard blues numbers.
Guitarist Doug Hamblin, a revered blues guitarist who plays with, among many others, Bruce Willis and The Accelerators, joined the band for the blues segment, which featured four songs from Bingo, Miller’s 2010 blues album. Ironically, none of the songs from Miller’s latest, another blues record called Let Your Hair Down, were pulled out tonight.
For “Texas,” a song Miller recorded with Eric Johnson in 2010, the singer and guitarist shared vocals with Charles, who dazzled the audience with his quick feet and golden pipes. Hamblin laid down a nasty lead and thousands rose to their feet. Things slowed down from there, until they blasted back with a pair of classics, “Tramp,” which Otis Redding took to the Top 40 in 1967, and Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo.”
At this point, it was strictly Steve Miller staples with songs like “Fly Like An Eagle,” with its extended keyboard solo from Wooten, to a dose of sitar-laden whimsy ala “Wild Mountain Honey.” Marshall played an acoustic lead on “Dance Dance Dance” and Miller himself ripped out a stinger on “Serenade.”
“Livin’ In The USA” was dedicated to the “men and women of the armed forces” and the audience shimmied and shook as Miller yelled out: “Somebody get me a cheeseburger…”
For “Rock’n Me,” Miller brought out Dylan Brown, a student from the Fender Center in Corona, and the kid, armed with a Start, proceeded to give the master a run for his money (he’d already taken the money and run).
Brown joined the rest of the band for the two-song encore, which began with “Winter Time,” delicately dedicated to the late Norton Buffalo. Miller and Brown faced off, while the rest of the band fell in rank. Miller switched over from his double-neck to slide for “The Joker” and the show was brought around for a rousing close.
Steve Miller makes no bones about it — his set list consists of songs that are at least 30 years old or older. With his head in the blues, it may be forgivable that Miller’s days on the charts are a thing of the past — if only because they still sound as hot and fresh today as they did back in the 70s. In Miller’s case, he’s simply embracing his passion without tainting his legacy. It seems to be working.