By Scott McLennan
The most accurate name for this summer’s Steve Miller/Marty Stuart tour would be “When Two Music Geeks Collide.”
Anyone reading this could probably predict with great accuracy 90 percent of a Steve Miller Band’s concert set list.
The song order may change from year to year, but Miller is sure to play huge chunks of the Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams albums, two mid-70s works that are canonical to rock ’n’ roll’s golden era.
And when Miller performed July 25 at Rockland Trust Pavilion in Boston, it was also no surprise to hear the slew of other hits that he delivered to FM rock radio, from late-60’s flower power anthem “Living in the USA” to early-70s slinky toke track “The Joker” to early ’80s slick video-ready “Abracadabra.”
His knack for crafting a hook and matching it to an interesting and occasionally offbeat (“Wild Mountain Honey” and its sitar-influenced sound come to mind) guitar part fueled a career that is chugging along just fine some 50-plus years on. And at 75, the only toll on Miller’s abilities came during some vocal occasions, when his deliveries sounded faint or rushed in the mix.
But Miller can’t be accused of cruising on autopilot. This summer he teamed with Marty Stuart for the awkwardly dubbed but well-executed “Classic Rock meets Classic Country” tour. A more accurate name would be “When Two Music Geeks Collide.”
Yes, both Miller and Stuart have enjoyed enough commercial success over the years to power long and ongoing careers ,even as tastes and trends change around them. However, both also have deeper roots that sustain them as artists.
Miller was first inspired by the blues and worked in that realm before using it as a basis to build his rock style, which drew on some of the manic energy of the psychedelic scene he found himself in when he set up shop in San Francisco. Stuart came up the ranks through traditional bluegrass groups and as a member of Johnny Cash’s band before striking out on his own. Both love to celebrate and talk about their influences.
The highlight of the show in Boston came when Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives joined the Steve Miller Band for three songs in the middle of Miller’s headlining set.
Miller, who gained some notoriety for lashing out at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when he was inducted into the hall in 2016, seemed to be sincerely delighted to be talking about the intersections of rock ’n’ roll, country music ,and the blues — and to be performing alongside Stuart and the Superlatives.
The chatter padded excellent renditions of Miller’s “The Lovin’ Cup,” “Going to the Country,” and “Dance, Dance, Dance.” Stuart picked away at mandolin while Miller and Superlatives guitar ace Kenny Vaughan traded earthy riffs on their acoustic guitars. It was a superb opportunity for Miller to dust off deeper cuts from his catalog as well as rework a familiar hit.
Miller took one more indulgence in Boston. He cut the Book of Dreams retro rocker “True Fine Love” from the announced song list for the concert and replaced it with a sizzling cover of Little Walter’s “Blues With a Feeling.” It was great swap, as Miller was able to stray from the smoother, more lyrical guitar tone he typically uses and embrace the grittier side of his playing.
But before anyone could complain that Miller strayed from the script, he deployed the monster hit “Fly Like an Eagle,” and with it struck a nice balance between staying true to the familiar radio version and allowing for some liberties when it came to the solos he and keyboardist Joseph Wooten performed.
“Eagle” was a good microcosm of Miller’s entire approach to the show: deliver the familiar without being completely hidebound to an old memory.
Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives are part machinelike efficiency, part freewheeling mayhem. Over the course of 70 minutes, the band blasted through surf-rock instrumentals, covered Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” Bob Wills’s “Brain Cloudy Blues,” Tommy Cash’s “Six White Horses,” and Dick Curless’s brilliant ode to the treachery of Maine highways, “Tombstone Every Mile.” All of it came via as fine a display of instrumental prowess as you will find anywhere in country music.
Not that everyone in the crowd was on board from the start. Early in the set, Stuart tried to get a singalong going on “The Whiskey Ain’t Working,” his early-’90s hit duet with Travis Tritt. He could only muster a meager a response. Stuart made a quip about the pavilion not being Indian Ranch, the famed country music outpost in Webster where the audience is always ready to turn into a Hillbilly Tabernacle Choir eager for a singalong.
But Stuart never let up, and by the time he and the band were ripping through “Ring of Fire,” as homage to his time in Johnny Cash’s group, the enthusiasm and energy between stage and audience kindled aplenty.
Each of the Superlatives had a turn in the spotlight, demonstrating considerable depth of talent. Stuart went back to his beginnings for a solo rendition of the bluegrass standard “Orange Blossom Special” which he played on mandolin.
Amid all the nods to roots and heritage, Stuart and crew hit a high playing their own tune, “Time Don’t Wait” before closing out with Neil Young’s “Get Back to the Country.”
Putting Stuart and Miller together for a summer tour was not an obvious decision, but it turned out to be an exhilarating entertainment that built on the common musical ground these artists share.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.